I look out my window through a haze of choking smoke. Over 33 million acres have burned in Canada and we’re just halfway through the forest fire season. It’s not an unreasonable question to ask where (the hell) G*d is in all this mess.
There’s been a Destroyer lurking in every pantheon since the dawn of time. The Sumerian gods flooded the world to get rid of the noisy humans who were disturbing their sleep; the Hebrew YHWH brings death upon the unjust and unfaithful through flood, pestilence, and enemy armies; the Hindu Shiva destroys continuously, but with a focus on evil, illusions, and imperfections. Senseless destruction, justified destruction, destruction as necessary evil. Do I have to choose one? Do any of them really give me a window into the Divine?
When I watch those towering firestorms and consider the loss of human and more-than-human life and habitat, I’m struck by the senseless destruction. Senseless, meaning I can’t take it in. Senseless in that it overwhelms my senses, shatters my neatly organized understanding of day-to-day life. It breaks my heart and my head at the same time. If this is G*d’s good work, I’ll take a pass, thank you.
Destruction as punishment is easier to grasp but not particularly palatable, either. This is the eternal ledger book, the old argument that, “If bad things happen to you, you must deserve it.” It’s neat, it’s tidy, and it spells out a way to avoid pain (i.e., do the right thing). And sometimes it’s true—but not always. This understanding of destruction can easily become an endless road of self-hate and recrimination—neither of which change anything. If this is what G*d requires of us, I’ll take a pass. Again.
Then there’s the idea that destruction has a constructive purpose. In the Hindu perspective, this can mean that you’re really talking about transformation rather than destruction. You keep your eye on the something new that will arise from the devastation. The danger here is spiritual bypassing: You can just float right by all the horror and focus on the new. This is G*d-lite, as in don’t think, don’t feel, don’t be human. For the third time, I’ll pass.
Only when I bring all three understandings of destruction into relationship do I find a place that feels right. The tension between them holds fast a beautiful integrity. I can’t grasp it completely with words and ideas, only with my heart, but I’ll try.
The senselessness of destruction urges us to give voice to the voiceless: the owls and cedars and bears and bees destroyed in these fires, the displaced indigenous communities whose beloved land is changed beyond recognition, the nameless refugees burned in the wildfires of Greece. The wrongness of this devastation acknowledges the innocence of the victims and says, “No one deserved this.” This is where I say, with Jim Finley, “God saves us from nothing and stands with us in all things.” I feel invited to stand as the Christ stood, in witness and solidarity, doing my best to relieve suffering.
Destruction as punishment reminds me that much of what happens is not just fate. There are systems bigger than any of us in which we participate and from which many of us benefit. It’s these systems, and our choices, which have resulted in vast inequity, injustice, and disfigurement of the natural world and of human relationships. Evil is real. Our choices have real impact. “Justified” destruction reminds me that we each have responsibility for the impacts of our choices. This is humility, not humiliation. I shoulder the suffering that is mine. And G*d walks beside me in love.
Destruction as transformation reminds me that everything exists in the cauldron of creation and recreation. If, as I understand it, the Unmanifest Singularity tore itself apart for love and thus gave rise to the universe, then all things are a part of the Infinite Holy and are an expression of that love. So we are never separated, never abandoned, never lost; we are simply changed. The great gift of this understanding is trusting that I dwell forever in the joyous reality of Oneness, regardless of external circumstances.
When I hold all three of these meanings together—or more accurately, when I let myself dwell deeply in all of these without trying to resolve anything—then I’m not frozen by despair or fear or numbness. I respond with a deeply human, deeply humble, deeply grateful heart. I see the victims of the fires and I reach out; I see the impacts of human dominance and greed and am called to change; I see the cycle of life, and trust that beyond sorrow and fear lies a vast energetic beauty to which we all belong, from which we came, and into which we shall return.