Can a Natural Disaster be a Symbol of Truth? The Indian Ocean Tsunami: a Voegelinian/Desmondian Meditation

HomeArticlesCan a Natural Disaster be a Symbol of Truth? The Indian Ocean Tsunami: a Voegelinian/Desmondian Meditation

“Now the Flood: water is the matrix of all life, but in deluge its creative indeterminacy overwhelms and swamps. Finite beings are flimsy, tossed around as flotsam. (DECEMBER 26, 2004: EARTHQUAKE BENEATH THE SEA, TSUNAMI – PARADISE ONE MOMENT, DROWNING DESOLATION THE NEXT.) Creative power is destructive power beyond our measure; the overdeterminacy brings into being but also annihilates. The garden of the world is wasted, wasted perhaps to make a clearance for a new garden, but wasted now and our child has perished. The torrent washes away the filth and freshens life, but our father has been carried across the bar and we are bereft.” (Desmond, 2008, 76 – emphasis in original)


“The Cosmos is luminous for the paradox of imperfection-perfection, of an order in movement toward order. Moreover, man is not only conscious of the paradox, not only does he ‘know’ about it, he partakes of it inasmuch as the bodily located psyche called man is one of the ‘things’ in the cosmic order of things. The paradox of order-disorder, thus, seems to attach to existence in the mode of thingness. But if it attaches to thingness, can there be an order of ‘things’ free of disorder? Or would the establishment of true order require the obliteration of ‘things’? But if the ‘things’ were abolished, what would there remain to be in order or disorder? Plato raises these questions, not in order to dispose of them with clever answers, but in order to raise the paradox of thing-reality and It-reality to full consciousness.” (Voegelin, 2000, 116 – emphasis in original)


The earthquake under the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 that led to the tsunami and its catastrophic consequences was an event in “Thing-Reality” – that is, the “everyday” world of concrete phenomena. The resulting and ongoing disaster was thus the physical result of a physical event: phenomena, horrifying to us, consequent upon a natural phenomenon. And, we too are, collectively and individually, phenomena: an event and events in nature. Yet, human beings possess the ability to apperceive (and, as far as we know, we are the only phenomenon in the universe that has this ability): we have imaginations, inner states, we can imagine and describe a better world (or a world beyond the world) than this one (where, say, lethal tsunamis would not happen), we can re-construct the histories of those that have preceded us, and we can project a history of those that will follow. In this world of apperception, then, we can transcend time.

As human beings we know that we are not a complete and self-sufficient explanation for ourselves, either individually or collectively: we are all connected with history, our human history, which is a part of the earth’s history, which is a part of our galaxy’s history and so on (and back) receding apparently without end, and going on apparently without end. And even if the physical universe, and according to the current “climate of scientific opinion,” were to collapse in on itself in a dramatic reversal of the Big Bang, it would still be somewhere (even a black hole has mass) and it would have still existed as we knew it. Yet the question would still remain: How did this dynamic process become to be this dynamic process of things?

Yet, perhaps beyond the Thing-Reality of the physical universe we can apperceive another Reality: a more comprehensive/comprehending more primal Reality: a Reality of which this universe is but a physical part, as we are a part of it. And yet for the universe to exist at all, then this further transcendent dimension must also logically “exist”; otherwise we are faced with something like a paradox which looks like this: if something which has no beginning in time, because time “begins” with the Big Bang yet does have an “ending” in time, because time “stops” when the expansion caused by the Big Bang ceases and goes into reversal and the universe collapses to an immensely dense (paradoxically temporarily timeless?) “zero point” (even if it somehow – how? – “starts” again ad infinitum) – as per some current scientific theory – then this is logically inconsistent because it literally makes no sense to propose this “end of time that starts again.” It is rather like Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, because if time has no beginning independent of the Big Bang how can it have any kind of end?

