When God plays dice in Hawai’i

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Now I don’t know … I don’t know
I don’t know where I’m a gonna go
When the volcano blow.  – Jimmy Buffett – “Volcano”


This blog has been going for some time now, but it started with pondering a basic human dilemma, best illustrated at this moment in time by the volcanic lava flowing into inhabited parts of the “Big Island” of Hawai’i. Our “God language” (our personal religion-based or theology-based expression) is the tool most of us use, articulately or not, to focus on our concern for the human suffering emanating from these events, such as injuries (with no apparent deaths in this eruption so far, “thank God”), the loss of homes, and the existential fear of not knowing what the future will bring to one’s home community.

As I discussed in an earlier post, this is the humanitarian empathetic/sympathetic “Who is my neighbor?” response that is well-represented in the literature we call “sacred.” It is that literature and related past writings that provide us with this “God language” for expressing our great distress at seeing the pain of others. Whether we can name it or not, we often struggle with this concept called theodicy, or our understanding of “the justice of God,” [1] which is put to an “acid test” when we witness human suffering. Our personal “God language” is often publicly evoked in these critical events.

The competing “God languages” of Hawai’i

And in Hawai’i, there are multiple “God languages” trying to parse meaning from this eruption. The indigenous Hawaiians used the name “Tūtū Pele” to describe the Fire Goddess who, in their religious tradition, created their island home. [2] The 1800s brought the Christian missionaries with their own competing “God language,” followed by immigrants from Japan and China with their own deities and religious language.

Even if we are not religious believers, we will usually, at some point, still struggle with this “rolling of the Cosmic dice” that The Universe throws at us from time to time. Humans have evolved parallel “philosophical languages” that cover some of the same communications ground as “God language,” but using standards like logic, beauty, truth and justice by which to describe human pleasure and pain. The enduring Western cultural tradition here tracks back to the ancient Greeks, while the best-known Eastern cultural tradition is rooted in the Buddha. For those who learn these traditional languages, along with the prose and poetry that have built our collective literature tradition based on them, words of comfort and sufficient explanation may be found there as an alternative to religious expression.

The math of Tūtū Pele

At the same time, that “God language,” mostly because of its age, is often very inadequate to cope with what we know about the science and mathematics of the situation, and Hawai’i is a great case in point. We now know a lot about tectonic plates, and continental drift, and the formation of volcanoes in specific places on the planet. We know that over many thousands of years, this very process is how the land of Hawai’i was literally formed, with this particular island composed of six identifiable volcanoes of different ages and activity levels. [3]

We even know a lot about the mathematics of volcanoes. We can establish the probabilistic odds of the next eruption occurring over any span of time for some volcanoes, although we still can’t say exactly what will happen tomorrow. Similarly, for a disease such as a particular form of cancer, we can come up with incredibly accurate statistics of how many people will be affected over the next year in any given state in the U.S. We just don’t exactly who, individually, will be affected. [4]

You know it could be worse

In the scale of historical destruction, this volcanic eruption presents a relatively-mild problem in grasping the theodicy of the event. The probabilistic randomness of a tornado traveling through the American South or Midwest often has much more potential for death and destruction. Or ramp it up one more time to the 2004 earthquake and resultant tsunami that struck the coast of Aceh in Indonesia, killing well over 100,000 people in that province alone.

Despite my religious upbringing, I have long struggled to parse the theodicy of the common expression, “Thank God, it could have been worse.” If you have a good interpretation of that phrase, please leave a comment here or on Facebook or Twitter by clicking on the icons.

What we don’t have in the “languages” of physics and mathematics are the words to express with sincere empathy our care and concern for the other people affected by the probabilistic events of “Mother Nature.” [5] Even Albert Einstein struggled with this notion of whether or not “God plays dice” in the apparent chance and arbitrary destruction of property and lives as the side effects of the creation of this universe. [6]

Becoming multilingual in new ways

My perspective is, first, that both our theological “God languages” and our “science and math languages” are exactly that. These are parallel ways that have evolved over the span of human existence to help us communicate with one another. Some of us are more “multilingual” in these languages than are others. And some of us can’t seem even ask the equivalent of “Where is the bathroom?” in more than one of these languages.

Second, we have evolved these multiple languages because different parts of our brain are trying their best to “predict the best path for survival” for our own selves specifically, and for our human species in general. The more languages we learn, in my view, the better we cope with the next volcanoes.

While I often disagree with both the “God language” and the “popular culture” expressions of why these literal or figurative volcanoes erupt in our own backyard, I have come to understand other people’s “heartfelt” and often inarticulate expressions, as I noted in an earlier post, as “the best available in the limited language at hand.” And I know that my own sincere expressions of concern far too often don’t rise to the quality of a good Hallmark® card. And so, no matter what I hear, I now interpret other people as saying, to the best of their ability and regardless of their “language”:

I really wish…
I really hope…
I really fear…


Notes:

  1. For more on this word theodicy, click here.
  2. Note that I have both capitalized the name of this deity and described it as a “religious tradition.” Look up online sources and see how many times this and other non-Judeo-Christian deities are described as “lowercase-g gods,” and their religious traditions defined as “myths.”
  3. Sometimes only the visible five are counted. See “Volcanic History of the Big Island in 6 Volcanoes” Love Big Island, 1 May 2018.
  4. I explored this topic in a series of four posts earlier which starts here.
  5. For my explanation of Nature’s probabilistic “Poisson events” (pronounced “pwa-san”) click here.
  6. For an explanation of the origin of this “God plays dice” phrase, click here.

2 thoughts on “When God plays dice in Hawai’i

  1. Bill Morain

    Rick, in response to your request, I can do no better than to quote my good friend (and former patient) William Sloane Coffin, writing about his son’s violent death:
    The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is “It is the will of God.” Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.
    For the complete transcript of his impassioned statement, see http://www.pbs.org/now/printable/transcript_eulogy_print.html

    Reply
    1. RKL Post author

      I followed Coffin closely during my college years in the Vietnam era. He had a lifelong commitment and he articulated it well. He pushed “God language” into many places where the establishment Church did not want to go.

      Reply

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