Hugo struck my neighbors with terror but not with the fear of God

A few years ago, Hurricane Hugo slammed into the coast of South Carolina at Charleston, where I live. What immediately struck me about a natural disaster is that it has the power to upset one’s sense of the permanence and reliability of the physical world. As so many experienced more recently in Florida and Hawaii, order is replaced by chaos, and certainty is replaced by questions.

Many of my neighbors found that the trees once standing so harmlessly and all in order outside their front doors suddenly came thundering into their living rooms and attics. Others, nearer the coast, found the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean turning ugly and life-threatening, washing the treasures of a lifetime in houses, furniture, and boats out to sea. The kosmos was disrupted, and questions were in order. But what kinds of questions were being asked?

When Lisbon Shook

Hugo was not the first natural disaster to provoke important questions about human existence. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which claimed ten to fifteen thousand lives and reduced three-quarters of the city to rubble, resulted in vast social and intellectual disturbance. The quake brought about a period of extraordinary moral and theological reflection. Both the age of revolution in France and Germany, and the age of Wesleyan revival in England are often associated with the catastrophic events in Portugal. Comparing the responses to the two disasters will reveal just how far we have moved in our experience of the world.

Three lines of questioning emerged after the earthquake. First, what does the earthquake have to say about divine providence?

A widespread sentiment took root that this catastrophe was a divine judgment against a sinful city. With such a dreadful judgment, the offense must necessarily have been equally dreadful, an impression made all the stronger since the first shocks arrived on All Saints’ Day when the churches of Lisbon were crowded with worshipers.

A famous Jesuit speaker, Malagrida, was a typical example of an extreme point of view: “Learn, O Lisbon, that the destroyers of our houses, palaces, churches, and convents, the cause of the death of so many people and of the flames that devoured such vast treasures, are your abominable sins.”

Others, interestingly, thought of the earthquake as judgment upon the Jesuits, who were found in great numbers in Lisbon. Still others, notably in England and Germany, made the earthquake a case against Catholicism. But, for the most part, both theologians and the general populace refrained from this extremity of moral judgment against a whole population, even though those “earthquake sermons” were common fare for years to come.

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Some attempted to defend God from the harsh picture of divine judgment the moral extremists had painted. A Franciscan preacher argued that the quake was a form of divine mercy. After all, he maintained, Portugal deserved much worse: God could have justifiably engulfed the whole nation, or at the least, destroyed the entire city of Lisbon. In view of what he could have done, God had performed only enough to warn Lisbon, and indeed the world, of his just displeasure. His action—however alarming it was at the time—was an act of mercy!

At the other end of the scale was the view that the earthquake should be seen as a natural disaster. A Spanish Benedictine monk was impressed that one of the recent earthquakes had been felt in two cities, Oviedo and Cadiz, at precisely the same time; and the cities were 500 miles apart. Obviously there was some deeper phenomenon that affects the earth surface at two such distant places at once. He attributed it to the latest matter of scientific excitement, electricity. This Benedictine thinker saw the catastrophe as one of a whole range of fatal events that could be explained purely by natural causes. The point, he insisted, is that one must be ready for death at any time: the earthquake is not, as others said, a special sign revealing God’s judgment.

The second question to arise out of the rubble of the Lisbon earthquake concerned the stability of social institutions. Perhaps nothing could really be depended on.

Unlike the United States, which found its national beginnings during this time, Europe was affected by a profound historical pessimism. The earthquake had seemed a crowning event in a whole series of disasters. The Turks had appeared on the doorsteps of Europe on three occasions in the eighteenth century. The Seven-Years War had ravaged the continent and wasted human life as well as economic resources. The new colonial possibilities in the New World had driven much of Europe mad with greed for enormous profits. Slave trade was expanding at a time when conscience had almost ruled it out in the home nations. There were attempts at assassination: of Louis XV in 1757 and José of Portugal in 1758.

A French poet, Le Brun, called his age the “infamous and atrocious century,” in a poem on the great calamity of that time. The poem’s title was “Ode to the Sun on the Misfortunes of the Earth Since the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.” “Perish the memory,” he said, “of our lamentable days.”

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The third question to arise prominently regarded the relationship between human mortality and moral responsibility.

The young philosopher Immanuel Kant was to see this aspect of the earthquake’s effect as the only profitable one. No one could penetrate to the purposes of God. Nor could anyone conclude that the world, in and of itself, reveals any stability of purpose. In spite of this fact, or perhaps because of it, we realize in the face of such a disaster that we are not created for this life only. A greater reality exists, and therefore a greater obligation. Disasters only remind us that “if in this life only we have hope, we are of all men most miserable.” It is the transcendence implied by moral duty that answers to the fragmented world of disasters.

