Childhood Never Ends

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.

Never trust a god with a fork!

2 thoughts on “Childhood Never Ends

  1. Production

    “Even the Bible affirms that things just happen sometimes with no divine intentionality”

    I would like to hear which parts of the Bible you had in mind. Though I could think of a handful of instances where things, “just happened” I also thought of the flood in Genesis and the storm brought down on Jonah.

    Have you ever seen the movie Master and Commander? In it there is a fascinating subplot about a young officer who is labeled by the crew as a “Jonah” who is bringing bad luck to the ship. They seem more influenced by common superstition than the actual book of Jonah, but they make it very clear that their beliefs are informed by the biblical story.

    That was an interesting comment about apes feeling guilt. I heard the primatologist Frans de Waal mention in an interview that shame was one human emotion that he had not seen in apes.


  2. Steve Wiggins

    Thanks for the comments. One of my favorite biblical passages concerning this issue is John 9. Or the entire book of Job, in context. Better yet, Ecclesiastes. “The Bible” doesn’t have a viewpoint on the issue, but individual authors do have viewpoints. There are many places where divine causation plays no role in events.

    I haven’t seen Master and Commander yet, but it has been on my list for several years now. I’ll get around to it some day!

    My information on apes comes from Steven Mithen’s Singing Neanderthals. Mithen, who actually does know how to interpret the scientific evidence, draws on de Waal and several other primatologists for ape emotions. Naturally, we can’t know what goes on in an ape’s head, but the more we study their neurology the closer it seems to our own. It is only a matter of degree!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.