Friday, 15 October 2010

De Profundis

Like Alexander Chancellor, I was struck (if not necessarily surprised) by the readiness with which many of the Chilean miners, their families, rescuers and observers, thanked God for their deliverance. (Though I don't share his congratulation of the doctors involved for their rather mean-spirited refusal to allow the miners alcohol or cigarettes.) Of course God had nothing to do with it. At a pinch, I suppose, one might blame God for causing the mine to cave in, trapping the miners underground; but thereafter the story has been purely a human one - the resilience (physical and mental alike) of the miners, the technical expertise of the engineers who bore down to the pit and constructed the escape pod, the dedication of the families, the refusal to give up hope: none of this was in any sense supernatural, and it is all the more impressive for that.

"What do they think God was doing when nearly 500 people died in a Chilean earthquake early this year?" asks Chancellor. A fair question. The usual response among modern theologians is that God does not either cause or prevent natural catastrophes (if indeed this was a natural catastrophe) but rather sustains and fortifies people during these ordeals. So that even amid mass death those who survive feel an urge to thank the Almighty for their deliverance (as though they had been preternaturally marked out to cheat death) and those who have lost loved ones pray for strength and draw comfort from their faith. The logical conclusion of such arguments is that God actually causes such disasters to enable people to demonstrate or discover their need for faith; few, though, venture so far into such a morally dubious theodicy.

Incoherent it may be philosophically; but psychologically there's no mystery. It's the "no atheists in foxholes" phenomenon. What really struck me was not that the miners' natural response to being rescued was to drop to their knees in prayer, but the prevalence of religious language and metaphors in the coverage of the story. Not only was the rescue been hailed widely as "a miracle"; the miners' hot and dark underground prison was commonly referred to as "hell", the return to the surface as a "rebirth" or even a "resurrection". Like Lazarus, they had emerged alive from the tomb. The rescuers were saints and angels. Prayers had been answered. From darkness, into light... Only the sight of two women, the wife and mistress of one of the miners, fighting over their man, provided an incongrous reminder of the messy reality of the human condition.

These Christian (rather than just generically "religious") metaphors may seem obvious, but they aren't the only ones available. The collapsed mineshaft was occasionally described as a dungeon or a prison, and the miners' situation was compared to that of submariners or long-term residents of the international space station. To me, the film from inside the mine during the rescue revealed a space more womblike than tomblike; indeed, the somewhat phallic rescue pod, moving alternately into and out of the cave via a narrow borehole, looked disconcertingly like something I once saw late at night on Channel Five. A Pagan rendering of the story might have the earth goddess holding the miners being safely in her nurturing womb and providing them with the air and water they needed to survive during the darkest days when no-one on the surface knew if they were alive or dead.

But no. It was Hell. If nothing else, the ready availability of religious metaphors for the miners' ordeal and eventual (here we go again) salvation gives the lie to the complaint regularly voiced by church leaders in Britain that society has lost connection with its Christian heritage. The old theological clichés are still there, just below the surface, ready to be called upon at moments of catastrophe or grand public drama.