Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

On Blaming the Nudists and Mountain Spirit; Human Agency and Acts of God and Legitimate Protestant “Disenchantment”

To appease the mountain protector, the 10 western tourists who stripped and urinated on Mount Kinabalu should be fined 10 head of buffalo, according to local customs, says Sabah’s chief tribal priest known as Bobolian.

The Bobolian, Tindarama Aman Sirom Simbuna, said on Sunday that the tourists’ actions had angered the spirits and guardians of the mountain, which brought about last Friday’s quake in their rage.

“According to local beliefs, the spirit of the mountain is very angry,” he said.
He said the victims of this anger were innocent people who had nothing to do with the indecent behaviour of the tourists.

The Straits Times: Sabah quake: 10 tourists who stripped on Mt Kinabalu should be fined 10 buffalos, says priest

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Fine only? Why not offer a ritual sacrifice and sprinkle the mountain with their blood as propitiation to the mountain god?

But I mean, seriously man, this is like the Singapore blame-the-government mentality on steroids. Let’s blame the tourists instead for angering the mountain god! And people think that an “enchanted” nature is dead. Heh.

I guess there is an interesting anthropology at work here, the desire to “humanise” the world, to bring it under the purview of human agency. When something terrible strikes us, we instinctively try to make it a matter of human agency and responsibility. The government should have done something; it’s the tourists’ fault for angering the mountain gods. Anthropomorphism is one of the oldest technique for humans to get a grip on the world from the earliest times and not even a society as “modern” as ours is spared. If we were not blaming angered mountain gods we are also blaming systems, institutions, groups, etc, for all the evils in the world. (As Albert Camus was once supposed to have said, the government doesn’t have a conscience, at most it has a policy, that is all. Yet people like to treat the government as if it were a human person, capable of “compassion”, “kindness”, etc.) Attributing human agency, and thereby bringing it under our purview and negotiation, is a primal instinct which not even the most enlightened of civilisations are spared.

Yet surprisingly a true understanding could be found in the language of insurance policies. We use the term “acts of God” to precisely describe those accidents for which no human is liable for, and not only beyond human control, but events so utterly beyond human calculation and foresight that the insurance company cannot possibly be responsible for it. The believer in mountain gods does not actually believe in “acts of God”, in the divine incursion in human history which ought only to provoke fear and trembling. Their attitude is not that of fear and trembling but control and management, they are basically trying to employ a form of technique to manage the mountain earthquakes. In that there is little qualitative difference between what they are doing and what armies of social scientists and technocrats think they can do. Applying technique to manage the world. The only question is which ones are more successful and reliable to accomplish their ends. (And given the dismal success rates of our social scientists, I leave you to draw your own conclusions about the “difference” between our modern statecraft against ancient ritual.)

Despite all the talk about enchantment and trying to “spiritualise” the world by trying to make it more congruent to human agency, it is ironically those who have a greater command and appreciation of the mechanical nature of the world which is able to grasp the true nature of divine agency. Isaac Newton in his religious notes argues that idolatry doesn’t consist in thinking that dumb statues or even the “gods” are God. He points out that of course worshipers know that they aren’t the infinite, omnipotent or one true God. Rather, their idolatry consists in attributing to idols more power than they actually have, in turning them into objects which are responsive to human agency and have power to respond to human acts. Only the great discoverer of the laws of physics and gravitation could have truly appreciated this point about idolatry about nature.

Furthermore, this is an insight which is also unique to Protestant Christianity and it takes a Protestant Newton to note this. The error of both the Sabah chieftain and the Christian fundamentalist who blame disasters in America on homosexuals is that they are trying to bring those events under human control and management, as if we could prevent earthquakes or hurricanes by just punishing the nudists or homosexuals. The “moral” law was made for man, not man for the moral law, they exist for civil righteousness, not disaster management. The application of the laws in these cases is perverted from their original purpose and function into techniques for managing nature or acts of God. Condemn and sacrifice such and such persons to appease the hurricane or earthquake or wash away spiritual and divine demerit. (Lest the secularist think they are let off, they are also relentless in their willingness to sacrifice innocent people and do the most idiotic to their pet causes to propitiate the divine wrath against white guilt or whatever.)

I’ve not a single pc bone in me and I certainly believe that God can punish people through natural and/or historical events. However as Rowan Williams once notes about the trajectory of the argument in Romans 1 which explicitly names homosexuality as the product of the divine wrath, it is not to lead us to condemn them but instead to provoke self-examination in us, do we also practice those things which leads them to such sin? Such acts of divine wrath must truly be an “act of God”, beyond human agency and human control, to which we can only fall before in fear and trembling and quake before our own sins, not look for someone else to blame for the event and turn it into an object of human management. The proper distinction between Law and Gospel must be upheld in all its glory.

The Law was made for man, for human flourishing. The civil law can attain unto a certain limited form of civic righteousness sufficient for this worldly life and it is both right and proper that we use our reason and our sciences to manage, organise and plan where we can. However, a bright line always exists between human control and divine control. Our powers of domination over the world, though great, are not unlimited or total. Eventually there are all too human limits to the extent to which we can control and predict a world still ruled by a living inscrutable God. The laws made for human flourishing and civic righteousness cannot be perverted to control true “acts of God” or manage divine actions through a merit accounting system.

We overcome such disasters and tragedies in history, not by turning them into objects of human control, but through faith alone believing in a Love as strong as Death. We walk through the valley of death, which though to our visible eyes be dark and senseless, yet by faith alone we discern the true Light waiting for us at the end of the valley, unto the Risen Life which has triumphed over disaster, death and the wrath of an inscrutable God, into the love of him who is the true Face of God.

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This entry was posted on June 8, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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