Tuesday 22 March 2011

Reflections On The Christchurch Earthquake: Not A Tame Lion

The Jehovan Deity: For the benefit of his younger readers the Christian novelist, C.S. Lewis, re-cast Jehovah as Aslan, the Lion Lord of Narnia. He was careful, however, to retain the Judeo-Christian deity's dangerously unpredictable omnipotence. As he has one of his Narnian characters say of Aslan: "He's not a tame lion!"

WAS GOD PRESENT in Christchurch on 22 February 2011? It’s a question many New Zealanders have wrestled with over the past month, and the tragedy which engulfed Japan on 11 March has given it added urgency.

Officially, we’re a secular nation, yet Census data confirms that more than half of New Zealanders retain a belief in God. That belief is sorely tested by natural disasters. If God was present in Christchurch on 22 February, why didn’t He prevent the earthquake?

But, in posing this question aren’t we separating God from the natural world? Seating Him on a divine throne beyond this earthly realm? Requiring Him to demonstrate his mastery over his own creation by, in this case, countermanding the movement of the earth’s tectonic plates?

Yes, we are. But we can hardly be blamed for doing so. Because, when all is said and done, this is the view of God we have inherited from the Bible. He is the maker of heaven and earth and if it pleases him to command the sun to stand still, or the oceans to o’ertop the world, then it will be so. He is Jehovah, “I am that I am”, the God Charlton Heston (in the role of Moses) invokes when Pharaoh’s army traps the Israelites against the margins of the Red Sea.

“Behold His mighty hand!”, Charlton cries, and low, the waters of the sea are parted.

There are, of course, plusses and minuses to the Jehovan conception of divinity, as the celebrated author, C.S. Lewis, well understood.

In The Horse and His Boy, one of his Chronicles of Narnia, he makes it clear that his own rendering of the Jehovan God – the golden lion Aslan – is not a pet to be called for and dismissed at our convenience. On the contrary, he is an altogether dangerous being. As one of Lewis’s characters indignantly observes: “He’s not a tame lion!”

And, yet, it was to a rather tame deity that the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, Peter Beck, appeared to be appealing in the aftermath of the earthquake. In answer to the question: “Where was God on 22 February?” he responded:

“God is in all these people. God is in the midst of all this. God is weeping with those who weep. God is alongside those who are finding the energy to just keep going. God is in the people who are reaching out and seeking to sustain one another. God is about building community, about empowering people.”

And, when a journalist demanded: ‘Yes, but where was God was when offices pancaked and burned and hundreds died?’

He replied:

“Well, we live on a dynamic, creating planet that’s doing its thing. For whatever reason, our forebears chose to build this city on this place. They didn’t know we were on this fault line. God doesn’t make bad things happen to good people. We make our own choices about what we do.”

Doing its thing?! What exactly is the Dean trying to say? That the natural world is a conscious entity? That it has its own volition and (God save us!) its own agenda? And did Cantabrians, thanks to the poor choices of their “forebears” simply find themselves in this “dynamic, creating planet’s” way? And was Jehovah, in fulfilment of some hitherto undisclosed self-denying ordinance, required to turn his face from the imminent suffering of Cantabrians and keep his mighty hands in his pockets?

If so, then God has a rival – a divine competitor in the omnipotence business. And the Dean is in flagrant breach of the Nicene Creed, the first article of which states, unequivocally: “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”.

Perhaps the Dean should return to his Bible and ponder the God that spoke to Moses from the burning bush. The God that gave man counsel from the whirlwind, and moved before the Children of Israel in a pillar of fire. Perhaps he should consider the God that laid Jericho low and sent fire from heaven to consume Sodom and Gomorrah. A red God, a wrathful God, a jealous God. The God that was ready to drown the whole world. The God who, when his son, nailed to a cross, cried out “Father, why have you forsaken me?”, remained silent.

Shock and awe. These words have been sullied by the Pentagon’s bloody hands. Yet it is only in those moments when all our human conceits are battered down and laid to waste that we, shocked and awestruck, come close to understanding Jehovah as the authors of both the Old and New Testaments understood Him.

Was God present in Christchurch on 22 February? Oh yes, He was there. And He is with us always. Beyond our questions; beyond our understanding; beyond our judgement.

Not a tame lion.

This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 22 March 2011


peterquixote said...

no God not here at all, just my dog and he was scared as a tame lion, covered in wet silt and crying,

Tiger Mountain said...

Peter Beck may have wagged theology lessons as evidenced by his seeming confusion between a remote hands off creator, verses a cruel, peering in every window type.

