Tuesday 23 November 2010

Pike River Reflections

The Pike River Mine disaster continues to dominate news in New Zealand as the outlook for the twenty-nine miners becomes grimmer by the hour. Among those caught below ground is seventeen year old Joseph Dunbar who was proudly beginning his first day at work. He was due to start on Monday, but leapt at the chance to begin early, last Friday, the day of the blast. This tragedy has struck hard in the small, tight-knit communities of the South Island's West Coast.

What has been striking from the beginning has been the constant repitition of the mantra about "the thoughts and prayers" of so many for the miners and their families. Caught in the limbo of unknowing - the frustrating lack of information about whether any or all of the men are alive or dead - it seems to be one of the few things that can be said. What is remarkable is that this expression comes so freely from the lips of individuals who are famously agnostic and non-religious. What they mean by 'prayers' seems to be 'deep concern,' 'empathy.' Even as I type this a prominent television journalist has just repeated the phrase in concluding an interview. Is Mark Sainsbury really the praying type? Is Prime Minister John Key?

Driving in on the morning commute, I listened to a radio interview with the local Anglican Archdeacon at Holy Trinity church in Greymouth. He opined that it would take a miracle - supernatural intervention - for the miners to be rescued, something he nevertheless was sure was entirely possible. He then swiftly covered his tracks by saying that God was not, of course, obliged to do any such thing.

I don't want to sound critical. The situation remains painfully unresolved and uncertain as people cling to hope, and local churches have deployed to provide much needed support for the community. The Salvation Army is, as always, a very present help in times of need. But I do wonder whether times like these are appropriate for "men of the cloth" to indulge in pious platitudes and dodgy attempts at theodicy. Miners, to quote the Archdeacon again, are practical people, not inclined to place spirituality at the "top of the pops." In the end it's about dedicated rescue teams, international cooperation and human judgment informed by technology and experience. The rest of us are powerless observers; deep concern and empathy are our only possible contribution, but that's not quite the same thing as entreaties and petitions to a seemingly fickle higher power.

What's God got to do with it? Where do supernaturalism and miracles fit? Is talk of such things a comfort or an obscenity?


  1. An American scientist once visited the offices of the greatest Nobel prize winning physicists of all time, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen. He was amazed to find that over Bohr's desk was a horseshoe, securely nailed to the wall, with the open end up in the random chance (it would catch the good luck and not let it spill out). The American said with a nervous laugh,

    "Surely you don't believe the horseshoe will bring you good luck, do you, Professor Bohr? After all, as a scientist --"

    Bohr chuckled. "I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not."

  2. I'm just wondering why there have been so many mine "disasters" in the past few months...a bit too close together to be mere coincidence, IMO.

    CBC ran all-day coverage of the mine rescue from Chile (or wherever it was, I didn't really pay attention, just heard coworkers talking about it), but I don't think in any of that, was there any focus on the CAUSE of the explosion; sounds like this case is the same. I wonder why that is.

  3. Bohr chuckled...

    >"I believe no such thing, my good friend. Not at all. I am scarcely likely to believe in such foolish nonsense. However, I am told that a horseshoe will bring you good luck whether you believe in it or not."<

    Similarly, whether we believe it or not, God decides who live or die(Ps.104:29).

  4. And the article in the paper today said it's likely there's no hope, that the miners are presumed dead.

    Tragic loss of human life.

  5. What amazed me about the Chilean mine disaster was the rescued miners gave God credit for being saved. Yet, when I watched the coverage I saw a lot of engineers and miners doing the rescuing.

    The Pike River disaster is a tragedy for the community and country and my heart goes out to the family members.