To us moderns, the thing to note is not the answers to these questions but the character of the questions themselves. We have moved too far away from the world of the Lisbon earthquake to have a wholly reliable understanding of what they felt. These questions reveal a world that was still affected by the “bright shadow of heaven.” Whether the answers were naturalistic or explicitly theological, the questions centered on the world’s relation to a transcendent reality.

How Hugo Made Us Feel

Hurricane Hugo was nothing like the Lisbon earthquake in terms of lost lives or societal impact. It was, nevertheless, a true disaster. The word disaster originally implied being “separated from the stars.” We in this region of the Carolinas had experienced a disturbance of the stars, a disorientation.

After the storm, we were without electrical power for some time, as long as a month in some communities. My own neighborhood was fortunate; in eight days we had the lights on again. In the meantime, I spent the daylight hours clearing the wilderness of blown-down trees and debris, joining with neighbors in efforts to salvage some order from the general destruction.

At night, for the most part, I took stock of the outside world. Reading by candlelight and listening to my battery-powered radio, I learned bit by bit the story of the larger disaster. A few miles away, in McClellanville and Awendaw, people’s houses and belongings had been scattered to the winds. On Sullivan’s Island, some homes had been left uninhabitable. Others had been washed completely away, leaving behind only a patch of sand.

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I suspect some features of the Lisbon experience were repeated. It might be difficult, for instance, for a preacher to resist the temptation to preach about the one who “builds his house upon the sand.” But, in fact, although the “religious” note is never entirely missing, I wonder now why it was played so infrequently and quietly.

On one occasion, a radio commentator said, “Wait till this Sunday! More people will be in church than at almost any time you and I have known.”

So far as I know, that was the only time an optimistic comment concerning the religious life of the community was aired over the public media. The religious community was certainly visible, and involved, but as far as any general anticipation of a changed spiritual climate, this was the only one expressed in the media—even though there was a continued effort not only to keep people informed, but to keep the spirits high.

I went to church that Sunday. We sat in the darkened sanctuary, without sound system or air conditioning. With the buzzing of chain saws in the background, we worshiped. There was a small crowd in attendance that day, not a large one. Moreover, they were almost all “regulars.” They were not ushered out of their houses and into church by the recent fearsome display of nature’s powers. And, from what I learned, the experience was roughly the same in all of the area churches.

Nevertheless, I noticed something else over the next few days, as I listened to radio, keeping in touch with the world. At least half a dozen times a day the broadcast featured a local psychologist or psychiatrist. Typically the psychologist told us we were experiencing a kind of grief; but that was OK—it’s normal. We also heard about certain stages of adjustment through grief: denial, anger, depression, and (hopefully) acceptance.

What had the great catastrophe brought us? An awareness of the power of God over creation? Or of the frailty of the human condition? Or was it only that our psyche was out of kilter and needed fixing? Judging by media attention, by far the most urgently important topic seemed to be how we felt.

Literally hours of interviews were devoted to how people were “coping” emotionally, or whether they were emerging from the shock of the storm and becoming “optimistic” again.

We were focusing not on what had happened to the world around us, but on what was happening inside us. The most urgent question was not what all of this might mean so much as how we have each experienced it. Naturally, people were still interested in the objective facts of the hurricane and its after math; but to the extent that any intellectual response took place, it was seldom in terms of questions about the kosmos (the nature of the world), much less Theos (the questions about God), but an intense focus on psyche, on personal experience.

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I became aware, then, more than ever, of just how godless our world has become. Even in the extremities of natural disaster, we no longer ask how this illuminates the mystery “over us,” but instead attend to the enigma “within us.” A gigantic shift has taken place in our picture of the world. The light of heaven has dimmed for us, and we look within for a light to mark the path.

Terror Without Awe

The storm may have stricken people with terror for a brief few minutes, but not with awe. The transcendent “Thou” is missing from our experience of the world.

What we were dealing with was not the equilibrium of a psyche that got tipped over, but a massive, foreign, unknown, alien power. Even if it was not God, at least it was nature, an apersonal will in the universe that paid not the least attention to our personal wills. The storm let us know, whether providentially or not, that reality includes something far greater than “me”; and it is not an illusion, but a powerful reality with 135-mile-per-hour winds.

The fact that we have almost dropped any transcendent orientation in life reveals something of the modern heart and mind. It should be an unsettling thought that this world is attempting to chart its way through some of the most perilous waters in history, having now decided to ignore what was for nearly two millennia its fixed point of reference—its North Star.

So we are faced with inevitable questions: What happens to a world that has abandoned its hope for heaven and has substituted dreams and longings that lodge themselves in a world without heaven? What powers are invoked, and what is lost, when the highest goals of human existence must emerge from the possibilities within life? What happens, in a word, when not even a hurricane reminds us of our fragile place in the kosmos?

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