Turning on the news this past winter and early spring has required a stiff drink or prescription tranquilizer as Mother Nature rampaged: First with blizzards that limited travel to snowmobile or dog sled through the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. for days on end—then Australia suffered devastating floods; mud slides tore out hill side housing in Rio de Janeiro; earthquakes struck New Zealand. Finally, an 8.9 earthquake in Japan sent a tsunami soaring over sea walls, destroying entire cities, and wiping out power for the cooling system in four nuclear plants causing (so far) a partial meltdown and radiating deadly contamination to earth, air, and water.
With Nature battering us, we humans hardly needed to stir up trouble on our own. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop us. Human caused disasters this past season include: Ongoing war in Afghanistan, suicide bombers in Iraq, Pakistan and Israel, Middle-Eastern dictatorships from Libya to Yemen to Syria firing upon their own people who had the audacity to demonstrate peacefully for democratic reforms. In our own country, state workers in Wisconsin staged a prolonged demonstration against their governor. Throw in personal problems like job loss, illness, and sour family relationships and there isn’t enough Xanax in the world to help us cope. We need someone to be in charge, someone to care. John Updike sums up our needs in the following poem:
One size fits all. The shape or coloration
Of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere, hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple, A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm wall
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.
Strange, the extravagance of it—who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fail.
Updike, like the author of Ecclesiastes, knew, “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but time and chance happeneth to them all.” When this world fails us—as it too often does, we need something to clutch, something to offer comfort, explanations. Even if they do nothing else, religions—including those we find exotic or strange—provide hope for their believers.
Have we the right to tell others their belief system is wrong and ours is right? Sharing our faith with those who are happy with their own is an unwelcome gift—worse than the hand-painted ceramics I feel obliged to display whenever Aunt Handi visits. At least Aunt Handi’s white elephant gifts do not come with the built-in criticism intrinsic to the uninvited sharing of religious beliefs—“My faith is better than yours. You’d be a better person if you adopted my religious practice.”
Comfort and hope are in short supply in this world that fails so many of its inhabitants. Let us not attack faith traditions which sustain their believers.