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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > July 2010 > The Spiritual Value of the BP Oil Leak
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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.

Posted: 7/12/2010 2:49:23 PM by Word On Fire Admin | with 3 comments


Comments
Dr. Jose Otero
Dear Father Barron,
I agree with many of your points. Namely, that in our modern lives, there is a tendency to abandon spiritual life, and so to fill this chasm we rely on science. Science can never substitute a religion because science is not the quest for truth. Rather, science is a method/intellectual approach that we use to answer specific questions. Hence, there is good science (i.e., well designed science) and bad science (i.e., poorly designed). So wholeheartedly I agree that relying on science to explain the greatest mystery of life is wrong on many levels. After all, truth cannot be qualified as good or bad.

However, I strongly disagree that the oil spill has in any way inherent spiritual value. This disaster was unnecessary and caused by human error. Furthermore, the only solution to this problem will be through the use of modern technology. I cannot see any spiritual connection with this.
Respectfully,
Jose
7/13/2010 1:13:58 PM
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Josie
Dr. Jose-

I don't think Father Barron is trying to say that the oil leak has any "inherent" spiritual value, as if it happened for the purpose of teaching us a spiritual lesson. It sounds like Father agrees that we must do all we can to curb its effects by using the tools of this world. The spill is awful, tragic, terribly unfortunate, maddening, etc., etc. But, what now? His point, it seems to me, is that we can look at tragic situations retrospectively and glean spiritual insights from our often off-kilter relationship with the things of this world. The spiritual value is revealed in the way we deal with the situation, not in the situation itself. In this light, it seems that everything has some sort of "spiritual connection" to us in so far as it engages us and forces a reaction. The connection proves to be valuable when we humbly submit ourvelves to God in radical dependency-- this is not some sort of disconnected interior disposition, but we allow God to inform our understanding of ourselves in light of the tragedy, and we act accordingly with the help of His grace.

On a lighter note, the cliche line--"the best way out is through" holds true here. If we have to go through this oil spill catasptrophe, allowing it to shed light on who we are in the presence of God seems like the best way.
7/13/2010 1:57:46 PM
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lina
Dear Father

Not only this, can we ever create a Drop of water!?
8/3/2010 3:56:40 AM
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