March 26, 2010

In Praise of Pollution

By Fr. Joshua Allen *
I was recently driving back from the U.S. Naval Base in Naples, and dusk was quickly approaching.  As the wide blacktop wove gently through the lush valleys separating ridges of mountains, we suddenly found ourselves confronted by a panoramic vista of the sky over distant Rome.  The sun was setting, and the fiery hues were the most spectacular I had ever seen.

My breath was literally taken away.  I gasped at the beauty of the colorful panoply spread before the windshield like an invitation from God.  The whole of the sky had mellowed to a hazy rose, with streaks of magenta and fiery red blended in.  A cirrus band of clouds reflected a range of colors from violet to light purple, and the sun was radiating a mellow warmth that added a depth to the colors like a classic Monet but with a watercolor finish.  The spectacle of it was almost surreal.  The conversation stopped, and we drank in the splendor of creation.

And I started thinking.  The Santa Monica pier in Los Angeles, California, is widely regarded as one of the best places in the world to watch a sunset. The reason LA sunsets are so magnificent is that they are catalyzed by pollution.  The chemical particles emitted by factories and by automobiles—found by the millions in LA County—create a refraction environment in the air above the city that contributes substantially to the beauty of the sunsets.  The introduction of foreign pollutants in the air creates a variety of red-orange-violet hues not regularly possible.  During the 1980s, pollution reduction programs helped to curtail the growth of harmful pollutants. However, since the city continues to grow, the sunsets are still astounding.

Here in Rome, we have the same situation.  Rome is a dirty city.  Black soot accumulates everywhere.  Emission standards are low, and Rome is surrounded by mountains, so there is nowhere for the dirty air to go.  As a result, we see spectacular sunsets regularly.

God draws straight with crooked lines.  Despite the long intro, this is not a column about pollution.  Seeing that spectacular sunset on the way back from Naples made me think of a profound truth of faith.  God does not cause evil, but God uses evil to bring about good.

It’s not like I don’t know this already.  Most people who have experienced a trauma in their lives have heard this or something like it.  I have heard it myself.  I have said it myself.  But every once in a while, God smacks us in the face with the beauty of his love for us.

I don’t think anyone would argue that pollution is a good thing.  But it is the presence of pollution that makes those spectacular sunsets possible.  In some weird, perhaps twisted way, do I have pollution to thank for that gasping epiphany I experienced on route A1 outside of Rome?

The answer is no, but it kind of depends on how you look at it.  I have God to thank for making the best of the canvas with which he had to work.  But the fact that we humans have polluted the air gives God something to work with that he did not have before.  It’s not that he lacks any power or goodness or knowledge or anything, but he does lack evil.  I’m certainly not saying that cars and factories are evil; rather, they are good.  But, in operating them for the good, we have to accept some secondary evil, and that evil is pollution.  We should work to minimize that evil to the extent that we can, but there will probably always be a slight negative effect on the environment from manufacturing and driving.

But God, in his goodness, takes that evil and manifests his glory in the midst of it.  This really is an amazing thought—that something objectively bad (pollution) can be used to show how good God is (marvelous sunset).  This is a mystery—it cannot be explained, but only pondered.  

The same principle is at work at times in death.  When my mother died a few years ago, God manifested his goodness and glory through her death.  God didn’t create death.  Death is an evil.  It only came into the world on account of sin.  But it’s here now, and God is going to make the best of it.

But he doesn’t just “make the best of it.”  He makes it better.  I would venture to say that the world is a better place because of the manifestation of God’s glory in a pollution-enhanced sunset.  It’s not a better place because of the pollution, but God’s action turns the pollution into something inexpressibly wonderful.

In the Easter Vigil, the Church sings one of its most profound hymns: the Exultet.  It is the proclamation of Easter, the resurrection of Christ.  One of the lines is as follows:

O happy fault,

O necessary sin of Adam,

which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

Read those lines again!  O happy fault?  Are we really supposed to be happy that sin entered into the world?  

Well, yes and no.  It depends on how you look at it.  We are not happy with the sin itself, but on account of sin, Jesus Christ entered into the world.  On account of sin, he died for us and manifested the profound love that God has for us.  On account of sin, we have become children of God and brothers and sisters of Jesus himself.  The mystical saints say that this joyous result in some way allows us to actually be grateful for that first sin.  Again: we are not grateful for evil itself, but for the way God manifests his glory through it.

Evil is a mystery.  God’s glory is a mystery.  I cannot hope to explain it to you or to myself.  But I find myself in some way happy that Rome was particularly polluted that night, because through that pollution I saw the glory of God.  So maybe I too can say “O happy fault…”
Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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