And, for that matter, how can it have any beginning? It would be an eternal internal recurrence, a kind of repeating simulacrum of itself, like a tape loop doomed to play the same finally meaningless one-note tune, unless that beginning is somehow outside of or beyond time. Once we have had a Big Bang and time has “commenced,” there cannot then be a time in which that event has not happened and, as Nietzsche proposed, keeps on happening ad nauseum, unless that proposed end, or point “beyond” time, is an “aspect” of the transcendent beyond that is before, during, and, after time. Could this free us from a kind of dimensionless death-in-life claustrophobia? That which begins time, at the zero limit of time, cannot already be in time (if it were, then what could begin?), nor can it be time itself with its quality of passage of beings being, passing into and out of time. It must, in some sense, to reiterate the point, be beyond time.  If it does not make sense for us to consider that something can come out of nothing, which is another way of describing the “beginning” of time, then that nothing must be a something, which must ultimately be a no-thing in the sense that it is that that which is beyond, yet (somehow) grounds and enables, the chronological duration of the material and physical universe in its, as it were, metaphysical being.

It is this no-thing, which is not to be understood as signifying a totality of absence, but rather the absence of precisely any thing, or “thingness” in the spatio-temporally manifest/manifold sense. It is rather, to use Desmond’s phrase(s), a fertile or fecund void which is the “overdetermined” source or origin of the coming to be which is the ground of all becoming.  Absolute nothing is a problematic concept in any case after the existence of anything, which must constitute (and at this point our time-bound material language begins to break down – we are at the boundary, the “wall” between time and the timeless: beyond is the Beyond) which is (so to speak) the comprehensive primal “first” Reality, or It-Reality. Whatever name or symbol we use to denote this “non” phenomenon which nevertheless constitutes the phenomenal universe (hence it is not just an abstract concept), it transcends our time-bound organically-based-yet-transcendence-tending logic: our perception. And yet we can apperceive it; we can imagine it/It, we can come to the realization and understanding that our Necessity must be predicated upon It/it. Tragedy, and the experience of tragedy, perhaps especially and usually unwillingly, can lead us back to a sense of this reality “beyond” reality. It can uncover, so to speak, a trace of our passio essendi so long eclipsed by our subsequent conatus essendi.1

So, how should this affect how we react to a natural catastrophe such as the Indian Ocean Tsunami? First, it is important to realize that this tragedy, like all tragedies, is an event clearly, and, like all events, including ourselves, it has taken place, or is taking place, in time-space (where we live our material lives, the earth is our World, after all); obvious enough, perhaps, but only in this limited sense of the material restriction of time-space to the quotidian. Yet the death and the damage that this disaster has inflicted upon us is all-too-real.2 And so we may be tempted to curse our gods, by whatever words or symbols (say, “chance”, “luck”, or even “malice”, for example) we use to denote that which supposedly determines our fate in the universe; to blame them or “it” for a cruelty and callousness that goes beyond (almost – but, in reality, comes nowhere near) what human beings inflict upon themselves. Or we may even be tempted to make excuses for our “gods”, as if god was no more than an intellectual question or proposition, apologizing for god in some way, such as those that, to quote Giles Fraser (from a source I am unable to locate) “seek some clever logical trick to get God off the hook, as if the cries of human suffering could be treated like a fascinating philosophical Rubik’s cube in need of an ingenious solution.” We may, more reasonably perhaps, blame ourselves, calling the tsunami a consequence of our ecological tampering with nature. Yet none of these “explanations” seems to offer much consolation. The dead are still dead; and the living still have to live on with the remnants of shattered lives, and many will never recover what they may have once had either emotionally or physically.

