There’s an old joke that begins, “There was a flood.” (I’m writing from Houston, by the way.) “The water had covered the first floor in a man’s house when a boat came by. ‘Jump in,’ they called out. ‘No,’ said the man, ‘God will save me.’ The water rose until the man was on the second floor, when another boat came by. They called out for the man to get in. ‘No,’ he said, ‘God will save me.’ The waters rose higher until the man was on his roof. A helicopter came by and dropped a ladder. The man refused, saying, ‘No, God will save me.’ The man drowned. And when he got to heaven, he questioned God. ‘Why didn’t you save me?’ To which God replied: “Gee, I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What did you want?”
I tell this joke to my students when we’re talking about Thomas Aquinas’s metaphysical notion of creation. Creation, for Thomas, is God’s complete and continual imparting of “being” to all that exists. If God were to stop “creating” a thing, it would immediately cease to exist. And yet, things really do exist. God’s work as creator and the existence of a thing are not mutually exclusive; rather the second depends on the first.
So too with God’s actions in the world: God can and usually does work in and through natural causes. Natural causality in the universe and God’s divine causality are not mutually exclusive. The first depends upon the second, but they both operate in their own ways, just as when I cut wood with an ax, I cut the wood and the ax cuts the wood – me, as primary cause, and the ax as secondary cause. It is not “either-or”; it is “both-and.”
Nearly all Christians understand this fundamental truth, which is why they were out rescuing people in Houston last week and helping people clean up in Hurricane Harvey’s aftermath. They didn’t say, “God will take care of it, so I don’t need to.” They said, “God will take care of it in and through me. I must be an instrument of God’s will. I am called upon to be Christ’s hands and feet and arms now.”
This is the message you heard over and over if you watched the news. To Marx’s charge that religion is the “opium of the masses,” one could rightly reply from the experience in Houston last week (and innumerable others throughout history) that, far from being an “opiate,” religion appears to be an extraordinarily potent stimulant, especially during times of crisis. The masses are using opium alright, and at alarming levels, but it’s got nothing to do with Christianity.
There are some anti-theists, however, who insist on imagining that all Christians are like the man in the joke, ignorant, and not like the men and women who came out in droves to help others, inspired by their faith in God. A recent cartoon in Politico shows a “redneck” Texan with a Confederate flag T-shirt (naturally) being rescued by a helicopter, crying out: “Angels! Sent by God!” To which the serious rescuer putting a life vest on his wife left behind on the roof replies: “Er, actually Coast Guard. . .sent by the Government.”
You get the picture. The silly yokel thinks God saved him. The serious-minded Coast Guard rescuer knows better. It’s a classic “either-or.” This cartoonist has obviously not met many of the “first responders” in this area. For his own reasons, he clearly enjoys picturing them as sharing the same attitude about religion he has. Most don’t.
Christians who believe in the sacramentality of all creation have no trouble accepting that God can work in and through natural causes. This is no “proof” for the existence of God of the sort that would convince an atheist, of course, but that’s not the point. No one is trying to beat the atheist into intellectual submission with these Houston rescues. It’s the atheist who has to insist that, if a natural cause such as a Coast Guard rescuer is involved, then God can’t be.
Who is being close-minded and intolerant?
The cartoon is imbued with another unfortunate piece of “either-or” thinking. Notice that the “Coastie” makes a point of saying he is from “the Government,” while the Texas rube has a sign on his house proclaiming “secede” and a flag that says, “Don’t tread on me.” This latter detail is odd since that flag first flew on a Colonial Troop Ship in 1776, and is still flown on U.S. Navy ships during times of conflict.
The artist’s implication is clear: “How well do you think you’d do, Mr. Redneck Texan, if the government wasn’t here to save you?”
Except, that’s not the way it happened, was it? What helped save thousands of Texans from a New Orleans, Katrina-like fate was that no one waited around for the federal government. Neighbors got to work helping neighbors; the “Cajun Navy” came to town from Louisiana and other parts of Texas; and yes, the city, county, state, and federal governments each played their parts – largely without rancor, finger-pointing, or credit-taking.
This wasn’t “either-or,” it was “both-and.” Catholics call this “subsidiarity.” Christian faith didn’t cause people to wait for God as if “waiting for Godot.” Besides, the results of a secular faith in government are not always as efficacious.
There are forces abroad in American society today that benefit from and thus prefer “either-or” thinking. Isn’t it time we suggested the benefits of “both-and”? It isn’t God or natural causality, it’s both – each in its own way. It isn’t national government or private citizens, church groups, and local governments, it’s all of them – each playing its proper role, working together to help real people who have real needs.
“Either-or” attitudes often result when ideology takes precedence over people. “Both-and” thinking is necessary when the heart of your beliefs, whether secular or religious, is serving the real needs of others.