Yesterday’s 8.8 earthquake in Chile has people asking once again what has angered the almighty. Guilt, unassuaged by human suffering, accompanies natural disasters around the world. This perspective is nothing new, but rather an inherited burden from our cultural forebears who believed gods to be perpetually vindictive or indifferent to people, and who would strike out without warning. One of Poseidon’s favored titles in Homer is “earth-shaker.” When something as stable as the very planet rocks, the gods must be angry.
Psychologists have long delved into the all-too-human reaction of guilt to momentous occasions. Guilt is also generally recognized as a universal human emotion, occasionally supposed to be in evidence among the great apes. Perhaps our primate progenitors were born with an innate sense of having wronged the powers that be, for like children we still cry out for deliverance from blizzards, hurricanes, wild fires, volcanoes and earthquakes. No matter how much we grow up, we never outgrow our sense of having angered that great parent in the sky.
Science has revealed to us a natural world with physical causes. We know that massive plates of the earth’s crust rub past each other as they float on a hellish, viscous ocean of molten rock. We know that incredible stresses and pressures find release in the freeing jolts of earthquakes. This we know, but we find the concept more frightening that we are the victims of nature than the fantasy that we are victims of God. Better to put a human face, albeit an angry one, on natural disasters since we may at least beg for mercy.
There is no divine “why” to such disasters. Even the Bible affirms that things just happen sometimes with no divine intentionality. As this artificial world we constructed shivers from natural forces we are led by natural feelings to irrational conclusions that empower us. We are children looking for an absent parent. And Poseidon, it seems, evaporated long ago.