Yet, and this is my second point, it is also just as important to try and understand, and not simply imagine, apperceptively (which “Anselmian” imagining, interestingly, may be “easy” enough in itself) which, then, is seen here as more (further? deeper? realer?) than “just” imaginatively in the sense of fantasy, that this event in Thing-Reality is NOT an event in It-Reality. Logically enough an “event” cannot “happen” outside of time and space and It-Reality, as we have seen, must be beyond these, just as it is beyond the merely physical. Of course understanding, or even “understanding” why we cannot understand this (that it may be impossible for us to “reduce” this doubleness to univocal certainty is absolutely to the point) may yet be a significant consequence of our seeing our condition as metaxic: uniquely singular (and thus valuable) individuals and (holistic) participants in a (dynamic, temporal) whole that, too, even as it can seem a timebound materiality is nevertheless a wholeness of wholes that is yet reaching toward the ineffable non-temporal/non-material whole of the Beyond.

Not, ultimately whole and part, but whole and whole: an originating whole that gifts the universe its being, and lets be its freedom agapeically in the sense that only the origin has the power to gift the power of freedom to that creation which is thus genuinely wholly free to be for itself even as that origin must finally remain the absolving/absorbing Ground. Thus we can perhaps solve the riddle posed by science: if this, the universe, begins with a “big bang”, and this in turn begs the question, “What bangs?” then the non-temporal original originating beyond is what “bangs”, it is It, so to speak. Thus the temporal and non-temporal are intimately bound and we can possibly comprehend in a sense how even the law of contradiction can be superseded, for although, logically enough, P cannot be both P and not P at the same time, at the metaxic interface, where “the Between” borders the Beyond, and the inescapable imposition of duration here in the quotidian is at its limit, would not the apparent necessity of the temporal, imposed until the limit, be “superseded” by another “logic”? Desmond puts it like this:

“The logic of God is beyond contradiction. This is not to say that God is self-contradictory, but that the unity of God is not a univocal unity subject to the determinacy of the law of contradiction. Our logic is our logic.” (Desmond, 2008, 316, footnote – emphasis in original)       

Therefore if we can apperceive a transcendent “place” beyond time and place which both pre and post cedes us (and, therefore, from which we have “come into being” and to which we must “return”), and I suggest that indeed we can, then we can further apperceive a “place” where this material event in time, this tsunami, has not, nor ever will, happen in the material sense, even as it must be “known” to have happened in just that sense. For by its “nature” It-Reality cannot not know what happens in time-space as it is before and after time, just as it is nowhere and yet everywhere, and thus embraces or “comprehends” time-space and the material events within it: it is not these things but it is their ground. It is the “overdeterminacy”, the “metapotentiality” of the “fecund void”: the It-Reality, where, to reinforce this point once more, the “coming to be”, the origin that originates, “that brings into being and also annihilates” “the becoming” of time and temporal events and yet is also the non-temporal origin beyond both.

Third, as we have seen, we must also use our ability to apperceive to try and understand that we too are ultimately a part of this It-Reality: we too are a part of something which is an aspect of the fertile/fecund no-thing, in which this event, so physical and tragically important for us, has no physical meaning. An It-Reality, or Beyond, where reconciliation, and perhaps redemption, must be a consequence of transcendence, not by just allowing us a different perspective on physical events in time, but by transcending both time and the physical events within it altogether. We cannot speak with further certainty on the quality of reconciliation in the Beyond: it is outside the scope of our spatio-temporally determined language. Although it is not outside the scope of our apperceptively-symbolic-analogic representation (some religious and, potentially, some political symbolizations can be genuine manifestations of this order of representation). This is a form of language-use that gives us what may be our only way of communicating our sense of the Beyond; but it carries within itself always, just as we ourselves do, the tendency to lapse into the hypostasis of losing sight of the fact that it can never be more than speculation.

