Back in the mid-1950s, Dwight Crandell was assigned to prepare a geologic map of the Puget Sound lowlands southeast of Seattle. The region is characterized by broad, level river valleys separated by forested ridges. Conventional wisdom interpreted these valleys as glacial in origin, deposited during colder periods from glaciers that had since retreated to the heights of Mount Rainier. What Crandell began to find, though, was a different story, one that was much more violent and disturbing.
Glacial deposits are usually not flat; ordinarily they have more of a hummocky, ridged morphology. Crandell noticed that the broad flat valleys between Enumclaw and Auburn appeared to have been created by material flowing into them in a liquid form, then setting like concrete. What Crandell was observing were the remains of a lahar. Lahar is a Javanese word for a massive mudflow triggered by a volcanic eruption. Volcanoes have a lot of different ways to erupt—they can ooze lava like Kīlauea on Hawaii’s big island, they can erupt explosively with super-hot ash and steam like Mount St Helens back in the 80s, they can spit and sputter and belch like Stromboli off the coast of Sicily. Or they can catastrophically collapse, like Rainier did about 5600 years ago, sending a massive mudflow down the White River drainage and all the way to the Puget Sound, almost 75 miles away.
This particular lahar, known as the Osceola Mudflow, buried parts of the lowlands in over 80 feet of clay, boulders and gravel. Sadly, evidence from archeological research near Enumclaw shows that it also buried native settlements. What would residents of that settlement have thought? They would have been witness to the massive eruption of the mountain, they would have felt the earthquakes, and perhaps seen an enormous cloud of ash rising in the sky above the peak. They may have heard the concussive blast. But would they have expected the flood of boulders and debris, flowing at over 40 miles an hour, about to deposit nearly 5000 cubic yards of material over 212 square miles? Their settlement was buried, would they themselves have had the chance to escape?
Dwight Crandell had discovered evidence of massive, broad-scale changes to the geological landscape, changes that can happen in a blink of an eye—geologically speaking. Volcanoes and their accompanying variety of eruptive events are shocking to us; we get so used to seeing the soil and the rocks and the landforms that surround us as permanent, unchanging. The fact that they can be altered so cataclysmically and quickly unnerves us. We’d rather not think about it, that we could be at the whim of such powerful forces. People still build on the White River plain, even though Rainier will inevitably erupt again. At some point, archeologist may unearth stores and homes from Enumclaw, and ask if people had a chance to get out in time.
In Psalm 8, David asks, “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” David’s perspective is that God doesn’t have to think of human-kind, but does anyway, and has a special kind of love for them. Ironically, the suffering Job asks a similar question in Job 7:17-18—“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment?” As Job reflects on the torment he is enduring, God’s attention on him doesn’t seem as benevolent as David apparently sees it. Job would rather that God not be quite as mindful of him, if God’s mindfulness results in the turmoil Job is experiencing. Both of these passages reflect on the promise of God’s intimate attention—how God it mindful of humanity. And, because God thinks of us, we might start acting like we’re the only thing God thinks about.
The reality is that the White River plain is a beautiful part of God’s creation, with the snow-capped peak of Rainier rising to the southeast. And people will inevitably choose to live there—they were living there 5600 years ago, before the Osceola Mudflow, and they will probably rebuild there even if there is another lahar. People build their lives in the shadow of volcanoes all the time, and yet volcanoes still erupt on a fairly regular basis. I’ve been thinking about this in relation to the two passages I mentioned above. David celebrates God’s attention, Job has a more uncertain reaction. God’s mindfulness to humanity is a sword that cuts both ways. God is intimately interested in what we’re doing, how we’re getting on, and thankfully, we know that God’s ultimate perspective toward humanity is shaped by love. Job’s experience, however, shows that we should not get too simplistic about that love—thinking that it only shows up in ways that grant us some sort of physical benefit or prosperity. The position we inhabit in God’s economy—a little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honor according to David—doesn’t mean that we get everything we want. But the bigger issue may be that we aren’t really all that God is thinking about. God’s mindfulness goes far beyond human-kind.
We shouldn’t get caught in a binary understanding of God’s mindfulness—taking either David’s perspective that God’s attention results in our glory and honor, or Job’s conviction that God’s mindfulness results in suffering. A static interpretation of both David’s view and Job’s runs the risk of reducing God’s mindfulness to what God thinks about us, and losing sight of the fact that God is not only immanently intimate with humanity, but transcendent as well. God is not only interested in our human glory or pain, but God has created volcanoes, too. There are events and forces that are so far beyond human struggles and triumphs that when we reflect on them, we can’t help but feel a little insignificant. And God is infinitely beyond the power of even volcanoes. There’s an awful lot that is beyond us, which should give us a sense of humility, and help us temper that “little lower than the angels, crowned in glory and honor” perspective that may get out of control. The reality is that we are not the center of the universe, and we need to remember that. God is mindful of us, but God is still in charge, the center of all things. And the cataclysmic events of creation help reorient us to that fact. God is concerned about our suffering and our joy, but we should never think that God exists solely for our benefit. We exist, instead, for the glory of God.