Chris makes skillful use of the ‘royal we’ so it is difficult to discern his position. Surely it cannot be, a social democrat in thrall to a delusion greater than the possiblity of class peace?

Chris Trotter said...

'Fraid so, Tiger Mountain.

Although alongside "Uncle Scrim", Mickey Savage, Arnold Nordmeyer and the tens-of-thousands of other New Zealanders who subscribe to the teachings of "The Carpenter", I consider myself to be in distinguished company.

beegirl said...

Read your most marvelous article in the Press and came to find your blog. You speak the words I wished to say since the beginning of this awful time we have been having in Christchurch. If God can not be found in this chaos, then the chaos is all we have. This will never do.


Anonymous said...

Were I to go look for insight into the problem posed when good things happen to bad people and bad things to good and where is the God of love and justice etc -- then probably to the wisest man that [according to scripture] lived. Solomon.
It stumped him if Ecclesiastes is anything to go by. Job had his moments with the whole game too. Jesus felt more than all the seperation between the heavens and earth when he needed it most, and he was the one who informed us that the calamity of the Tower of Siloam wasn't some karma for sin.
Stuff happens, the judges decision is final and no correspondence will be entered into. Enjoy what we have, what we do and thank God in all of it. Is anything on earth better than anything in heaven? I don't know. NZ is a wonderful place, but if this is heaven 'I'll take the bag'


Paul said...

I am intrigued that you say you "subscribe to the teachings of 'The Carpenter,'" are you, then, a Christian? (I ask as both a Christian and a social democrat)

Victor said...


You have (no doubt knowingly) raised the most testing problem confronting those of us who adhere to one or other of the three Abrahamic faiths.

Put simply, it's the issue of how a loving, omnipotent and omniscient parent could allow such horrors to happen to his/her children?

There is a tradition within Judaism (inspired in part by the 16th century mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed) which effectively puts caveats on the omnipotence of G-d and sees creation as a botched or at least unfinished job.

By this view, it's up to humans to help the Eternal One put things right through 'Tikkun Oalom'(The Repairing of the World).

In the twentieth century, Tikkun Oalom came to mean housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, beatings swords into ploughshares and caring for our precious, fragile planet.

Whatever your theological standpoint (or lack thereof), this seems to me to be a reasonably practical starting point for coping with the terrible aftermath of natural disaster.

By the way, Luria was also known by the acronym 'Ari', which means 'Lion'.

Anonymous said...


Good to see you introduce a theological perspective into what is an important question regarding the Christchurch earthquakes.

Can I suggest that you and others following this blog, read the pondering of Steve Graham, the Dean of Laidlaw College on this subject.

It provides the best Christian perspective that I have come across, and I highly recommend it.


I have some sympathy for Peter Beck, it's a difficult question to answer in a sound bite.

Chris, as a fellow follower of Christ, but with a different political perspective, I'm encouraged to see the question confronted. While this blog is not my 'natural home' it's important for me to hear another perspective. This is why I visit. Hopefully the other readers, both those with faith, or no faith, will take the time to visit Steve's site in a similar attempt to gain a better understanding of another view point.

Kind regards

PS.. for some reason my google profile won't allow me to post this, so I'm resorting to an Anonymous post.

Lew said...

Gobsmacked that anyone who's been paying attention could have missed Chris' Christianity all these years.

The re-imagined Bible stories and poems every Christmas and Easter didn't give it away?


Adze said...

Unfortunately I have yet to read a compelling theodicy, and that's speaking as a former Carpentarian. If there is an omnipotent and omniscient god of love, the problem of evil isn't one that any human I know of has solved.

Victor said...


I do agree with you wholeheartedly about Peter Beck's dilemma.

How to you encapsulate 2.5 millennia of speculation into a pithy phrase, when, all around you, grief is raw and mind and soul in torment?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Brendan, a good read if a trifle overblown.
(Shorter version for those in a hurry - God didn't do it but will give a hand with the fixer-upper (boy's a whizzo chippie with his own gang apparently - some swear by him, others say he takes on too much, charges like a bull and never finishes. About 10-15 years he reckons, hard to say, lots of other stuff on, consents, weather - god knows, really..)

Anonymous said...

I recall an Englishman telling me of an evangelical neighbour who was always cheerful and thanking God in all situations, which in his case were generally good ones. It irked my mate who thought it was all a bit smug. One day the poor bloke came home to find his house taken out with a direct hit during the blitz. He asked what he had to be thankful for now. He quietly replied that he was thankful to God he hadn't had many days in his life like this one.


Loz said...

… "yet Census data confirms that more than half of New Zealanders retain a belief in God"

That’s not 100% true Chris.