Our world, then, is let (to) be in its freedom of becoming, thus it is not a question of “blaming” either god or nature, or chance, or even ourselves (although it is important not to confuse this with questions of personal responsibility for individual actions – the question of moral evil), nor can we answer “why” such things happen (further, in this case, than “mere” geological explanations, and such-like), nor why this person died whilst that one lived, and so on, nor is it finally a question of justice, whether we call it Divine or otherwise.3 But it is a question of trying to recognize our apperceptive capability for what it is: our “sense” of the grounding and qualifying of the “universal impermanence,” the process of becoming, and that in the world’s “interplay of coming to be and passing from being in becoming: becoming is a qualification of coming to be by the possibility of not-being or nothingness that is the mark of all contingent happening.” (Desmond, 2008, 167 – emphasis in original)

Yet this not-being or nothingness “cannot have the final word, for after all creation is and the origin cannot be a part” but the source of the freely participative parts, the “more than all, as the transcendence is greater than which none other can be.” (Ibid., 167/168) Yet even as “God’s power is absolute relative to the coming to be” it is nevertheless cooperative relative to the becoming of created beings” (Ibid., 257 – emphasis in original). This is the space for the freedom of created being(s), a freedom of all creation from quanta to a human mind, in which the:

“unconditioned activity of the divine is conditioned relative to the world. The conditioned relation goes with the act of creation . . . So long as the world continues to be thus conditioned, the relation is not rescinded. Its rescinding would be the end of the world” (Ibid., 257).

Thus the universal impermanence of our world, which can seem to us to be an “ultimate nothingness” is nevertheless “not the ultimate”:

“Death returns us to zero. We suffer the passio essendi that no conatus essendi can overcome. Every endeavor to be is dissolved in an ultimate porosity to the ultimate that exceeds us. Is this porosity of death the way of truth (sli na firinne) that opens us to God? If death has a meaning, the meaning is not death.” (Ibid., 168)

It is, perhaps, in this way that natural disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami, and their deathly consequences can still be or can become to be symbols of the fecund void (the nothingness beyond nothingness) of the primal Reality: an approach, at the least, towards “the Truth” which would see that “The primordial origin is not abstract or indefinite, not indeterminate, but overdetermined as overfull. And so, regardless of what the world comes to be . . . there is the prior fullness of eternal life, and nothing changes this” (Ibid., 257). We need to use our imagination to allow us to have faith in It-Reality, that reality-beyond-reality which comprehends us (which is, in effect, in this instance, a signifier of the Beyond, here synonymous with, if one prefers, and as I have been using the term, God, whom we know must logically “exist” beyond phenomenal, concrete [thing-] reality as a non-real reality, which, after all, is what our apperception itself is – something like the voice of god in our heads, so to speak) to imagine a Beyond in which all things shall be well, love reconciled and recompensed, all debts repaid: the summum bonum become the summum consummatum.

None of this renders the consequences of tragedies any less, or any less evil in their blighting of the world and, especially, for human consciousness. And there remains a difference between the tragedy of moral evil that results from individual human decisions, and the kind of natural “evil” we have been discussing here. Yet the Indian Ocean tsunami:

itself (one) the most devastating of losses and destructions cannot materially affect the ‘prior fullness’ the fullness which is ‘overfull’ ‘just because it alone has the power to take into itself the most devastating of losses and destructions, and what happens then, we do not know. Only God as absolute can suggest to us that perhaps, perhaps, what is damned for us, I mean absolutely lost, is given reprieve or another chance. Who among us can say?”(Ibid., 257)  

Have we reached a point where the difference between moral and natural evil is absolved? Who among us can say?

Yet, as I suggested above, we may be enabled (or “empowered”?) to come to understand, or have come to understand, at least apperceptively, and, to say it once more, this is more than mere imagination as a type of fantasy, a little more about the “why” and the “never” in that we can never say why it has to be this way – the “answer” to that lay within It-Reality and/or the Beyond itself. But in the that it is, and the world surely and indisputably Is!, and also is in “flux” as Parmenides and Heraclitus put it so long ago, an impermanent permanence, a metaxic “between” needing a metaxological, balanced approach.

