In his latest “From the Chapel” post, OSV publisher Scott Richert writes that “it has…
From the Chapel — June 13: Be the rain
“From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.
I checked the weather before I went to sleep, hoping to time my 8-mile run today (which should take me across the halfway point of the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee) for the best combination of heat and humidity. No rain was forecast, and the graph of temperatures and humidity looked like it does on an ordinary June day here in the Midwest: temperatures rising from the early morning hours until about 6 p.m., and humidity dropping on an inverse curve. (My ideal running weather is before the temperature peaks, and after humidity has dropped below 50 percent.)
A few hours after I went to sleep, though, I was awakened by the sound of rain, which has continued on and off for the last five hours. And the forecast has changed accordingly: Today’s high temperature is now expected to be about 10 degrees lower than it was forecast last night, and the humidity will bottom out an hour or two later.
When I was young, weathermen were the butt of jokes, because their predictions were so hit or miss. (Actually, no one took note of when they got the forecast right; only the misses really registered, which tells us something about human nature and our impatience with error.) Today, forecasting tools are much more sophisticated, and a massive amount of data is being fed into them constantly.
And yet sometimes they still can’t get it right.
What’s true about the weather applies in spades to human behavior. One of the frustrations that those who have attempted to model the spread of COVID-19 have faced is that the virus isn’t transmitted in a vacuum. Human actions can change the expected pattern: That was the whole point behind “flattening the curve.” But because we have moral agency, human actions are never fully predictable.
In the early 1980s, I became fascinated with Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” series — or rather, with the idea at the heart of it, because, as a stylist, Asimov was a hack, and even in my early to mid-teens, I had no desire to read bad prose. But there was something about Asimov’s idea that mathematical models could be used to predict human behavior across centuries that appealed to me, as a math and science nerd who was also fascinated by politics.
I became convinced that Asimov was right: Given a body of people that’s large enough, it’s possible to predict the broad outlines of their behavior. It’s an idea that I found compatible with the Catholic understanding of original sin: In the aggregate, we’re going to act more like Adam and Eve than like Christ.
But there’s the catch: Christ broke the mold. Through his incarnation, death and resurrection, he provided both an example of how to leave the old Adam behind, and the grace necessary to do so. He threw a monkey wrench into mankind’s predictability.
Most of the time, most of us will, alas, act in accordance with our fallen nature. That’s why both economic “laws” and exit polls can pretty accurately predict human behavior in the aggregate. But each one of us has moral agency, and we can choose to act in accordance with the will of Christ and in cooperation with his grace. The more we do so, the less predictable mankind as a whole becomes.
People often lament that “I’m just one person; how can I make a difference?” But it doesn’t take a lot of people to change the forecast for humanity. In Asimov’s “Foundation” series, it took only one (the Mule) to wreck the models that worked so well for so long.
The history of Christianity is full of examples of men and women who have changed the course of mankind. But here’s the funny thing: Most of them didn’t set out to do so. They were just acting in cooperation with grace, trying to conform their lives to God’s will. They didn’t need to think big; they just needed to act like Christ.
An hour later, the rain is still coming down, though it has slowed to a drizzle. My day will unfold differently because the forecast was wrong. What changes that will bring (other than not working in the yard), I can’t say.
But I can say this: Whenever you have the opportunity, disrupt the forecast. Throw a monkey wrench into a world shaped by original sin. Cooperate with God’s grace. Be the rain.
Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.