Thaw and theodicy.
Fifteen days in, as the snows at last begin to subside across the treacherous, inconvenient winter wonderland of the UK, it’s still hard to accept the fact that Christmas really is over and it’s now 2010. After all the digging out and mucking in and helping hands and freezing feet, it’s the future. We’re here, living in it. Officially.
This week, however, the people most on our minds must surely be those in the Caribbean who have been blasted back to the middle ages. Of all the places to suffer a natural catastrophe of such magnitude, Haiti was perhaps the least prepared in the western hemisphere to cope with Tuesday’s earthquake.
With at least 50,000 people dead as a result of that 30-second 7.0 magnitude shock, horribly close to the centre and surface of Port Au Prince, further millions have been practically displaced around the dense capital.
Think about those figures. That’s like half the people of Bournemouth gone – just gone. And at least three or four times as many people who live in the entire Christchurch, Bournemouth and Poole area made homeless. Imagine every street around you shaken apart like that.
Well, you can’t. Probably. Either because you don’t live in Bournemouth or because you do and all you can think about at the prospect of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hitting the town is that at last the bloody Imax might fall down. Or possibly the BIC, if you’re still holding that grudge.
And I’m certain that you’re unlikely to be reading this from a city with most of its inhabitants living in shanty shacks trembling their way up the surrounding hillsides in the hope that one day millions of jobs will magically appear for everyone who moved there from the deforested, flooded, wrecked economies of the countryside.
So we can’t realistically imagine what’s going on over there, despite all the footage. Bodies piling in the street do not look the same on the telly as they do at the junction of Arnewood and Paisley Roads.
It’s been a country of poverty and revolution, of sorts, for centuries.
The island now divided into western Haiti and eastern Dominican Republic was ‘found’ by heroic imperial land-nicker himself Chris Columbus in 1492 – a year in which he seemed to pack an inordinate amount in, given the woeful lack of international travel and broadband speeds at the time – and became a Spanish settlement. Everyone in Haiti today speaks French you’ll notice observantly, however, because the Spanish sort of gave away the mountainous end of the island to the French near the end of the 17th century. Probably lost it in a card game or somesuch over coffee.
Interestingly, it was the first place on Earth, it seems, to have been overthrown by black slaves and to have subsequently abolished slavery. Napoleon’s own brother-in-law couldn’t retake the country and it became fully independent in 1804. Though why being Napoleon’s brother-in-law should be any gauge of military competence is anyone’s guess; Lord knows what some blokes have to do to keep their wives happy. Especially potty, pint-sized despots – they’re bound to attract some high maintenance skirt.
The sad truth is that Haiti seems to have been defined by dictatorship, coups and political instability ever since. And that ALWAYS leads to financial stability and a healthy middle class, right? Especially when there’s American money sewn up in the interests of the country somewhere too.
After some twenty years of military take-overs vying with fledgling democracy on and off, Haiti was famously hit by a particularly severe hurricane season for the island in 2008. Floods killed hundreds. Mudslides from the bare hills and mountains stripped of their meager wood value just slooped into the roads and towns, wrecking infrastructure. The DEC and other overseas aid agency alliances together raised some $1billion-worth of support at the time.
And today they’re launching another appeal. Because today, Haiti is on its knees.
Interesting turn of phrase that.
It’s not long before you hear the G-word somewhere in the face of such rampant, apparently very precisely unfair suffering. God. And two and a half centuries ago was no different, with one particular debate about divine purpose and suffering flaring into comedy. With absolutely no reference to Dante.
Rapier French wit, Voltaire – so cuttingly funny the French kicked him out and sent him to live in the more satirically-minded London – lampooned and lambasted Enlightenment-tinged theology of the day in his bawdy tale of Candide, published first in 1759. The absurd Dr Pangloss in this rip-roaring cross between Tom Jones and Private Eye was famously a caricature of Gottfried Leibniz – a right brain-box, polymath and contemporary rival of Newton, who also rather smugly invented the word ‘theodicy’.
Nice, isn’t it? Theodicy.
I imagined it was spelt theodyssey and pictured a glittering, disco gospel supergroup. Google thought I was looking for information on Homer.
Most appropriately of all, perhaps, it doesn’t half sound like theo-idiocy and it’s not to be confused with theodolite which was then an emerging tool of engineering, of sorts. Which is interesting because theodicy concerns itself with divine engineering, of sorts.
Put overly simply, it’s the idea that God – if he is, after all, God – must know what he’s doing and that therefore: “if you think THIS world’s shite, you should see the ones he discarded, mate. Sheesh.”
In other words, as Dr Pangloss keeps saying throughout Voltaire’s biting little book, we are, dear fellows, living in the “best of all possible worlds.”
..It’s an argument from a very different age to ours philosophically, of course. It has, I suspect, rather lost its debatory heat for the average Celebrity Big Brother watcher.
But it still resonates a theme that is, I think, eternal – ie: “God, WTF?!”
As I’ve sat and watched the inconsolably hard images from Port Au Prince this week, lost for words, a detached, academic little part of my head has imagined countless people of faith this week trying hard once again to, as Voltaire often put it, ‘let God off the hook’ on this one.
The 9.0-factor Lisbon earthquake and subsequent tsunami of 1755 was the disaster that resonated for him; how could God allow such carnage? And how could posh blokes in Europe straighten their wigs calmly and try to explain away the theological injustice of it?
Interesting then, that so many of the top UK aid agencies, represented by the DEC, are faith-based, like Christian Aid, Cafod or Tearfund.
I don’t know about you, but I wonder whether a little bit of anger about such horror is sort of the point. I wonder if the person who wants to shout at the sky and to prove their concern gets on a plane and goes to pull people out of the rubble and clear away the countless dead and feed the countless hungry and try to find out what human cock-ups made the situation far worse, is actually articulating God.
As perverse as it sounds, while we’re sincerely tackling the intellectual pain of being alive in radio studios and online forums, God may well be out there with his sleeves rolled up, tending to the survivors.
It is perverse. In my head. But something about that idea warms the freezing cold idea of suffering in my heart. ..Which still misses the point if it doesn’t warm all the way to my hands and feet; they are, I suspect God might say, the best tools to articulate love with.
And how many people need that of us today, whatever we believe.