Finally it is a mystery, a secret in the Pauline sense, one that belongs to God that God may or may not reveal, and even then that revelation may or may not be comprehensible to our understanding or penetrable by our intellects. If we want to remove this of any hint of doctrinal overload we can consider the It-Reality of the agapeic origination to be an aspect of the mystery, of what Voegelin calls the “ungraspable ground of being” and Desmond calls the “reserve(s) of God.” We can only accept what is, the givenness of actuality of our world in this cosmos (and also accept, as we must as free beings, our personal and collective responsibility towards it) and hope for what is to come.



Desmond, William (2008): God and the Between. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

Voegelin, Eric. (2000): Order and History Volume 5:  In Search of Order, Collected Works Volume 18, ed. Ellis Sandoz, University of Missouri Press, Columbia, Missouri.



1. The passio essendi and the conatus essendi are concepts used by Desmond to denote the contrast between an original passion and love of life in its most primal sense, and the later accretions of our individual self-structurings as we deal with the exigencies of life (in all its comic and tragic senses) but which can produce a scotosis toward these more primal feelings; think of Wordsworth’s “shades of the prison house” which occlude the “intimations of immortality.” A meditation, such as the present discussion, is an attempt to reduce or reverse the effects of scotosis; this can be considered its “prayerful” aspect in something like Desmond’s sense: “I would say that prayer returns us to a porosity prior to our autonomy, to the passio essendi before the conatus essendi” (Desmond, 2008, 96). “Autonomy” is here understood as one of consequences of the “univocalising” tendency of human thinking in general to an-other-reality-denying egocentrism.

2. The Indian Ocean Tsunami itself should be regarded, in the context of this discussion, as itself functioning as a symbol: of natural disaster qua “symbolic” disaster. At the same time this should not be taken as suggesting, or not acknowledging, the actuality of this specific catastrophe in space-time, nor that every natural disaster is a unique event in itself, and especially for those directly involved.

3. Our demand for justice would amount to a demand that we be saved from the fundamental equivocity of the world, but this must be a consequence of the radical freedom that is given to the whole of creation – from our moral reflectivity as self-conscious human beings to the formative capabilities of the most basic atomic forces – a freedom that can be paradise one moment and hell the next. Where is the measure, then, of Divine justice in this scenario? Is there no Divine morality? We may demand to know, but Desmond asks crucially here:

Is God just beyond that demand, not because God is beyond justice but because God is not to be measured on the scale of our moral justice? Is there an ultimate good beyond moral good and evil? The question of this ultimate good returns out of the equivocality of good and evil as proportionate to our measure of justice. The question puts our moral measure in question. (Desmond, 2008, 99 – emphasis in original)

Desmond talks here of moral good and evil, but more relevant in this discussion about natural disaster, and in some respects the more difficult question, would regard the equivocality of Nature (of which we are a part) itself as good and/or evil. Yet, it seems to me, that Desmond’s point here (and these are by no means his final comments on this issue) must be equally applicable to such a question, rendering natural evil (so called by us) also, and perhaps more radically, subject to a different kind of morality: an ultimate beyond moral and natural good and evil on our finite measure. This aspect of the “ultimate good,” which perhaps we can begin to intimate apperceptively, which is a kind of Divine morality finally, must be seen as hyperbolic, “as proportionate to our measure of justice,” and as further putting “our moral measure in question.”

Divine morality, of course, is another symbol and not a description of anything. I see it as an attempt to convey some sense of the divine transcendence in “its” otherness beyond worldly things, even as it is the agapeic (the Other that gifts true otherness) origin of the world for the world’s self: the origin is the integrity that grounds the integrity of the world and each of the world’s singularities from the human being “down” to the sub-atomic particles that constitute worldly being en toto. Knowing not just the fall of the sparrow or each hair on a human head but the invisible (to us) elements that, too, are full participants in the fabric of the creation. Perhaps, if one can try and imagine on this scale, we can see every part of the world is in and for every other even as it is for itself and further, that from the “perspective” of the origin, morality would have a very different meaning.

Stephen H. Conlin

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Steve Conlin is an independent scholar whose Master's thesis was on Hans-Georg Gadamer's "Truth and Method" from the University of Southhampton in England.