Part One of St. Augustine’s magnum opus, City of God, an apologia of Christianity against charges that its adoption by the Roman Empire precipitated its decline, is devoted to destroying pagan gods and the myths surrounding them. Practically a zoo of gods had arisen by the time of Christian ascendancy in the Empire, each of which, and altogether, were devoted to explaining every natural phenomenon imaginable, with gods of narrow or broad jurisdiction purporting to rule over this or that sliver of nature’s mysterious operation, or of its totality. Dispelling the myths and pointing out the absurdities of paganism was yeoman’s work for an intellect as capable as Augustine’s, but he tackled the task with gusto:
But that was not enough for men who loved a multitude of gods—and so much so that their miserable soul disdained the pure embrace of the one true God and prostituted itself to a mob of demons. So they put Prosperina in command of germinating corn; the god Nodutus looked after the joints and nodes on the stalks; the goddess Volutina saw to the envelopes of the follicles; when the follicles opened to release the spike, the goddess Patelana took over; the crops were evenly eared, then came the turn of the goddess Hostilina; when the crops were blooming, the goddess Flora came in; when they became milky, the god Lacturnus; when they were maturing, the goddess Matuta; when they were plucked up, the goddess Runcina.
For each effect that had a mysterious origin, a god was invented to explain it, with each such invented deity being generally modeled after some readily-recognizable human attribute or trait, good or bad. This ancient expression of the human impulse to explain, and thereby control, or at least impact (through worship and sacrifices to the multitudinous gods), the natural environment to which man was necessarily subject, today finds its fullest and most analogous expression in the mysticism employed by theoretical physicists to explain, for example, gravitational conundrums (dark matter and energy), or why there is matter and not just energy (the Higgs boson) in the particle zoo of quantum theory. Although the methods of theoretical physicists have much improved over those of Roman pagans, occasionally yielding useful and viable explanations of natural phenomenon, the human impulse is the same. Necessity is the mother of invention, not only for labor-saving devices, but also for the imagination.
But there are more mundane examples of the human impulse to invention through imagination in the drive to impose order and control on the universe. Some of the explanations for why the recent tornadoes in the Midwest caused relatively few deaths offer a good example of the impulse in operation.
An article in the New York Times attempts to explain why there were so few deaths:
Days ahead of the deadly winds there was an unusual warning that alerted residents across at least five states to the threat of “extremely dangerous” and “catastrophic” weather.
The predictions held, it seems. But the people listened.
“I really think people took the warnings, and they took them very seriously,” Gov. Sam Brownback of Kansas said Sunday. “We had more notice on this system than you normally do. You normally are looking at a couple of hours’ notice. Well, this one had almost two days’ notice.”
Alone, this wouldn’t be so remarkable. But the article seeks to explain, through the enhanced tornado rhetoric issued by warning agencies and the extended lead time, why more people weren’t killed, such as happened with the April 2011 outbreak in Alabama and elsewhere that was also quite extensive, but much more deadly, again from the article.
The tornadoes were part of a weather system that encompassed parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa and spawned 122 confirmed tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service. Officials said that 99 twisters hit Kansas on Saturday, but as of late Sunday afternoon, no deaths had been confirmed in the state.
“God was merciful,” Governor Brownback said on CNN.
The follow-up question for Governor Brownback would have to be, “Did God love Kansas more last week than he loved Alabama on April 27, 2011?” The assertion that “people listened” implies that it was the warning they received and heeded that kept them safe. But does this assertion have any basis in fact? Or is it just another example of the human impulse to imagine control over nature by virtue of the ability to explain and predict it? Is it a latter day worship of a petite god of the human imagination, that of meteorological warning systems, that causes him to believe they save lives in the face of the awesome fury of a tornado? The belief in the ability of technology to improve human lives seems to know no modern-day bounds. But is there any technology, short of living underground in bunkers, that could save a soul from the wrath of a monster tornado?
