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June 23, 2014
Richard Handler

This episode of Context asks that age old question: how does a person of faith respond to the impact and destructiveness of a natural disaster?  This time, after last summer’s flooding in High River, Alberta. 

A hundred thousand people had to leave their homes; a thousand residences and businesses were either damaged or destroyed.  The damage was estimated at six billion dollars.  Context called the flooding a disaster of “biblical proportions.”

It wasn’t the end of the world, like the Great Flood.    But it did shatter a once peaceable, prosperous world. Ordinary people lives in were turned upside down.

All the really big questions come flooding in, pun intended.  And your Stubborn Agnostic watched the program with a mixture of fascination, admiration--- and perplexity.

The episode emphasized the resilience and courage of the High River’s residents, represented most notably by the Adolphes, a wholesome and plucky couple if there was ever one.  Their home was flooded after living in it only for a month.  But they plan to rebuild.  The waters will not move them.

So what did Karla Adolphe ask for when she prayed to her Lord?  She did not ask for material benefits, goods and services.   She asked for wisdom and patience.  In essence, she prays for a firm and persistent strength and inner resolve.   

This is surely an ecumenical prayer. Even a skeptical agnostic would have no problem asking for strength (from whom might be the operative question-- from some deep spirit in oneself?).    One rabbi I read, Harold Kushner, author of the best seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, tells his flock that when faced with illness or personal trouble, they should pray for strength.  That’s something that can be delivered:  you can be calm and resilient in the worst circumstances

There is a great stoicism in such advice.  Wisdom means taking the long view, girding oneself, not succumbing to panic or despair.  In a culture of immediate gratification, it means cultivating not one’s fatuous inner child, but one’s resolute inner grown up. 

But for a believer — and here is where my fascination peaks — such stoic virtue is backed up with faith.  Sure, anger, bitterness and divisiveness can be heard amid the disaster (a few people referred to such rumblings).  But whatever happens, as pastor Chris Hewko told Lorna, his God is a “master craftsman who is making something we haven’t seen yet, that hasn’t been revealed.”  

“God is capable of looking after things,” says Rev. Hewko.   Even after a disaster the person of faith proclaims this vision.  The agnostic would not be so ready to accept the evidence of an invisible plan.  As well, the person of faith understands the need for transcending the self.  As the good pastor says, we, the town, should “hang (stay) together.”

Clean up in High River, Alberta

Clean-up in High River, Alberta after the flood

Still, the Adophes acknowledge a dark side, and a set of double emotions:  you can be frustrated, even angry (yes, at God!) but, as Gary says, you must separate your negative, chaotic emotions from (God’s) Spirit. 

But as Christians, the Adolphes go further than simply urging themselves and others to be patient and resilient.   As Karla says, she and Gary “suffer in the goodness of the Father.”

“It’s hard but great at the same time,” Karla tells Lorna.  Astonishingly, she claims she wouldn’t trade the whole horrible experience for anything. It’s not a question of looking for silver linings, but seeing the essential goodness of the God working behind the scenes. 

Their house was flooded, yes.  But would Adolphes, or anybody else, see this goodness if a family member had died?  This is the heart of belief, the spiritual act of judo that flips pain into divine goodness.

For a hardened secularist, it’s all a baffling bit of illusion.  Whatever awful happens, is it a part of God’s secret plan?

That’s the Rubicon agnostics can’t cross.  We can only marvel.

Richard Handler - the Stubborn Agnostic - is a former CBC Radio Producer and former producer for CBC's Ideas. He lives in Toronto.


A very thoughtful piece, thanks for writing. I was very intrigued by your last statement — "we can only marvel". I've long pondered that this is the stumbling block that, at least if one is to be consistent, forces a choice between atheism and theism of some kind. Either "marvelling" and "wondering" actually means something, or else it's a biological tic, some Darwinian misfiring (to quote Prof. Dawkins). You might enjoy this article that a friend recently sent me:
June 25, 2014 | Jemima

The collective loss always makes it seem worse to the outsider, but compare the fate of these victims with any individual dying of cancer. Though there may have been some death, by and large these people lost things, their homes, their clothes, places outside their own minds associated with memories and experiences. To be sure they lost much; many through time have lost more. Families, loved ones and individuals in the many holocausts the twentieth century will be marked by in addition to things have been tortured, injured or lost... Turkish muslims killing Armenian and Greek Christians (over 2 million), Sudanese muslims killing Black Christians in Darfur (est. 2 million), Hutus killing Tutsis in Africa (a mere 600,000), the Khmer Rouge killed at least 5 million and I haven't even mentioned the grandaddy of holocausts..the nazis killing up to 14 million, Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, Fundamental Christians, known communists and anyone else who looked at them crossed eyed (with the emphasis definitely on Jews, having tried to eradicate the entire Jewish people)... Collectively the death and destruction are unutterable. Still any small family with each member dying of aids and/or cancer would suffer as much on an individual level as any of the victims of those various holocausts. So what is the point of it? How can God do this? I see a Divine Symmetry: we all die, some worse than others, but essentially God allows it, but then so does the man, God, Christ Jesus, and we killed him. He died as horribly and painfully, in that short period as any of us...The point is that He loves us and wants our freely given love in return...Knowing He rose from the dead, can we die to this physical world and live in spirit with Him on this earth? I say emphatically Yes!!! through constant prayer, communicating with Christ as with an intimate friend who sees and experiences everything we do...With Christ at your elbow there is no loss, no pain that is insurmountable or unendurable... I know a man, paralyzed from the chest down in the prime of life who lives richer and happier than most normal people simply because he feels Christ's nearness every day...(love you, Richard)
June 24, 2014 | paul meyerhoff

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