The intended works of man and the unintended works of nature may collide tragically. We sail into the middle of the Pacific Ocean to harvest whales for oil, and one such animal bursts the hull of our ship, leaving us suddenly stranded in tiny boats thousands of miles from land. We launch a spaceship into orbit, and cold weather shrinks the ship's gaskets, causing it to disintegrate and kill the crew. Thus do the impersonal forces that surround us doom in an instant our high ambitions and brave venturings far from shore.
Captain Ahab thought those forces weren't so impersonal after all. Starbuck differed with him: "'Vengeance on a dumb brute!' cried Starbuck, 'that simply smote thee from blindest instinct! Madness! To be enraged with a dumb thing, Captain Ahab, seems blasphemous.'" But Starbuck's objection did not arise from any sort of modern agnostic materialism, in which mere energy and particles account for everything. After all, Starbuck calls Ahab's anger blasphemous. There can be no blasphemy without the divine.
Rage against a dumb brute seems blasphemous to the orthodox Starbuck because ... well, the simple explanation might be that since all creation is under God's direction, rage against a part of creation is rage against God. Indeed, that is exactly why Ahab is enraged -- he wants to "strike through the mask" of the created world to hit the Creator. The less simple explanation is that rage against a force of nature, no differently from worship of a force of nature, elevates the force into a god. Ahab has abandoned the God of Starbuck -- the God of George Fox, William Penn, and the good Quakers of Nantucket -- for an adversarial, animistic god who is bound by no covenant.
Natural disasters, more than man-made tragedies, raise the problem of evil. If there is a god, and it's the God of Starbuck, why does He cause or allow earthquakes, plagues, whaleship sinkings, and O-ring failures? How does the undeniable human suffering that results serve His plan?
The Book of Job, from which the headquote to Ishmael's epilogue is taken, provides one answer, the answer of a man who has seen, felt, and thought much in this world:
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said,
Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me.
Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding.
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Canst thou draw out leviathan with an hook? or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?
Canst thou put an hook into his nose? or bore his jaw through with a thorn?
Will he make many supplications unto thee? will he speak soft words unto thee?
Will he make a covenant with thee? wilt thou take him for a servant for ever?
Wilt thou play with him as with a bird? or wilt thou bind him for thy maidens?
Shall the companions make a banquet of him? shall they part him among the merchants?
Canst thou fill his skin with barbed irons? or his head with fish spears?
Whatever we are, however strong our sailing ships and powerful our spaceships, we aren't gods. A dumb brute, a particle of frost, a cancer cell can cripple us and wreck our works.