Alabama also had ample warning of the expected outbreak last year. Even the day before the tornadoes, Alabamians knew it was coming. Schools had already closed in anticipation, which seemed a bit ridiculous the day of the storms, as nothing much happened until early that evening. After a couple of minor tornadoes touched down south of Birmingham early that morning, the day was calm, except for a relentless southwest wind. Then in late afternoon, on into the early evening, all hell broke loose. A massive F4/F5 tornado hit the heart of Tuscaloosa, a city of almost a hundred thousand lying about fifty miles southwest of Birmingham, and the storm that spawned it carried on into the southwest areas of Jefferson County (where Birmingham is situated), finally hitting the northwest districts of the city with another massive tornado. There were outbreaks elsewhere in the state. The small town of Hackleburg, in Winston County, about a hundred miles northwest of Birmingham, was all but destroyed. Rainsville in Dekalb County, in the far northeastern reaches of the state, was hit by a massive twister that killed over thirty. In all, over 250 people in Alabama died that day. And everyone was forewarned. And anyone that’s lived in Alabama more than just a few years inherently knows the danger when the atmosphere mixes warm humid air with colder, drier air to produce thunderstorms and the tornadoes they spawn. But everyone that’s ever lived through an outbreak of F4/F5 monsters also knows that there’s really nowhere that’s safe in a direct hit. Even basements can become tombs.
I remember well an outbreak of monster tornadoes in April of 1998 in the southwestern portion of Jefferson County. I was living then in a little place called Maytown, about half a mile as the crow flies from Sylvan Springs. Sylvan Springs suffered a direct hit. One family, duly-warned and huddled in their basement, died in their basement. Only a reinforced bomb shelter would have saved them. We huddled in the basement at my house, actually spending the night on the concrete floor because we lost power when the storm hit, and consequently had no way to know if another tornado was on the way. Thankfully, there wasn’t. But the next morning, we awoke to find roof tiles and insulation littering our yard. The wind hadn’t blown hard enough at our house to topple the empty trash cans in the driveway; yet the monster storm that struck Sylvan Springs and other communities had apparently decided our lawn was as good a place as any to deposit the detritus of homes that it had destroyed along its way to wreak havoc elsewhere. It seemed to be taunting us, showing off its destructive power just so we’d know who was in charge. Over thirty people died in those storms of 1998.
In April of 2011, there was also construction debris littering our yard after the storm passed about a mile north of us (I was living then in Homewood, a suburb just south of Birmingham’s central business district). I wondered, like before, where the debris was from; whose home it might have belonged to. Then I found a book, or just a book’s cover really, lying on the ground in the backyard. The storm had apparently ripped all its pages out, but the title of the book, and the library to which it belonged, was fully visible. It was a child’s first reader, The Funny Baby, and was the property of the Alberta City Elementary School library. Though I didn’t know it at the time, Alberta City Elementary School had been completely destroyed an hour or so earlier in the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa, fifty miles away. The whole family was gripped to its emotional core with the idea that it may have belonged to a child swept away in the tempest, so close, yet so far away.
But the article contradicts its own findings that enhanced warnings saved lives:
That there was not more damage, loss of life or injuries caused by this weekend’s swarm of storms was due to at least two reasons, officials said. Most of the reported tornadoes were either brief or struck largely in sparsely populated rural areas.
A brief tornado is rarely all that destructive. F1’s, 2’s and 3’s are the ones that are brief. They knock down a few trees, blow a few roofs off houses, and often devastate trailer parks. In Alabama, they are mainly a nuisance, except for people that live in mobile homes, where the more powerful among them can destroy and kill quite proficiently. But F4’s and 5’s are not brief. They can last for hundreds of miles, cutting a path of destruction sometimes a mile wide. They don’t often hug the ground for hundreds of miles, but they hop and skip, passing over some communities harmlessly, while dropping to the ground to lay waste to others. Obviously, God favors those whom are spared.
It’s almost impossible to tell the power of a storm that passes over farmland, such as many did in the Midwest last week. Without something significant for the storm to destroy, there’s no way to gauge its wind speed. There are very few open grasslands and vast fields in Alabama. When a tornado hits in Alabama, it inevitably hits something, if only a wooded ravine, barren of people and homes. In the 1998 storm, a mile-or-more-long swath of uninhabited forest about a mile from my house was felled by the twister. It looked as if B-52’s laden with thousands of pounds of high explosives had carpet-bombed a half-mile path through the woods. It was caused by the same F5 that killed the Sylvan Springs family huddled in their basement that night.
So, did the refusal of Alabamians to heed warnings, or did the lack of severity in the warnings, cause the difference in the death tolls between Alabama last year and Kansas this one? Or does God love Kansans more than Alabamians? The author of the article apparently understands the human psyche quite well, knowing that even a nakedly self-contradictory statement will be ignored by those that wish to believe it either to be warning systems or God that saved Kansas. But it wasn’t. Alabama suffered where Kansas didn’t simply because the storms in Alabama were more powerful and hit more heavily populated areas. Warn all you wish. There’s not much of anything can save someone from the direct hit of an F5 tornado.
