Let's turn to history. The date: Nov. 1, 1755. The time: past 9 a.m. on All Saints' Day, a Catholic holiday. The scene: Lisbon, the devoutly Catholic capital of the devoutly Catholic Portuguese empire, shook -- first a big earthquake, then a big tsunami, then a big fire.
More than 100,000 people died.
The pious ones of the 18th century, clinging to their merciful and omniscient and just God, asked in awe: Was He angry? Was this His will? Was this His reaction to an ill, sinful world?
Three centuries pass and here we are. In a world of Muslims and Christians and Jews and Hindus and Buddhists, with the disaster in South Asia so far claiming more than 110,000 lives -- many of them children -- folks all over the world, in all places of worship, are pondering similar questions.
On the Web site IslamOnline.net, someone from Belgium asked the geologist Zaghloul el Naggar: "Is there any religious meaning that we can take from a country being affected by tidal waves? Is this a punishment from Allah to these people? Or is it a test? How do we know when a form of natural disaster or phenomenon is a test or a form of punishment from Allah to the people?"
Shlomo Amar, Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi, has said, "This is an expression of God's great ire with the world. The world is being punished for wrongdoing -- be it people's needless hatred of each other, lack of charity, moral turpitude."
Some organizations in India say the tsunami is "divine retribution" for the arrest of Jayendra Saraswati, a Hindu religious leader.
Since Sunday, those of different faiths have sought their own meaning, and some kind of explanation, for such a massive loss of life.
On his Web site Watch.org, Bill Koenig writes: "The Biblical proportions of this disaster become clearly apparent upon reports of miraculous Christian survival. Christian persecution in these countries is some of the worst in the world." Eight of the 12 countries hit -- Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh, Somalia, Maldives, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia, he says -- "are among the top 50 nations who persecute Christians."
Koenig, who lives in Alexandria and started the site in 1996, sees the South Asian disaster as an example of Christian exceptionalism. "What happened, and we see this happen over and over again, was that Christians, supernaturally, have been able to escape from harm's way," says the self-described Christian fundamentalist. " 'For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, not ever shall be,' " he says, quoting from Matthew 24:21.
'A test' of faith
Mahdi Bray, a Muslim cleric, is the executive director of the Freedom Foundation, a public affairs arm of the Muslim American Society, a national grass-roots religious, social and educational organization based in Washington. He quotes the Bible, too, a psalm which says, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." There is a similar passage in the Koran, he adds, "Verily with every difficulty there is relief."
"This is a test" of people's faith, he says again and again.
Sutadhara Tapovanaye, a Buddhist monk for 38 of his 48 years, tries to explain it differently. This, he says, is a part of life, the dynamics of nature, an always-changing world.
On Wednesday night, in a tearful memorial service at the Sri Lankan Embassy, he was asked to say a few words. "It was difficult," he remembers.
He arrived in the District two months ago for a year-long sabbatical at the Washington Buddhist Vihara Society. "According to Buddhist explanations, life is very short," says the linguistics teacher at Kelaniya University in Sri Lanka. "It is like a dream, but I never expected a nightmare like this.
"Now, in Sri Lanka, human bodies are piling up and with no identities. Nobody can recognize bodies as a part of any ethnic group or religious identification. Just human bodies. The medical workers give a number for each body," he says. "That means, we have to think about this death as inevitable, but at the same time, we have to rethink about life. Though we have different barriers -- man-made barriers, actually -- the reality is beyond that."
Act of nature or act of God?
Martin E. Marty, professor emeritus of religious history at the University of Chicago, has written his 55th book, "When Faiths Collide," which he says should land in bookstores this week.
He's been an ordained Lutheran minister since 1952.
"It's only natural to repose yourself in the will of God," he says. "If you're a believer, then you must believe that God, somehow, is a presence in all of this. But God didn't tell anybody that you go through life without disasters."
Still, talk of religion's role in the disaster irks Marty. Following the devastation in Lisbon in 1755, priests roamed the streets, hanging those they believed had incurred God's wrath. That event "shook the modern world," he notes, changing people's idea of a benevolent, all-caring God.
"In each act of nature -- your insurance calls it an act of God -- when people are precise in knowing that this is God's will, they're creating great trouble for themselves and others. You have to say that God is playing favorites. You're thinking, 'If I were spared this time, then when disaster comes next time, I'd have to blame it on God.' "