The suddenness and force of last month's deadly tsunami in the Indian Ocean has prompted many people to look for the spiritual significance of a calamity that others might explain as the work of blind Nature. At the Islamic Cultural Center of New York -- one of the largest mosques in the United States -- Imam Omar Abu-Namous believes that Allah may be testing humanity.
"Nowadays in the world, most of mankind have turned their back on God and become secular people," says the mosque's spiritual leader. "So God wants to give them a shock. This is an example to awaken people to the reality that God can punish us and also can be merciful to us."
Speaking in a room where a waist-high collections box for tsunami victims is brimming with cash, the imam admits that the waves took the lives of innocent children and devout Muslims along with Christian tourists and other non-believers. "God says in the Holy Koran," he explains, "'be on your guard against a tribulation that will not smite only the wrongdoers, it can smite also the good doers together with them.' So when God decides, for example, to annihilate a certain people or a segment of mankind, he will annihilate all that segment, including the good doers also. But on the Day of Judgment, everyone will be given his reward, what he deserves. There will be justice in the end. The good will receive paradise and the wicked will go to hell."
Like the imam, Monsignor Kevin Sullivan -- who directs the Catholic Charities agency for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York -- also believes in heaven and hell and the realities of sin. "Except from our Christian perspective," he says, "we do not believe in a vengeful God. Not the God of Jesus Christ!"
To Monsignor Sullivan, suffering and evil represent two of the most difficult spiritual problems facing theologians. "We need to completely avoid simple answers," he says. "Except we need to see all suffering under the shadow of the cross of Jesus. As Christians, we believe that He rose from the dead and, in His rising from the dead, salvation was offered to the world, and that the ultimate word is not death but life. Somehow God can write straight with crooked lines. That in itself is a mystery. But we don't ever pretend that the lines aren't crooked."
The Theravadin Buddhists of South Asia take a different view of the tsunami, one that is rooted in their concepts of reincarnation and kamma, or the universal law of cause and effect. Phramaha Praphansa, a Thai monk living at Thai Tha Wan Temple in Queens, New York, says that whatever happens to us in this life is an inevitable result of the good and evil we performed during our previous lives. "Maybe in this rebirth, you might be a good person [and] have a good heart and help poor people and have loving-kindness," he says. "But we don't know in the past life what we have done before. That is why people get hurt from [the] tsunami."
Khoren Arisian looks upon the tsunami from a purely scientific perspective. As Senior Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture -- a humanist religion that celebrates the central importance of the individual and the community -- Mr. Arisian believes that tsunamis, earthquakes and other natural disasters are all explainable by science. "It's a wonderful planet, but it's got a fiery core and is molten lava at its heart, and it does what it damn well pleases," he says. "We human beings have nothing to do with it. And the fact that it causes suffering is incidental."
Mr. Arisian is quick to point out the common ground all humanity shares when faced with such disasters - in spite of what each individual believes. "We all act pretty much the same universally in helping one another," he says, "getting supplies, getting medical help and caring for the traumatized and the experience of depression and deprivation and economic and spiritual despair and so on. At that point, we're all humans." That focus on caring for each other, he says, "is what religion is really all about."