It’s sort of curious, but tornadoes occupy roughly the same place in my mind as my son’s two bouts with leukemia. They both represent events completely beyond my control. They both represent the vicissitudes with which humans exist in nature. Whom cancer strikes, particularly childhood leukemia, is more or less completely arbitrary. The same is true of tornadoes.
Medical science has yet to tease out the causes of childhood leukemia. It can’t be inherited, because until very recently, there was no way the genes causing it could have made it into a subsequent generation, as practically every afflicted child died before he was able to reproduce. It can’t be solely due to environmental factors, as it strikes with roughly equal regularity in all variety of locales.
While science generally understands what causes tornadoes, and can thereby know when and where atmospheric conditions make tornado formation likely, it can’t predict either the severity or exact location that one might strike.
But I know, it is neither God (at least not in his anthropomorphized father-figure persona that is worshiped by a good measure of American Christendom), nor man that causes people to die from either tornadoes or childhood cancers. It is indeed God that causes children to die of cancer and families to be entombed in their basements, but God in the sense that there is one all-powerful, all-knowing, all-present entity suffusing all the universe that causes all things. Warning systems and medical intervention can’t prevent the working of his (or actually, “its”) will because they comprise a part of it. If one lives because they were duly warned, or the cancer was caught early enough for treatment, that is its will, just as it is when the child dies or the family is swept away in a tempest. We can never completely understand this God’s will, and the meaning and purpose it holds for our lives. We simply must listen to our hearts and behave accordingly, muddling through the best we can.
The adoption of Christianity by the Roman Empire seems a matter of efficiency more than anything. The Romans had conjured so many pagan gods that it must have become quite tedious and difficult to keep up with which god controlled what aspect of nature, and which god’s powers trumped the other’s. As empire is itself always a matter of efficiency, replacing multitudes of disparate cultures with one, adopting one God whom all could worship, in the process abandoning all the petite gods of the pagans, must have seemed the next logical step. In that regard, Christianity, and its antecedent, Judaism, represent something of a turn towards atheism. Monotheism, where all things in all times and all places are attributed to one not-quite-explicable being is atheism relative to the worship of a “mob of demons” as Augustine put it. But the human mind does not like atheism. It wants to believe God, or gods, separate from and more powerful than humans, but alike in every other regard, intervene regularly in human affairs. It needs the concern of god or gods in human affairs to explain the mysteries of its environment and save itself from the apparent randomness of its continued existence.
There is a scene in the Academy Award-winning Coen Brothers film, No Country for Old Men, where Anton Chigurh (played by Javier Bardem), a hit man recently escaped from custody by murdering the sheriff’s deputy trying to bring him in, and having stolen a car by also murdering its driver, pulls into a dusty gas station in the West Texas desert. He fills up and walks inside, striking up a conversation with the proprietor. The proprietor is, of course, unaware of Chigurh’s ghastly deeds preceding his visit to the gas station. A conversation ensues, one in which Chigurh continually turns the proprietor’s own words around on him. The proprietor gets quite flustered. Finally, Chigurh, who is alternately described by reviewers as the representation of death or fate or nihilism or even the anti-Christ, pulls a quarter from his pocket and asks the proprietor to call a coin flip. The proprietor doesn’t know, but the audience does, that if the proprietor calls it wrong, Chigurh will kill him. The proprietor gets the call correct. Chigurh tosses him the coin, and tells him it is a very special one, explaining that he should take good care of it—not to mix it around with his other coins, thereby losing track of it. The proprietor, without a clue as to what Chigurh is talking about, is still flustered as Chigurh stalks out the door.
That’s about how tornadoes and cancer seem to me. They come or not, they kill or not, for reasons that make about as much sense as living or dying on the flip of a coin. It’s nice to imagine there is a God, or a multitude of gods, or a warning system, or whatever, that protects us from the vicissitudes of the coin flips in our lives. I’d rather like to imagine and believe such things myself. But I am no longer a child, and can no longer think like a child. I can’t believe what experience has proved to be false. There is a randomness to life that no anthropomorphized God, or multitude of gods, or human exertions, will ever overcome.