Tap Dancing at the Cataclysm

By Charles Redfern

So there are two ants on an ant hill, see, and both ants feel the ground tremble and boom.  They notice this gargantuan creature – this sky-high behemoth – walking toward them.  One ant says to the other ant: “Human: better run.”  The other ant replies: “No worries.  Humans would never hurt us because I’ve constructed a psychological/sociological grid – a theoretical model, if you will – of a human being.  And, in my theoretical model, humans are always merciful saps who’d never think of overturning a single grain of sand on our hill.  I’ve even been to conferences.  And we conferees voted, and the vote was a landslide: Everyone beside the fanatical hold-outs agreed that humans would never, ever …” Splat! 

Hold that thought. 

I usually call doom on prophets of gloom and doom because they slobber over catastrophe like mutts chomping Purina.  They want gloom.  They’re disillusioned when God grants mercy and the planes land and the ships dock and the forecasted plague becomes a mere rash: just a little skin cream and we’re fine.  So far be it from me to predict bedlam.  It’s not my style.  I’m forever hopeful, a lemonade-out-of-lemons kind of guy, always grinning at my half-full glass. 

But a question nags as the Gulf oil gushes: What if we really are blowing party horns at the Apocalypse?  World-wide cataclysm can happen.  Really.  Honest.  No fooling.  Remember Carthage?  Ruined.  Rome?  Sacked.  When did we last send an ambassador to the Byzantines?  Never, which seems rude until we remember there’s no “there” there: The empire was crushed long ago.  And then there’s the European apocalypse of the 14th century: The Black Death killed off about 40% of the population (give or take a few), which led to labor shortages, higher wage demands, landlord refusals, and peasant revolts.  The Hundred Years War didn’t help.  And there’s the twentieth century (now we’re up close and personal): World War I and eighteen million dead; The Great Depression and near societal collapse; human-sponsored starvation in the Ukraine and twenty million deaths in Stalin’s Soviet Union; the death camps; fifty-five million dead in World War II; forty million Chinese deaths during Mao’s reign; Cambodia; Ruanda; the Congo … And the tsunami of this century and recent earthquakes … 

Apocalypse occurs, but we modern Americans can’t wrap our fingers around it – even though we’ve veered close in living memory.  We think our “normal life” is, in fact, “the norm:” Plagues, famines, and natural disasters are rare exceptions, coming from outside our view of Mother Nature, who is a gracious lady, courteously warning the weatherman whenever we need a sweater.

I remember hiking on blackened snow on Mount Rainer during a cross-country bicycle trip in June of 1980, a month after Mount St. Helens detonated.  A pretty woman called from higher up: “You can see Mount Saint Helens from here!” and I was with her, in a flash – to see the volcano, of course.  There it was: Kind and gracious Mother Nature turns Lizzie Borden with an axe, with a plume over it.  The pretty woman described last year’s research project in which she discovered how the time was ripe for an explosion – but she couldn’t fathom her own conclusions.  She handed in her own paper of dire warnings, thinking: “Nah.”  We were both staring at the “no” to her “nah:” A blown mountain threatening to blow again – and I suddenly realized my bicycle provided little shelter from pyroclastic flows.  I dashed out of the Pacific Northwest and never saw the pretty woman again (haul out the violins).  

I think of her and I think of climate-change deniers shouting “nah!” despite the evidence, complete with accusations of communism.  At least she admitted she was rationalizing. 

This gets really confusing when we throw God into the mix and suggest, just for kicks, that the biblical portrait of the Almighty is true (stay with me here).  That means God shows tremendous mercy because we’ve rebelled and yet we’re not a greasy spot; it means God is huge: as in really, really big; it means God knows everything (a shocker: God has seen us in our underwear).  And then there’s that unmentionable attribute, the one spawning plagues of blood, frogs, gnats, flies, farm animal deaths, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, and the death of the first born (read all about it in Exodus 7:14-11:10) – and the desert floor yawning and swallowing people – and God lifting His protection and permitting enemies to take over – and Sodom and Gomorrah – and the Flood.  

God gets mad. 

