‘Apocalyptic’ – adjective: ‘forecasting the ultimate destiny of the world; foreboding immanent disaster; terrible’. Words bow to images. The scenes from Japan – waves of black sea, mud, debris, pouring ships onto houses, piling roads onto cars, crushing offices, shops, homes into a montage of mangled metal, a tohu va’vohu of destruction, devastation and loss – these scenes are both mesmeric and unbearable to look at for too long. They seem to both foretell a future and evoke a past.
Where have we seen pictures like these before? Towns flattened out into rubble and detritus, nothing standing, denuded of the familiar signs of collective life. A woman sitting alone by what was once a road, howling, only the ruins of a village for company. Where is this lodged in our memories? The association is too obvious, and yet it is impossible to avoid. Look at the photos taken in the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki: the same desolation, the same erasure of buildings, homes, roads, trees, everything crushed as if by a giant fist.
And as if the elemental activity of earth and sea in violent assault upon a nation’s lives is not enough, the radiation leak from the Fukushima nuclear plant makes the grim historical analogy with 1945 even more imaginatively compelling, and moves us beyond irony into the realm of existential helplessness – no wonder the voices coming from Japan are asking, with growing insistence, the timeless question: ‘What have we done to deserve this?’
Of course they have done nothing to deserve it – and so far we have been saved from religious fundamentalists (of different faiths) who jump on any such disaster to delight in ‘interpreting’ tragedies like this as the victims’ failures to live the ‘right’ way. I’ve not heard anything of this kind yet - but it is still early days. This sadistic picture of a controlling ‘God’ punishing so-called ‘sinners’ for religious failings is a regular feature of fundamentalist thinking.(Perhaps ‘thinking’ is too elevated a word for this kind of response). But it is the standard, off-the-peg, historical answer to that ever-present human question - which seeks meaning when there is no meaning - ‘What have we done to deserve this?’ Needless to say, I find the fundamentalist response nauseating. From a psychological perspective, it would have to be called psychotic. And, to use religious language for a moment, it is also blasphemous.
It so happens that my colleague Rabbi Jonathan Magonet is living and teaching in Japan at the moment, in the south of the country, far from the devastation we see on our TV screens. I asked him earlier in the week how he was experiencing the events and he responded with these thoughts, which I have his permission to share with you:
I asked my colleague here about how he viewed the reactions of the Japanese public. He said that at the moment we are all simply overwhelmed by the horror of the thing. Earthquakes are a given here, though never on such a scale and with such consequences. He thought people showed a remarkable calmness and stoicism, combined with a considerable practical approach to dealing precisely with the matters. He quoted a proverb to the effect that now was not the time for emotions but for practicalities, the emotional would have to be addressed later. Clearly, except for those who have immediate friends and family involved, this is felt to be best approach alongside collective efforts to provide funds and volunteers to help. What is missing, I suppose, is any theological evaluation - it simply does not belong to the Japanese 'religions'.
It may be that in the last 24 hours we are seeing more emotions being expressed. But whatever the feelings in Japan – and we have to remember that ‘What are you feeling?’ has become the default question of supposed interest for us Westerners in the last thirty or so years, as if our feelings define who we are - whatever the Japanese are ‘feeling’, the practical responses have been, for the most part, rather remarkable and indeed admirable. (Compare the response to Hurricane Katrina). I include here those battling within the Fukushima power stations to prevent a nuclear meltdown. One day the heroes of these hours will, one hopes, be named and honoured.
As for theology, I find myself more and more drawn to the religious humanism of those who turn such questions about meaning into an inquiry about how we construct meaning for ourselves. Rather than ponder on the purposes, or lack of purpose, of an abstract or absent deity, it seems more useful to think about our own fragility and our own fantasies of omnipotence – that we own and can exploit and control the earth and the seas – and to reflect on our own capacities to offer help and support and, if need be, self-sacrifice in the face of the often savage, and frequently unjust, phenomenon we call ‘life’.
Rather than seeing the sphere of religion as a vertical domain – God in His heavens set apart from us on earth – I find it more compelling, life-enhancing, and intellectually credible to think through the implications of Judaism being a human creation inhabiting the horizontal domain: religion is the sphere of our own human activity and invention and need and responsiveness; it is the place we can go to explore the mysteries of how life has evolved as it has, where we struggle for meaning in the face of meaninglessness, where we don’t know - can’t know - what we ‘deserve’, where we can experience moments of awe at the wonders and harmonies of nature and then collapse in fear and trembling in the face of those same natural forces; where we can celebrate what creativity and compassion human beings are capable of, but also despair at the cruelty and destructiveness that human beings are also capable of.
We don’t need a ‘God’ outside us to teach us about the double-sidedness of life – about our potential and our limitations, about our capacity to create worlds and our capacity to destroy them - but we may need to contact the godliness within us (our spiritual resources) to help us face our own mortality and to give strength to others when facing theirs.
The world is precarious and we are tightrope walkers always about to topple over. In Japan we see how disaster is always imminent, how apocalypse is part of the fabric of life: we glimpse what might lie ahead for any of us in our towns and cities, and we glimpse how apocalypse is also always now.