God Was NOT in the Earthquake

A friend shared with me earlier today that he had seen the following sermon title announced at a nearby church for this Sunday, March 20: “Earthquake Theology.” While addressing the ongoing aftermath of Japan’s recent earthquake would be fully appropriate in a sermon, my friend was rightly disturbed when he looked up the scripture reading listed underneath the sermon title. Nahum 1:2-8 says:

2 A jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies. 3 The Lord is slow to anger but great in power, and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. 4 He rebukes the sea and makes it dry, and he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither, and the bloom of Lebanon fades. 5 The mountains quake before him, and the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who live in it. 6 Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and by him the rocks are broken in pieces. 7 The Lord is good, a stronghold in a day of trouble; he protects those who take refuge in him, 8 even in a rushing flood. He will make a full end of his adversaries, and will pursue his enemies into darkness.

Admittedly, I do not know what the precise content of this pastor’s sermon will be on Sunday, but I echo my friend’s initial guess that “This message can’t lead anywhere good. Earthquake passages in scripture were written before we understood plate movement.”

My friend’s comment made me remember my required undergraduate course in “Earth and Environmental Science.” I remember specifically being stunned on a field trip when our professor made an off-handed comment that the theory of plate tectonics really didn’t come together until the 1960s and 70s. Having been born in 1978, I grew up being taught to think about the world through the lens of plate tectonics, and for some reason — unlike the invention of the telephone, radio, television, car, or airplane — I had never particularly thought about the world before the “invention” of plate tectonic theory. Thomas Kuhn, of course, famously traced the history of such “paradigm shifts” in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions — indeed, Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” — but for the purposes of this blog suffice it to say that my friend is exactly right that “Earthquake passages in scripture were written before we understood plate movement.” There have been almost countless profound paradigm shifts between the writing of Nahum in the late 7th-century B.C.E., and the earthquake in Japan in the year 2011, and our theology should always take into account the best scientific insight of our day.

Nevertheless, since we’re on the subject of quoting scripture, I’ve got a verse that pastor may benefit from reading before delivering his sermon on Sunday. 1 Kings 19:11 says, “God was NOT in the earthquake.” If you keep reading, you will see that Elijah likewise does not find God in the “great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces” or in the “fire.” Instead, Elijah meets God in the “sound of sheer silence.” So, before preaching that God caused the recent earthquake in Japan, I recommend that someone get that pastor — or anyone else preaching similar bad theology — to a Centering Prayer retreat STAT!

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