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The Spiritual Value of the BP Oil Leak

July 12, 2010


The Spiritual Value of the BP Oil Leak

By Rev. Robert Barron

I grant, of course, that the BP oil-leak in the Gulf of Mexico has been an environmental disaster, perhaps the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. But I also think it might carry a certain spiritual value. How would I explain this gnomic remark? Well, the gusher a mile below the surface of the ocean has confounded everyone. BP executives look and sound befuddled; the crews using the most advanced technological tools to stem the tide of oil are ineffectual; our smartest scientists can’t seem to come up with any solutions; and the President who was hailed, just a few months ago, as The One, is stymied by his daughter’s plaintive question, “Daddy, have you plugged the hole yet?” I don’t point all this out in order to mock the scientists, businessmen and politicians who are, presumably, striving to solve the problem; I do so in order to draw attention to our profound vulnerability and our inescapable finitude. 

At the dawn of the modern era, the English philosopher Francis Bacon declared that knowledge is power, by which he meant the power to control the forces of nature and make our lives more comfortable. And not long after Bacon, Rene Descartes urged European intellectuals to forget about religious abstractions and concentrate their energies on “the mastery of nature.” These amount to the most followed marching orders in history, for from them have flowed what we characterize as the distinctively modern sciences and the technologies that have revolutionized human life. We have computers, televisions, nuclear weapons, operating rooms, anti-biotics, electrical lights, airplanes, and automobiles, precisely because we listened to Bacon and Descartes. Now, I’m for all of these things (well, maybe not nuclear weapons), and I would never want to return to a pre-technological world. However, I agree with many of the postmodern philosophers who have pointed out how the very success of the scientific paradigm has conduced to a hyper-confidence, even an arrogance, on the part of modern people. We are so accustomed to solving our problems through the development and application of the right technology that we begin to think that we are, indeed, the masters of nature—and this is spiritually dangerous.

The classical and medieval philosophers spoke of the radical contingency of the world, by which they meant its fleeting, evanescent, non-self-explanatory quality. Things come and go. Nothing lasts forever. We don’t last forever. And no amount of scientific or technological progress will change these stubborn facts. This is precisely why we must look outside the physical universe for final stability, meaning, purpose. As the Scripture has it, “only in God will my soul be at rest.” And this is why it is spiritually healthy when we self-declared masters of the universe occasionally get reminded of our own contingency and insufficiency. This reminding can come through sickness, through moral failure, through the fear of death—and perhaps even through a hole that we can’t seem to plug.