Nukes in Japan

One of the fastest moving stories in the news and, in some ways, the story that has overshadowed the suffering in Japan is the news about its damaged reactors.  This, in spite of the fact that only one person has died (in a non-nuclear) and several others made ill, whereas by comparison the earthquake and tsunami have claimed thousands of lives and wiped away whole communities.  While it is unclear how the situation will finally be resolved, the measured, sane, scientific voices have pointed out that even the catastrophic failure of the reactor at Chernobyl claimed not many more than 59 lives and most of those were firefighters and others who courageously brought the plant under control.

Setting aside the question of energy resources for the moment, it is worth asking, why we are so absorbed with this one dimension of the story to the near exclusion of sustained attention to the larger tragedy?

There are a number of reasons — all four with spiritual dimensions.

One reason, of course, is simply the sensationalistic nature of the story. It will take years for Japan to rebuild and the effort will require sustained, long term attention.  Some of the losses — particularly in human lives — cannot be addressed or fathomed at all.  By contrast, the problem with the reactors is just the kind of news story that stirs passions and draws an audience.

The second spiritual problem is, sadly, that the reactor story is the sort of story that hooks those who do not live in Japan — because the prevailing winds might bring radiation our way, because there are nuclear power plants in our own countries.  The news outlets know what we will not admit — that our sense of commitment to the well-being of others is so fragile that a story that impinges on us is intrinsically more interesting than a story that affects the lives of others.

The third reason for this story’s riveting nature is our desire for guaranteed safety.  The outcry for eliminating nuclear power plants is, in part, a scientific, technical, and social issue which we can all debate and for which there are arguments to be made, pro and con.  But beneath it all I can hear in what some have said the notion that if we eliminate nuclear power plants, we will have eliminated a serious threat to life and limb.  Perhaps, but as the tragedy itself indicates, it would not eliminate all the threats.  No one is discussing the elimination of all but concrete bunkers in our cities; the elimination of beach side cities and towns; the banning of all ocean-going vessels; and the evacuation of all fault lines.

The fourth reason is this: The fascination with the crisis arises out of a desire to define the end of life. Even a nihilistic or apocalyptic ending arises out of an all but instinctive need to name and visualize that end.  A larger human need to define where we are going and where we will end as a species is evident in countless secular apocalyptic scenarios, including global warming and nuclear holocaust.  Life is shaped by stories and no element of those stories informs the rest like the fate of the human race.  The story of nukes in Japan has fed that need.  Even non-Christian secularists are forever reading the present against a loose collection of apocalyptic scenarios all their own.

How does the Christian faith speak to the four impulses described above?

  • One, needs worthy of our attention transcend the momentary interest born of controversy and novelty.  We are obligated to care, because those in need are our neighbors.
  • Two, we are obliged to care for others whether their needs impinge on our well being or not.
  • Three, Christians know that there is nothing certain about life.  Our confidence lies in God and sustains us.
  • Four, Christians are deeply engaged in the whole of life because in it is played out the shaping of our souls and beyond it lies a new heaven and a new earth. Neither religious, nor secular apocalypse should deter us from courageous living.

About Frederick Schmidt

The Reverend Dr. Frederick W. Schmidt, Jr. holds the Rueben P. Job Chair in Spiritual Formation at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, IL, and directs the Job Institute for Spiritual formation. He is an Episcopal Priest, spiritual director, retreat facilitator, conference leader, writer, and Consulting Editor at Church Publishing in New York. He is the author of numerous published articles and reviews, including forty-four entries in Doubleday’s Anchor Bible Dictionary, as well as articles in Feminist Theology and The Scottish Journal of Theology. He is author of A Still Small Voice: Women, Ordination and the Church (Syracuse University Press, 1998), The Changing Face of God (Morehouse, 2000), When Suffering Persists (Morehouse, 2001), in Italian translation: Sofferenza, All ricerca di una riposta (Torino: Claudiana, 2004), What God Wants for Your Life (Harper, 2005), Conversations with Scripture: Revelation (Morehouse, 2005) and Conversations with Scripture: Luke (Morehouse, 2009). His latest work, The Dave Test (Abingdon Press) will appear in the autumn of 2013. He is also the series editor for the new Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars Study Series.

From 2000-2012, he worked as Director of Spiritual Life and Formation and Associate Professor of Christian Spirituality at Southern Methodist University, Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas. As one of Perkins’ senior administrators, Dr. Schmidt was responsible for programs in formation, serving over 500 students. He developed the School's program in Spiritual Direction which has thus far served over 150 students from across the country; the program in Anglican and Episcopal studies; and the spiritual formation track in the Doctor of Ministry program. Prior to his arrival at SMU, he served as Canon Educator, Director of Programs in Spirituality and Religious Education, and Acting Program Area Manager at Washington National Cathedral. In this capacity Dr. Schmidt was responsible for the development of a program of religious education and spirituality that annually provided resources for broad-based audiences of over 5000 adults. He also designed and produced workshops and seminars for ecumenical and interfaith constituencies; hosted foreign dignitaries from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union on behalf of the Meridian Institute; and developed the programmatic work and daily operations of the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage. Before going to the Cathedral, Dr. Schmidt served as special assistant to the President and Provost of La Salle University in Philadelphia and as a Fellow of the American Council on Education. From 1994 to 1995, he resided in Jerusalem, where he was Dean of St. George’s College and Residentiary Canon of the Cathedral Church of St. George the Martyr. He has also served in numerous parishes, including St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, All Saints Episcopal Church in Hershey, Pennsylvania and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas.

His work in higher education includes service as associate professor of New Testament Studies, as a lecturer in New Testament studies at Oxford University, and as a tutor at Keble College, Oxford. He has been a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, at the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland and the Southwestern Medical Center at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dr. Schmidt holds a bachelor’s degree from Asbury College, the Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and the Doctor of Philosophy from Oxford University. His honors include a Fellowship in administrative leadership with the American Council on Education; a Senior Fellowship with the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research; the Young Scholars Fellowship presented by the Catholic Biblical Association; nomination to Class XI of the Clergy Leadership Project, sponsored by Trinity Church, Wall Street; the Angus Dun Fellowship (Episcopal Diocese of Washington); and an Ecumenical Service Award given by Christian Churches United (an ecumenical organization covering a tri-county area and based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania). He is a recipient of the F. W. Dillstone Scholarship awarded by Oriel College, Oxford; the Hall Houghton Studentship awarded by the Theology Faculty of Oxford University; and an Overseas Research Student Award, presented by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals of the Universities of the United Kingdom. Dr. Schmidt is a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Society for the Study of Christian Spirituality. From 1998 to 2000 he served as a member of the Institutional Review Board for Heart, Lung and Blood Research at the National Institutes of Health and he currently serves on two Data Safety Monitoring Boards for NIH. He is Secretary-Treasurer of the Anglican Association of Biblical Scholars and a member of the Board of Examining Chaplains for the Episcopal Church, USA.

In addition to his work in the academy and the church Dr. Schmidt currently serves as a patient safety and ethics consultant on Data Safety Monitoring Boards for the National Institutes of Health and Allergan, Inc.

He lives with his wife, Natalie (who is also an academic and an Episcopal priest), and Hilda of Whitby, their Gordon Setter.