I have lived in Santa Barbara, California for the past four years. In that brief time, my neighbors 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 foliage on the hills just north of my home. As I was standing one Saturday morning on my front lawn, staring uneasily at the flames, a retired fire captain stopped his car and yelled out the window, “Bishop, what are you still doing here? Embers are flying everywhere; this whole neighborhood could go up.”
We were all relieved when, just days later, rains finally came and doused the flames. But that welcome rain became, in short compass, a deluge, 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 called the Borderline, located in Thousand Oaks, 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 don’t rehash all of this negativity to depress you! I do so to make a theological point.
All of the tragedies that I’ve 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’m talking about the radical contingency 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 its 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 contingency principle 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 defenses. 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.
Why shouldn’t this perception simply lead to existential despair, a Sartrean sense of the meaningless of life? Thomas Aquinas has the answer. The great medieval scholastic said that the contingency of a thing tells us that it doesn’t contain within itself the reason for its own existence. This is why we naturally and spontaneously look for the cause of a contingent 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 contingent, then we have to look for its cause. And if that cause is contingent, our search must go on. What we cannot do is endlessly appeal to contingent causes of contingent states of affairs. And thus we must come, finally, to some cause that is not itself caused and which in turn causes contingent 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 parlors—because they are providing a pathetic crutch to those who can’t 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 contingency 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 contingency, and an awareness of contingency gives rise to a deeper sense of God.