We’d prefer he didn’t.  We can even tut-tut the plagues just as ant-like Pharaoh did in the faces of Moses and Aaron.  But our preferences for a patient-at-all-costs God merely illuminates our desires, not reality.  I’m sure ants would choose sanguine humans who love ruined gardens, but we kick over their hills and spray extinction on entire civilizations.  Such is the price of juicy tomatoes. 

The more constructive question is not whether God gets mad, but what makes him angry.  Suddenly, I’m not comfortable.  God’s first commandment to humanity, whom He made in his own image (i.e., we’re the Lord’s representatives), was to “rule” over nature, which was “good.”  Human beings were God’s designated managers, or “stewards.”  “Rule” did not mean “dominate” or “abuse,” but to care for and nurture: witness the language in Genesis 2:15, which says God placed the man in the Garden to “work it and take care of (or guard) it.”  In other words, God did not give us the go-ahead to destroy the Amazon Rain Forest, pollute the sky, punch holes in the ocean floor to support an unsustainable transportation system, and pump enough CO2 into the atmosphere to potentially melt the polar ice caps.  Put it this way: We’re violating God’s initial command.  We’re like ants, ruining His garden – not flattering, I know, but I’m feebly attempting to see existence from God’s viewpoint: the entire solar system has the length and breadth of a hang nail – or even a germ.    

I squirm more even when I take the path of least resistance.  Pull out a copy of the Ten Commandments, on which all three of the world’s great monotheistic religions are agreed (they’re scattered throughout the Qur’an).  Compare and contrast.  How are we doing?  “You shall have no other gods before me.”  … Oops … “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”… Money?  The Self? …  “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God.”… Oh no … “Remember the Sabbath” … Uh … “Honor your father and moth …” Don’t even say it … “You shall not murder” … “You shall not commit adultery” … Move on … “You shall not steal” … “You shall not covet” … 

Tremble and boom. 

This is heavy stuff from a glass half-full guy, but there may be a man in the room with a cocked gun aimed at the glass – and he’s got all the lemons packed in a bag.  No lemonade this time.  I’ve come to agree with Carlene Byron: Recent incidents would have propelled previous generations onto their knees, but we’re like that second ant, standing on a brittle syllogism: “A) I believe in God: B) I want God to be nice, kindly, and never angry; C) Therefore, God is always nice and kindly and never angry.”  Such reasoning breaks on the anvil of common sense, religious teaching, and the history of “normal life,” which involves cataclysm.  

To put it bluntly: Why wouldn’t God be ticked off at germ-sized creatures who flagrantly defy His first command and the very reason for their own existence?  The fact that humans survive at all testifies to his patience and mercy – especially when we’ve manufactured the triggers for our own apocalypse: Staggering debt; monstrous deficits; thousands of nuclear warheads (they’re still there, ripe for theft); holes in the sea; global warming and the accompanying sell-out to climate-change denial … 

 … So many reasons for divine wrath; so many triggers in a nation blind to cataclysm’s normalcy … 

I hope others don’t wish me doom as I ponder the gloom and ask: Is our civilization stumbling like a Hell-bent drunk toward the real normal life?

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About Charles Redfern

Charles Redfern is a writer, activist, and clergyman living in Connecticut with his wife and family. He's currently writing two books, with more in his head.

View all posts by Charles Redfern


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2 Comments on “Tap Dancing at the Cataclysm”

  1. carrieb Says:

    nailed it! Amazing. I’m trying to figure out who I can send this to … Awesome, Chuck.


  2. David Johnson Says:

    Well put, Charles, and certainly not a popular opinion. Imagine God wanting rules kept or else there would be consequences in today’s modern world – either by the natural flow of events, or His hand in action. And in the New Testament, He gets ticked off in a different way – though often, I believe, in tears. Jesus’ frustration was not just with hypocrisy in the religious establishment. He also got upset with His own disciples’ lack of faith and slowness to catch on to His message and fresh paradigms. He was a man on a mission, He had a timetable, He had some critical concepts His disciples needed to comprehend, and He had EXPECTATIONS of His followers – then – and now. I think that too often Jesus’ dynamic character is smothered in love. He is still looking for obedience and faith, proven by performance and forward motion. I wonder how often I tick Him off, but am grateful for His mercy and forgiveness, which encourages me to keep going. And that, I believe, is where any hope for human civilization lies.


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