Photo: Airman 1st Class Katrina R. Menchaca

Dorothy Day, long a contributor to this magazine, was eight years old and living in Oakland with her family when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck. “The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea,” she wrote in her autobiography, The Long Loneliness. “The house cracked from roof to ground.”

By a strange coincidence Michael Williams, founding editor of Commonweal, was working as a newspaperman in San Francisco at the same time. “There was something about that shock that struck, deeper than any sound could penetrate, into the substance of your soul,” he recounted in his own memoir, The Book of the High Romance. “The feeling simply can’t be described. It dates back to the chaos—to a time before there was any law and order or solid substance. This upheaval...leaves in the mind that has experienced it a memory which is unique, a sensation which lies altogether outside the limits of category.”

Earthquakes and other natural disasters have always raised fundamental questions about the nature of the universe and the place of human beings in it. The 2004 tsunami that killed more than two hundred thousand people in southern Asia, like the notorious Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, shocked the conscience of humankind, leading many to doubt the goodness of creation as well as the beneficence of God. In the aftermath of such tragedies, easy assurances about God’s plan and the inevitability of suffering are rightly rebuffed. The March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated much of northern Japan, obliterating whole towns and killing tens of thousands, has stunned the world again. The subsequent partial meltdown of nuclear reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant, followed by explosions releasing high levels of radiation, has terrified millions in Japan and across the world and shaken the confidence of those who look to technology to solve our environmental and economic problems. As Dorothy Day observed, such events can easily be linked to the idea of “God as a tremendous Force, a frightening impersonal God, a Voice, a Hand stretched out to seize me, His child, and not in love.”

And yet, as far as the Christian faith is concerned, that is never the whole story. Death, Scripture tells us, is a scandal and an error; death is the enemy, an enemy Christ has already vanquished. Faced with the seeming triumph of death and meaninglessness, Christians witness to that more abiding truth. Day in fact remembered people acting with astonishing courage and generosity in the wake of the earthquake. As thousands poured out of fire-ravaged San Francisco and into Oakland, Day’s family and neighbors shared everything they had with the refugees. “Every stitch of available clothes was given away,” she wrote. Michael Williams testified to the same sense of solidarity among survivors. “The vast majority of San Franciscans were not merely stoical—they were gallantly brave, romantically chivalrous, superbly generous,” he wrote. Williams attributed such behavior to the “intangible something which is the spirit of human nature,” and wondered if this ability to persevere was “mere instinct? Self-preservation? The will-to-live? Or is it Faith?” 

Perhaps some will think of Day and Williams as Pollyannaish. Day, for one, is easily acquitted of that charge. Yet if the calm, even stoical, reaction of the Japanese is any indication, neither Day nor Williams was indulging in sentimental piety. Of course cities, and even entire societies, can collapse into violent anarchy. Just as often, however, when faced with a catastrophe, people reach out to one another, sharing whatever they have with whoever is in the greatest need. However badly the owners of the nuclear reactors have managed this emergency—and there is mounting evidence of serious negligence—it is impossible not to be humbled by the efforts of the engineers and workers who are trying to regain control of the plant. In exposing themselves to high levels of radiation, they are risking serious illness and even death to save the lives of others. Yes, in harnessing nuclear energy—as in building the modern world—we place our faith in technology, in expertise, and in our ability to control the forces of nature. Remarkable things have been accomplished as a result. Earthquakes, tsunamis, and catastrophic accidents are bitter reminders that our control is limited, and often illusory. In order to persevere, we must put our trust in something more.

Related: 'Dreadful Portents', by Peter Milward
Resilience, by E. J. Dionne Jr.

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Published in the 2011-04-08 issue: View Contents
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