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By Bishop Robert Barron
Sep 25 2020
I have lived in Santa Barbara, California for the past four years. In that brief time, my neighbours and I have experienced a number of real tragedies.
Just over two years ago, the terrible Thomas Fire broke out in my pastoral region, in the vicinity of Thomas Aquinas College (hence the name). For a frightening month it made its devastating way from Santa Paula through Ventura, Carpenteria, Montecito, and eventually commenced to devour the greenery on the hills just north of my home.
We were all relieved when, just days later, rains finally came and extinguished the flames. But that welcome rain became a flood, prompting a mudslide in the fire-ravaged hills above Montecito. Twenty-five people were swept to their deaths.
In November of that same year, 2018, a disturbed man walked into a crowded restaurant and bar located in the far eastern end of my pastoral region. He opened fire at random and killed thirteen people, including a brave police officer who tried to stop him.
On Labor Day this past September, thirty-five people, sleeping below-decks in a diving boat moored just off the coast of Santa Barbara, were burned to death as fire roared through their cramped quarters.
I have thought of all of these tragedies as we Santa Barbarans, along with the entire country, are dealing now with the coronavirus crisis. I think it is fair to say that, at the turn of the year, no one saw this coming.
No one would have predicted that tens of thousands would be infected by a dangerous pathogen, that thousands would die, that we would be shut in our homes, that the economy would go into meltdown. What seemed just a short time ago a fairly stable state of affairs medically, politically, and economically has been turned upside down. Now, I do not rehearse all of this negativity to depress you! I do so to make a theological point.
All of the tragedies that I have recounted are but dramatic examples of a general truth about the nature of things, a truth that we all know in our bones but that we choose, typically, to cover up or overlook.
I am talking about the radical eventuality of the world, to give it its properly philosophical designation. This means, to state it simply, that everything in our experience is unstable; it comes into being and it passes out of being.
Think of every plant, every animal, every insect, every cloud, indeed of every mountain, planet, or solar system, if we allow for a sufficient passage of time: they all come to be and will eventually fade away.
And though we habitually divert ourselves from accepting it, this principle of the unpredictable applies to each of us. Whenever we get really sick, or a good friend dies, or a weird virus threatens the general population, this truth manages to break through our defences.
Teilhard de Chardin, a theologian-scientist from the last century, said that he acquired a keen sense of his own mortality when, as a boy of three, he saw a lock of his newly cut hair fall into fire and burn up in a split second.
Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval scholastic, said that the eventuality of a thing tells us that it does not contain within itself the reason for its own existence.
This is why we naturally and spontaneously look for the cause of an eventual state of affairs: Why did that cloud come to be? What is keeping that insect alive? Why am I writing this article?
But if that cause is itself accidental, then we have to look for its cause. And if that cause is unforeseen, our search must go on. What we cannot do is endlessly appeal to unforeseen causes of unexpected outcome of affairs. And thus, we must come, finally, to some cause that is not itself caused and which in turn causes unforeseen things to be. And this, Aquinas says, is what people mean when they use the word “God.”
Critics of religion sometimes say that priests and ministers present themselves at moments of sickness and tragedy – in hospitals, nursing homes, and funeral parlours – because they are providing a pathetic crutch to those who cannot deal with the sadness of life.
But this is hopelessly superficial. Religious leaders do indeed go to those places, precisely because it is there that people experience their eventuality with particular acuteness and such experiences open the mind and the heart to God. When we are shaken, we seek by a very healthy instinct for that which is ultimately stable.
At the end of World War II and in the wake of September 11th, churches were filled across our country, and I would be willing to bet, when the coronavirus passes, they will be filled again. I would urge you to read this phenomenon not merely psychologically but metaphysically: tragedy sparks an awareness of eventuality, and an awareness of eventuality gives rise to a deeper sense of God.