The world changed forever on July 16, 1945. Somewhere in the remote basin of the Jemez Mountains in northern New Mexico, the first nuclear bomb was detonated. Though this was just a test, secretly and simultaneously two other nuclear bombs were being prepared for wartime deployment.
Less than a month later, they were used against Japanese populations. “Little Boy,” the ridiculous nickname for, of all things, a uranium bomb, was dropped from the Enola Gay over Hiroshima at 8:15 a.m. on August 6, 1945. One minute later, 66,000 people were dead and 69,000 injured from the 10-kiloton atomic explosion. Nagasaki was attacked three days later by “Fat Man,” a plutonium bomb responsible for 39,000 deaths and 25,000 injuries.
On that fateful summer morning in July, Robert Oppenheimer, the lead scientist from the now familiar Manhattan Project, quoted the Bhagavad Gita. “I am become Death,” he said, “the destroyer of worlds.”
Three years later, German theologian and exile to America Paul Tillich published The Shaking of the Foundations. Quoting the Moffatt translation of Isaiah 24:19, he writes, “The phrase, ‘Earth is split in pieces,’ is not merely a poetic metaphor for us but a hard reality This is no longer [prophetic] vision; it has become physics.”
Twenty-first-century Christians, worried over the ground shifting under them in shaky financial markets within a world still troubled by war and made less secure by nuclear proliferation, can find great solace in dusting off copies of this theological classic.
Tillich reminds us to focus appropriate attention upon two orders: one human ”the order of history; and the other divine ”the order of the eternal. Products of both, we are met with two possible directions, two choices that confront us just as they have confronted all people throughout every period of history. After the “foundations of this place and all places begin to crumble only two alternatives remain ”despair, which is the certainty of eternal destruction, or faith, which is the certainty of eternal salvation.”
Kirk Stephenson is an illustration of the former. This 47-year-old millionaire banker and father of an 8-year-old recently threw himself in front of an express train in England. The apparent suicide is believed to have been caused by the mounting pressure in the credit crunch. Many did the same in the stock market crash of 1929.
Others decided to endure. They stuck it out. They kept the faith. They survived. No one can predict the exact details of the future, but if Tillich is right, the foundations will always shake, tremble and crumble. Our ultimate hope is not in a political solution, a political party or a political candidate. Like those great prophets of old, may we be confronted by the transcendent and holy One, placing our faith not in the foundations, but in the great God, the ground of our being, who provides them and, if destroyed, can recreate them.
In these troubled times, our hope can be in nothing less.
Mark Johnson is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.