After the flood waters recede and the coffin has been sealed, the eternal question remains: What kind of God permits tragedy, suffering and grief?
The answer is as varied as religious belief itself. But whether you view life as endless suffering, see God as infinitely unfathomable or hold that tragedy as a reflection of an immoral culture, the key to understanding is your faith.
For Christians, faith in God’s eternal wisdom is needed to understand the paradox of a supreme being who is both loving and omnipresent. God wishes no harm to humanity, says the Rev. John Baker, pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbia, but tragedy is part of the natural order he created.
“He has limited himself not to intervene,” Baker says. “If a school is in a wrong spot and the tornado comes then he is not going to stop the tornado.”
An interventionist God would render humanity’s own existence essentially nonhuman and the world a nonphysical place, says Rabbi Yossi Feintuch of Congregation Beth Shalom. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, human beings cannot fathom God’s eternal wisdom, Feintuch says. Job’s inability to understand God’s plan — a “mystery to the finite mind” — leads to a direct test of his faith. Feintuch says those who preach that God sent a particular tragedy to teach a lesson are wrong since they are claiming to understand God’s mind.
Shakir Hamoodi, a prominent member of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, says that the Muslim tradition accepts that God’s will is not completely understood. Nonetheless, tragedy is the result of humanity’s own behavior: It could be God’s way of punishing wrongdoers or rousing society from its sinful ways or to test faith. All are the good of the believer.
“As a Muslim, I put my faith in the Koran and Allah,” Hamoodi says. “I would trust God and realize that he is not unjust, and there is no way he intentionally harms people without reason.”
He warns that Muslims should not blame God for destructions but instead look within the society.
Tragedy has its origin in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve’s transgression introduced the concept of sin into the world, says Monsignor Michael Flanagan of Our Lady of the Lourdes Catholic Church. While, in a wake of a tragedy, people may ask whether God is punishing them, Flanagan says they should instead take comfort; sin has been forgiven through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
“We are not here to stay,” he says, “but are only making a pilgrimage” to an eternal home where God awaits.
For Buddhists, understanding tragedy is inseparable from Buddhism’s first noble truth — life is suffering. Seido Ronci, a Zen monk and an MU English professor, says that knowing that nothing is permanent and that holding to anything, even life, puts tragedy into perspective.
“There are catastrophes happening all over the place,” Ronci says. “Headline news brings up tsunamis, but people are dying all over the world from famines and diseases.”
With the knowledge that the end is inevitable for everyone, human beings should focus their energies on helping others instead of killing each other. “When you acknowledge that life is suffering and really acknowledge it, you can’t help but have compassion for everybody,” Ronci says.
The belief that all humanity is connected can stir humanity’s conscience and lead it to positive action, says Sahba Jalali of the Columbia Baha’i community. “Calamities and disasters are a form of purging and purification and lead to greater reliance on and understanding of spiritual reality,” Jalali says.
Uthyr Riverbear, president of Hearthfires pagan alliance, says acts of nature and tragedies, especially large ones, are Mother Nature’s way of regulating the population. “There must be a balance,” River says, “and disasters such as tsunamis and earthquakes help keep that balance.”
The Rev. Fred Thayer, rector of Calvary Episcopal Church, says the purpose of tragedy is inscrutable. Nonetheless, tragedies can be a source of blessings. Responses to wide-scale death and destruction often embody the very best of humanity and religious conviction. Coming to terms with a tragedy is difficult, but, like Job or those who survived the Holocaust, it is evidence that God is with us all.
“There are no easy answers,” Thayer says. “The whole thing is not going to resolve itself by the end of the TV show.”