The census requires New Zealanders to identify as either being religious or "not religious" without providing categories for agnostics or for those who consider themselves spiritual instead of being religous.1

I remember a survey after the 1996 census that showed that nearly 80% of those who identified themselves as Anglican weren't convinced of the existence of a god.

The number of people stating they have no religion in New Zealand (34.7% in 2006) is higher than any country in Europe. According to data provide by the Director General of the European Commission, the closest demographics to New Zealand would be those of France with 33% not believing in religious concepts of a god (or gods), life force or spirit. What is interesting is that a further 27% of the population of France believe in a spirit or life-force without believing in God.2

I wonder how the demographics of NZ would appear if the census really did ask about believing in the existence of a god or existence of a unifying “life-force” instead of just asking if people identify with a religion. I’d love to see a question asking how many believed in the existence of Anselm the Lion as well… the data would give a fascinating insight to the character of the nation. :)

The Megapope said...

I can't tell if that was a joke, a misguided attempt at trolling or if you merely misconstrued his words, because to me 'doing its thing' refers to the world as an ongoing process of shifting plates, moving earth, flowing lava. Which it is. The earth IS doing its thing. Earthquakes happen. They're part of the process.

Nice job of constructing an entire blog post around that premise though.

Anonymous said...

It's good that you have some interest in such things Chris, may your interests draw comfort when due for the un-finished trails that have to be meet of Mr Trotter - like everyone else this is where the taming is required - not the great Lion!

Also, Aslan is not meant as God but as the first among Kings, the Son of sons, for a better reading of those fine tales, but even that is potentially getting into a political place where earthly political authority is invoked with it's expunging tendency & subsequent fogs...

markus said...

Ahhh Loz, I suspect thee and me are the only two non-believers here. You make an excellent point.

A New Zealand Values survey from the 1980s suggested (from memory - I'm always doing this stuff from memory !) that the New Zealand population was roughly divided into thirds on religion: one third Athiest or Agnostic / one third believing in the traditional "personal God" / one third believing in "God" as some sort of (vaguely-defined) "life-force".

KiwiGirl said...

"this is the view of God we have inherited from the Bible. He is the maker of heaven and earth and if it pleases him to command the sun to stand still, or the oceans to o’ertop the world, then it will be so."
Well, no.
The way I have always read Genesis led me to believe:-
Gen.1-26 God hands over the ruling of the world to us.
Gen.2-2 God took a rest and "ceased" from creating.
Job done. He ain't going to interfere again on a global scale.
Anyway, Jesus said - I'm going back upstairs but the Holy Spirit will come. Now I wonder how many people got that little "inner voice" of warning before the earthquake and didn't hear it or didn't listen.
The Earth is a dynamic, complex, moving entity.
It does what it does. Those that believe in humans being first and formost Spiritual beings shouldn't be worried about death, surely?

Anonymous said...

Thanks Chris for the wonderful column. We have far too many church people "taming" God by making him a slightly distant, ever so vacant-looking, Father Christmas type.

Hoggster said...

Hi Chris, well done. Interesting the number in my congregation who made comment on your column.(positive) You inspired me to put a wee something on my blog. (hogggblog.blogspot.com)

Rev Andrew Hoggan

WAKE UP said...

The Law of Omnipotence says: "If He is with you in your time of trouble, then He was with you when He caused it". Omnipotence is not frangible, and no amount of sophisrty can make it so.

Anonymous said...

Re: the stats on belief in God. A Massey University survey in 2008 found that 72% of NZers believe in God or a higher power, 15% are agnostic and 13% atheist.


Anonymous said...

Just a comment Kiwi Girl... God did intervene on a global scale a few generations later in the flood. So you can't really say God handed it all over to us and he certainly hasn't stopped shall we say "interfering" in human history.
God is loving, sovereign over all... and yetbad things still happen on earth... undoubtably it is all rooted in humanities rebellion (is it Romans which talks of 'all of creation groaning..') yet God could step in if he chose. Why does he sometimes and not others? I don't know. I like what the artical was trying to say. God is not tame. Who can understand. Its a difficult thing to grapple with and I can't say that I have come to a succinct conclusion.

Rob said...

Wow Chris, this may be the first time I have agreed with someone from the left for a while :-)

Well done to point out the lameness of the Anglican Dean. This is precisely why Anglicanism has shifted from the West to Africa. This is precisely why Anglicanism is largely dead in the West.

Calvinist Dr. John Piper by contrast met the recent spate of natural disasters from a thoroughly Biblical perspective here in this short video:




and a radio interview: