Ray Barraclough grew up on a
farm near Clermont in central Queensland, Australia. He majored in history at
the University of Queensland before working as a high school teacher for three
years at Childers. He went on to study at an Anglican theological college before
gaining his doctorate from Macquarie University, Sydney. His doctoral thesis
explored political ideas of the New Testament writers.
Since being ordained as an Anglican priest in the Brisbane
diocese, Ray has served as a parish priest, university chaplain and theological
lecturer. From 1979 to 1988 he was the Anglican Chaplain to the University of
Queensland and from 1989 to 1993 Ray and his wife Dorothy served at St George’s
College, Jerusalem, where Ray was senior lecturer. On returning to Australia Ray
took up an appointment as lecturer in New Testament at St Francis’ Anglican
Theological College in Brisbane. Concurrent with that position he was also a
member of the ecumenical lecturing team drawn from Brisbane’s Anglican, Catholic
and Uniting Church seminaries.
It was Ray’s interest in history and theology, as well as his
pastoral experience helping parishioners experiencing anguish in the face of
tragic events, that prompted him to write this book.
I begin by writing briefly about two incidents.
Doubtless there are thousands of such events in the world around us that I could
recount. But I have chosen these two to introduce readers to the deep and
difficult aspects of life that this book seeks to address. I am referring to the
challenge of giving explanations for tragic events in the life experience of
Susan  was a gracious young woman who had
recently joined our church. She was looking forward to the birth of her baby.
For several weeks I had not seen Susan in the congregation. Then, one Sunday, a
member of the church, a great carer of people, told me that the baby had died.
Our hearts went out to Susan. I said, “I will visit her”.
The next day I called at Susan’s home. Susan
opened the front door and asked me to come in. But the sight of me, with a cross
on my shirt, triggered a flood of tears.
What could one say to this distraught mother?
Because of her anguish and grief, on that day, and in the days following, Susan
was not able to sustain an extended conversation. Tears came to the fore and cut
off the sentences in our dialogue. In the circumstances silence rather than
words seemed appropriate.
But the few words that Susan said, and
repeated that morning, were so sad. “What have I done that this has happened?”
Susan had personalised the cause of her
baby’s death. She was overwhelmed by what I would call a who explanation
of the tragic event. Let me briefly explain this phrase.
In a who explanation, a
person or persons or God or some other supernatural being is regarded as having
caused the event.
In a what explanation,
impersonal factors are seen as the cause of the event.
Thus, in the case of this infant's death, a
what explanation would have been given in terms of the baby's medical
condition. Such causes as a collapsed lung or a weakened heart would be
suggested so as to understand why this baby had died.
To me, the death was caused by the baby’s
incapacity to develop life-sustaining breathing through her weakened lungs. That
is a what explanation for the infant’s death. It is a rudimentary medical
answer to the question: What caused this baby to die?
As I have stated, Susan, consumed in her
grief, had personalised the cause of her baby’s death. There are two who
explanations in Susan’s sad sentence that expressed the anguish that deepened
the grief of this loving mother. Susan blamed herself as a cause for the
infant’s death. The second who was God. Susan believed that God was
punishing her by taking away the life of her baby. Her anguished cry was a
response to the question: Who caused this baby to die?
We in the church were implicated in her sense of
guilt. If the baby had lived, would we not have thanked God for the gift of this
new infant? But when the infant dies, what words then do we offer about God?
The second incident was again a tragedy in human
experience. On the evening of July 17, 1998, a huge tidal wave, catalysed by an
earthquake at the ocean floor, destroyed the village of Arop in the Sepik
province of Papua New Guinea. The tsunami struck the coast of this north-western
portion of Papua New Guinea with devastating force. Amidst the darkness and the
onslaught of the mountain of water, the people experienced frightening terror.
Many lost those closest to them. The force of the tidal wave had ripped children
from parent’s arms. The swathe of death was horrific. The lives of those who
survived in this Christian village were scarred by deep and traumatic grief.
While the wider Church sought to provide
comforters and counsellors, a particular difficulty emerged. As the survivors
sought to make sense of what had happened, some of the Christians began to blame
themselves for the calamity. Dualism, with its description of events as being
either from God or Satan, coloured their understanding of the tragic event. As a
journalist covering the tragedy reported:
…a major issue confronting the counsellors is
the tendency of the communities to believe that the wave was a form of
punishment. In attempting to tame the enormity of what has happened to them,
many survivors are seeking to rationalise how such a thing could happen. Who put
the devil in the wave?” They are asking themselves… In all disasters, they have
to find a reason. The rumors vary wildly and weirdly, from the theory that it
was nuclear explosion, to the grimy photocopy, circulating through the camps,
which purports to be a satellite photograph showing the wave assumed the form of
Satan, complete with horns and pitchfork.
Even within the communities who and
what explanations sat side by side. Some said that it was Satan’s activity.
Others asserted that a nuclear explosion was the cause of the tragedy. The
journalist’s account also encompassed both kinds of explanations.
Like any act of God or nature, the Aitape tidal
wave was arbitrary in who and what it struck down. There are stories of the wave
flinging tiny babies to the relative safety of a treetop, and of whole hamlets
flattened while their occupants were miraculously spared. 
The standard what explanation was that an
earthquake had occurred in the ocean floor generating the force that created the
giant tidal wave.
book was prompted, initially, by my concern as a parish priest for the damage
done to people lives by shallow and trite religious explanations for tragic
events. That concern was magnified as I was called upon to offer explanations
and comfort to people whose hopes had been raised by glib assurances from
certain preachers of God’s expected miraculous intervention in their lives. The
interventions did not occur. The pious hopes that had been raised were dashed by
the realities of life. These realities ranged from the incurability of certain
illnesses through to the death of loved ones.
This book seeks to take readers on a journey
through history. It is not a detailed journey. Rather it gathers examples of
explanations that have been advanced down the ages to the present time for
various tragedies in people’s experience of life. It does this through a basic
but distinctive grid. It examines explanations for a range of human experiences.
It divides such explanations into two simple categories – who and what
explanations. To put it simply, such explanations reflect the pre-modern
and modern terms of reference by which we seek to understand why events
This writer, as a white western male whose life
has been shaped by Western culture, is drawn to modernist explanations.
But I also lecture in the field of the Christian scriptures. Those scriptures
come from a pre-modern world of explanations. The effort to meld the two
worlds of explanations sometimes works. But at other times the who and
what explanations cannot be reconciled. I believe that when resort is made
too quickly, too glibly, to the who explanation, as occurs frequently in
contemporary fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity, the pastoral results
can be disastrous.
No person is able to give an adequate
explanation for the heart-rending tragedies that humans have to face. Certainly
this book will not provide final explanations. But in the closing chapter I hope
to offer a range of possible explanations that may help some of us as we face
life’s tragedies. I am particularly mindful of readers who have a religious
But sometimes words must give way to silence and
unresolved, anguished mystery.
Since I began the research needed for this book,
the world has witnessed several cataclysmic events. The most devastating was the
tsunami that struck the countries of southern Asia on 26 December, 2004.
Thousands upon thousands were killed. Early estimates rated the number at a
quarter of a million people. More recent statistics indicate that that those
killed numbered over 300,000. There were 1.6 million people displaced from their
homes. The figures cited in regard to Indonesia were:
* Killed 128,715
* Missing 37,063
* Displaced 700,000 
Grief over such massive destruction of human
life will remain with the survivors all their days. I recall the image of
Indonesian fishermen devastated at the news that their wives and children had
been swept out to sea and to certain death. Weeks had passed but the life had
gone from their faces. They were still in shock, dazed by the enormity both of
what had happened and of their loss.
Other major disasters followed. The three given
most coverage in the media were hurricane Katrina, which devastated the
city of New Orleans and surrounding districts, a massive earthquake that caused
destruction in northern Pakistan, and an earthquake that struck Yogyakarta in
Indonesia. Estimates were that 70,000 people were killed in the earthquake
ravaged regions of Pakistan and over 5,000 in Yogyakarta. Poignant stories
emerged. One told of a school of 700 Pakistani students that collapsed with the
earth’s quaking. Only 70 students survived.
To term these catastrophic events as natural
disasters means bringing that key adjective natural and its obverse term
supernatural into focus by looking at the explanations given for such
disasters through history. One thus has to take account of the use of the two
terms – natural and supernatural – as explanatory keys for
understanding such events. This book also explores the possibly impossible task
of speaking about God and such disasters in the same sentence, in the same
Whether it be major tragedies such as the
earthquakes noted above, or the anguish experienced at the individual level when
a family member or friend is killed in an accident, people grasp for some kind
Some may feel that I have simply written a
catalogue of who explanations. But the backward glance to history is
vital for our understanding of where we have come from. And the surge in
religious allegiance that we in contemporary times are witnessing reminds us
that the explanations from the past can re-surface with renewed vigour.
I am propelled by at least three factors in
writing this book. Firstly, we need to be aware of the historical journey humans
have made, and continue to make, as regards seeking explanations for life’s
Secondly, if we ignore history, we are the
losers. Past mistakes are forgotten. Blighting explanations can readily
resurface and the memory of their effects is lost until, sadly, they are freshly
felt. A journey through a history of explanations hopefully will alert us to the
immense influence - for good or ill, for comfort or for persecution, for solace
or for slaughter – that such explanations have catalysed in times past and
present. If we value human life, we will not want to be deaf to the human use of
Thirdly, many of us think that our explanations
are the only ones that sensible people (like us of course) will be drawn to. We
who are Westerners so readily assume that Western explanations for people’s
beliefs and behaviour are the right ones or the only acceptable explanations.
This book seeks to take the reader on a journey
through history. It is a journey through the history of explanations. That story
will have surprises. It will recall eras of explanations that now seem worlds
away. But the quest for explanations for life’s tragic events will be with us
for as long as we live. This book invites you to journey into the world of
EXAMPLES OF WHO EXPLANATIONS
The isness of things is well worth
studying; but it is their
whyness that makes life worth living.
- quoted by Konrad
Lorenz, On Aggression.
Incidents, such as those described in the
previous chapter, highlight the difficulty people face as they endeavor to give
explanations for tragic events. We seek to juggle who and what
explanations of what happens in human experience.
I first began to reflect on the distinction
between what I term what explanations and who explanations to
describe experiences and events when I came across the following lines:
The fundamental difference between the attitudes
of modern and ancient (people) as regards the surrounding world is this: for
modern, scientific (people) the phenomenal world is primarily an ‘It’; for
ancient – and also for primitive - (people) it is a ‘Thou’. 
The authors were distinguishing between a modern
Western culture that reaches readily at hand for what explanations for
events and a different (in this case, ancient) culture that readily reached for
who explanations to describe life’s experiences.
Only after I had been researching this topic for
some time did I encounter the following words by Peter Berger in his book A
Rumor of Angels – Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural,
This study examines the causal essence of
calamity, peeling back the layers of obfuscation to find out not so much what
but who is most often responsible for the destruction caused by tornadoes
and other “natural” disasters. 
Bruce Malina gives the following helpful
description of who explanations in the ancient world. He describes how,
for ancient peoples
the grand dimensions of human existence, such as
weather, health, life and its transmission, political power, and so on, are far
above and beyond any individual human being’s control or grasp. They are
ascribed to non-human persons.
Thus people perceived God, gods, and their
agents – spirits, demons, angels – as necessary to maintain the equilibrium both
of society and its pursuits in social and physical environments, most often
regardless of what… human beings themselves might do. 
A contemporary illustration of both what
and who explanations sitting side by side can be discerned in the
attitude of many Christians to rainfall. Consider, first, the what
explanations for why rain falls.
As we watch our weather maps on the television
news, we will be given what explanations as to why we can expect light
showers or steady rain or a downpour. What causes the rain to fall? The rain
forecast will be explained terms of the measure of atmospheric pressure (as
measured by barometers), the range of temperatures of the ocean and land mass
(as measured by thermometers), and the wind patterns (as measured by anemometers
or wind gauges). All of those instruments end with the term meters. That
term means ‘measures’. In the context of the scientific tracking of weather,
they are measuring devices that seek to tabulate the natural processes causing
rain to fall. With the advent of satellites we now have very sophisticated
These are what causes rain explanations.
In contrast, in the ancient world science was very rudimentary. There was the
capacity, it is true, to gauge connections between clouds and rain. For example,
Jesus is presented in Luke’s gospel as speaking of clouds appearing on
the horizon and rain following.
He said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud
rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it
Aristotle, writing in fourth century BCE, gave
the following explanation for rain.
The moist earth…is warmed by the sun and gives
off vapours which condense as they are carried up aloft and in their condensed
form fall again as rain and moisten the earth 
But, generally speaking, little was known about
the natural causes of weather patterns. What we would now term ancient myths
provided the explanatory description for clouds forming and rain falling. To
give an example:
…the ancients told myths instead of presenting
an analysis…We would explain, for instance, that certain atmospheric changes
broke a drought and brought about rain. The Babylonians observed the same facts
but experienced them as the intervention of the gigantic bird Imdugud which came
to their rescue. It covered the sky with the black storm clouds of its wings and
devoured the Bull of Heaven, whose hot breath had scorched the crops. 
The ancient Hebrews believed that God poured
down the rain from the heavenly realm above the earth. This who
interpretation of the cause of rainfall can be found in numerous passages. The
following sentence from Deuteronomy (28:12) expresses it succinctly.
The Lord will open for you his rich
storehouse, the heavens, to give the rain of your land in its season and to
bless all your undertakings.
We still use the term ‘the heavens opened” to
describe heavy rainfall. The image is based in part on the account in Genesis
So God made the dome and separated the waters
that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was
so. God called the dome Sky…(1:7-8)
…In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life…on
that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the
heavens were opened. And the rain fell on the earth.
In chapter 3 we will consider further a range of
biblical passages that give explanations for the falling of rain. We can note
that, even to this present day, such passages can be appealed to in regard to
claims that God has brought about sudden rainfall. Such an incident occurred in
Sydney in August, 2004. After special prayers had been said for rain, the city
experienced a deluge. Those who had prayed claimed it was confirmation of their
belief and of their God's readiness to answer prayer. Sceptics asked if it was
the same God who had caused the drought that needed to be broken by the rain.
A significant number of Christians do not
necessarily feel uncomfortable taking in the what information from
contemporary weather forecasts. They combine that explanatory grid with a belief
that God can change the weather to bring or withhold rain. If God does not seem
to be active, usually in regard to the former condition, (Christians rarely pray
for droughts) then devout believers will pray to God to bring the weather for
which they petition.
Sadly, when rain does not come, the failure of
the praying is rarely acknowledged publicly. Triumphal success is usually gladly
trumpeted. But if God is in control of all weather patterns, then the call of
honesty requires the triumphalist Christians to explain the theology of damaging
Another illustration of an appeal to a who
explanation for weather patterns comes from the third century. The noted
Christian writer Irenaeus issued a challenge to his detractors in regard to the
explanation of miracles. It was a challenge based on the very limited knowledge
possessed at that time in regard to weather patterns. Irenaeus asserted that it
was as likely to explain miracles as it was to explain “the tides… the causes of
rain, lightning, thunder, clouds, fog, winds, snow (or) the phases of the moon”.
While the devout might ascribe weather patterns
to God’s direct purposes, I grew up on an Australian farm in a more earthy
context of explanation for the falling rain. The explanation that I heard as a
boy was possibly a more vulgarized version of the beliefs that I have just
described. When the welcome summer monsoon rain began to be heard on our
galvanized iron roofs, my father would call out: Send her down Hughie!
This utterance gives a personalized who explanation for the coming of the
rain. However, the precise origin of the phrase is debated.
Rabbi Brasch offers a range of possible
explanations for the saying. He suggests that the term Hughie was derived
from the name Hugh McCall. Hugh had become famous in Australia in the nineteenth
century for his zeal for irrigation and water conservation. Another explanation
that moves back in time refers to Jupiter Pluvius, the Roman god of rain.
Possibly the phrase was a less than sober supplication to the slurred name of
the god. Then there was Hugh, a bishop of Wessex, “famous and revered for his
successful intercessions for rain. Even after his death people continued to
entreat Hughie to send them rain.”  A final suggestion is that the
term is a bowdlerized version of the cry Aboriginal people uttered to Youie,
the spirit of thunder.
Down the ages people have readily believed that
powerful eruptive forces of nature were caused by supernatural beings. When such
forces wrought destruction, it was believed that retributive or evil powers were
For example, in the Caribbean region a
destructive and fierce storm was called a hurricane from the local word
for the “evil spirit” which had aroused the elements of wind and rain to fury.
One possible variant on the origin for the word typhoon comes within this
category. The Greek god Typhon was a rival of the powerful god Zeus. Zeus killed
Typhon with a thunderbolt and then buried him under Mount Etna. But every
eruption of Mount Etna was a sign that Typhon was seeking to free himself. His
efforts also stirred up the winds into fierce storms that thus were called
In ancient times the Norse god Thor was believed
to cause thunder. The sound of thunderclaps were caused by Thor’s hammer booming
on the heavenly anvil. Modernist what explanations of thunder would be
couched in terms of types of clouds and their moisture content, atmospheric
pressure, static electricity, and lightning which heats the air causing it to
expand speedily. The process culminates to produce the charged sound of
The only vestige we have of the who
belief in Thor as the creator of thunder is in the name of the day Thursday –
Thor’s day. Another day – Wednesday – is named after the Norse god Woden. It was
believed that the Anglo-Saxon kings were descended from that god. The month of
May is named after Maia, the Roman goddess of spring and fertility.
A similar example occurs in regard to the
eruption of volcanoes. That phenomenon takes its name from the Roman god of fire
Vulcan. According to Roman legends Vulcan placed his roaring forges underneath
the mountains that emitted the great spouts of hot lava. Again, contemporary
geologists would explain the eruption of volcanoes in terms of subterranean
temperatures and pressures, stratification of rocks, and other what
In these last two examples, namely thunder and
volcanoes, the different who and what explanations can readily be
seen as alternative explanations. It would be highly unlikely that a modern
scientist, studying either thunder or volcanoes, would be a believer in Thor or
Insurance officers still refer to disasters as
an act of God. A humorous film was produced playing on that theme with
Billy Connelly starring as The Man Who Sued God. The movie opens
depicting a lightning strike destroying the lead character’s boat while it was
floating peacefully at anchor in a harbour. The outraged boat-owner wants to get
compensation for his loss. However, he is advised by insurance agents that the
calamity was an act of God. So he sues the churches as being the
representatives of God on earth.
While the film raised some of the issues facing
those who suffer misfortune, it avoided any real exploration of natural
calamities as acts of God. The clergy were depicted in stereotyped
sentimental form, piously speaking of God as “the mover of mountains”. Despite
the advertising hype that the film was “a witty, uplifting satire”, it warily
avoided offending Western viewers in its coverage of religious explanations for
the destructive effect of natural (and supernatural) forces.
Does this use of the term
act of God reflect a belief in “the God of the gaps” that still resides
in monotheistic hearts? What if an act of God harms something sacred?
Carl Jung recounted the following story. There was a church in a Swiss village
which had been damaged by lightning, and the pastor went round the village to
collect money for the repairs, and one shrewd old peasant said to him: "What -
you are not going to make me give you anything, if he destroys his own house!"
In our own times people observe practices that
are related to who explanations of events. Often these practices are
performed to bring good fortune, God’s favor or simply good luck. Some of these
practices come from a devout past. Others are well established superstitions.
The term superstition has had a checkered
history. It stems from Greco-Roman times as a description of religions that were
thought to barbaric or ignorant.  Tacitus, the sophisticated Roman writing
in the first century, labeled Christianity a “deadly superstition”  In time
superstition came to be associated with magical practices. In contemporary
popular thought a superstition tends to be seen as an irrational belief in
cosmic or supernatural forces that can be invoked or appeased to influence human
Then there is the cheeky saying – Don’t be
superstitious, it brings bad luck.
Across a whole range of sports athletes follow
rituals that could come within this understanding of superstition. Such
practices occur amongst baseballers, cricketers, jockeys, golfers – to name but
a few sports where instances can be cited. Whether it is following the same
pattern of dressing, or donning special colored socks before a game, or putting
on the right shoe before the left one – all of these practices move beyond
Why did I lose my tennis match, or football
game, or play badly at golf? Did I tie my shoes in the right order? Did I wear
the wrong socks? Lest we think this is a modern phenomenon, the Roman emperor
Augustus always put his right shoe on first, and thought it a good omen to start
a long journey while it was drizzling.  Readers may also know of other
One of Australia’s leading cricketers ensured
that he carried a red handkerchief in his pocket when he went out to bat.
Spectators may also resort to supernatural means to influence a game. During a
World Cup cricket final between Australia and India, some Indian supporters,
conscious of their team’s parlous position in the match, sought supernatural
intervention. An avid supporter, Calcutta banker Ivy Tandon, averred that in
order for the match to be postponed he “prayed for rain with the Geeta (Hindu
holy book) open in front of us”. 
In many sports appeals to God or the gods
abound. It is to be seen when members of American college sporting teams hold
prayer meetings on the arena before the contest. It occurs each time a football
player crosses himself or herself before running on for the game. Once Henry
Luce, the joint founder of Time magazine, was watching a basketball game
being played at Madison Square Garden.
Both teams represented Catholic colleges and
when any player stepped up to the free-throw line he would cross himself.
“What’s that mean?” (Presbyterian) Luce wanted
“They’re asking for divine help in sinking the
shot”, said Thompson.
“But how can one tell which side God is on?”
Resorting to a who explanation was
notably illustrated in the controversy surrounding charges of ‘match-fixing’
leveled against the South African cricketer Hansie Cronje. He acknowledged the
truth of the charges but declared that Satan had caused him to accept bribes
from corrupt bookmakers to deliberately lose games.  The Commission of
Inquiry opted for a what explanation of events. It found that Cronje was
himself totally responsible for accepting bribes from Indian bookmakers. As a
tragic aftermath, Cronje was killed in an aeroplane crash on Saturday, 1 June,
2002. No speculation was entered into as regards a who explanation for
his death. The newspaper reports simply listed what explanations for the
catastrophe, namely, engine failure in the aircraft.
When a dangerous accident  occurs, as is the
case when racehorses fall in a tightly packed field, jockeys will sometimes look
for supernatural explanations. Such a response tends to owe more to
individualistic piety rather than to deeper sensitive reflection on the
implications of the proffered explanation.
For example, when noted Australian jockey Darren
Beadman fell from a horse at the Randwick racecourse, his pious Christianity
prompted him to declare that
The Lord was on my side for sure. I haven't
broken any bones but it could have been a lot worse. The horses trailing managed
to side-step me. It was just one of those things that happen in racing. There
was not a lot I could do about it. 
What then was the Lord doing when another
skilful Australian jockey, Jason Oliver, was killed in a fall while training
racehorses?  At Jason Oliver’s funeral, the focus was on the death of one
“who still had so much to give”. Jason’s brother, Damien Oliver, is also a
famous Australian jockey. When Damien rode the winner of Australia’s most famous
race, the Melbourne Cup, just one day after his brother’s funeral, he looked
towards the heavens as he rode his horse into the winner’s enclosure and
dedicated it to Jason.
To claim that good or evil forces are at work is
to have affinity with people who have what is termed ‘animistic belief’. These
people see the cosmos as all one existence. By that is meant that they consider
there is no division between the material and the spiritual, between the natural
and the supernatural, in contrast to a modernist understanding of the world.
Those people believe that the ordinary and the
extraordinary, the natural and the supernatural, the mundane and the magical,
are leavened together. If they are distinguished at all, it is still believed
that there is direct interchange between them.
The spirits are at work in our real world and
equally incontrovertibly, (people) go to the spirit world and return. 
The apostle Paul describes this kind of
journeying in 2 Corinthians (12:2-4)
I know a person in Christ who fourteen years
ago was caught up to the third heaven – whether in the body or out of the body I
do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person - whether in the body or
out of the body I do not know; God knows – was caught up into Paradise and heard
things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.
For some of the indigenous people of Australia
the explanations for life’s ills, including sickness, does not entail impersonal
or neutral causes.
The only causes they understood are personal and
spiritual, and some such cause must be found for that profound disturbance of
the well-being and equilibrium of an individual and his group, which is
associated with his illness and death. 
Commenting as a white Westerner, Professor Elkin
went on to predict that Western modernist education would dissolve such beliefs.
The belief and associated practices will only be
discredited by education; that is by the attainment of a truer understanding of
the causes of illness, disaster and death. Even this will be a slow process, but
it will eventually be successful. 
such beliefs live on, even amongst urbanised indigenous people.