We humans are contingent beings. That’s just a fancy way of saying our existence depends on another. The dictionary defines contingency as: dependent for existence, occurrence, character, etc., on something not certain, liable to happen or not; uncertain; merely possible.
Of course our main contingency rests on a necessary act of God, who wills that we should exist and is the primary cause of our existence. Consider the dignity that this bestows. Whatever my imperfections or challenges, I exist because God wills that I exist. I am here for definite purpose known fully to God. There are none of us here who are a mistake or accident, none of us who have no purpose. All of us have this dignity bestowed by God that: Before I ever formed you in the womb I knew you and appointed you (Jer 1:4).
We are also contingent based on any number of secondary causes. Most notably we are dependent upon the fact that our parents met. This of course had billions of necessary connections that had to take place for it to happen. First they had to exist and that had depended on their parents meeting and all the right combinations happening for every ancestor, going back through the generations for thousands of years. All this was necessary for me to have the exact genetic combination that make me, me.
And once they did exist our parents had to somehow meet. And their meeting was contingent upon billions of factors that led to the moment in just exactly the right combination. For example:
- There was any number of dangerous moments in the years leading up to their meeting when either of them could have lost their life, yet, the moment passed.
- Scarlet fever almost killed one, but did not.
- Perhaps one of their fathers could have taken a job in a distant city and moved the family there, but did not.
- Perhaps one or both of them could have gone to a different college than they did, but did not.
- Perhaps one of them could have had a flat tire on the way to the party where they met, but did not.
- Who knows, any number of third party factors may or may not have intervened.
- Perhaps someone was missing from the party due to a cold that fateful our parents met each other, instead of the one who was missing.
Yes, we are very contingent beings. The number of possible combinations that came together exactly as they did so that we exist just as we do is mind-boggling.
Our contingency also reminds us the profound debt we owe to others. Consider how profoundly we build on the foundations that others have laid, how we stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, either in time or in some causal chain. All of our technologies depend on previous insights and discoveries, stretching back to the beginning. Simply going to the store and buying groceries sets up a necessary chain too massive to really imagine:
- There are the farmers,
- There are all the industries and people who supply the farmer
- The seed suppliers
- And all the research and development behind the vigorous hybrid seed
- There are the fertilizer suppliers
- There are the processes, tools, tool makers, truck drivers etc., et all who help the fertilizer suppliers
- There are all the tools and machines the farmer has
- And all the industries and people that make and supply those tools and machines.
- There are the farm workers,
- Truck drivers and all who supply and equip them including the entire oil industry that makes the gas that runs the trucks.
- There are railroads that help move the product, and all who laid the rails, perform maintenance, built the rail bridges. And all who supplied them everyone of them.
- There are the local food processors, warehouses and distributors and all who make and supply their equipment, supplies and materials and maintain it and improve its efficiency of the processors.
- There is the local store and all its employees, equipment, training of employees, suppliers and providers of maintenance, tools, their suppliers
- And on and on.
All this, and more beside, so I can pick up a tomato and put it in my basket.
As I walk about my parish I am struck at the mind-boggling number of things and people that make possible what we do every day. The causal chain stretches back in time and widely across the current time. It amazes me to think how much I depend on others to do what they do so I can do what I do.
- Had others not scrimped and saved to build the Church, where would I be?
- Had others not maintained it, where would I be?
- If parishioners were not generous now and in the past, what resources would I have?
- If others had not effectively handed on the faith, who would be in my pews?
- And what of me?
- What will happen to others after me if I fail to do what I must?
- How critically do I see my own role in the great causal chain?
- What if I fail to be generous?
- What if I squander resources?
- What if I fail to make improvements?
- What if I fail to evangelize or witness to the faith?
- What if….?
It is perhaps too much for us to think about. But every now and then it is good to think how dramatically contingent we are, and how interconnected, and dependant on others we are for even the simplest things.
Two key words emerge from such a meditation: gratitude and responsibility. Thank you Lord, for the endless number of people who, each day, and stretching back in time, make possible what I enjoy today. Thank YOU Lord, who are the first cause of everything there is. Please Lord, keep me faithful to my task and help me to be a strong link in the chain of all things.
This song says, I need you, you need me, we’re all a part of God’s Body. Stand with me, agree with me. You are important to me. I need you to survive. And as this song is sung watch people build great pyramids. Consider how dependent the ones on top are for those below them to be strong and to do their part. This is us: contingent, dependent, and responsible.