Last month, after a limb fell from an elm tree near the Central Park Zoo, critically injuring a woman and killing her infant daughter, citizens wondered, as citizens will, how such a thing could be allowed to happen. When trees kill, as trees will, you blame it either on the tree pruners or on “an act of God.” You are supposed to choose one or the other—last week, Mayor Bloomberg cited the latter—rather than detect any trace of God’s will in the fallibility of arborists and bureaucrats. This assumption owes something to the fact that “act of God” is a legal term specifically deployed to absolve human beings of any fault or indemnity. When God acts, apparently, the rest of us do not. He’s a little like the Balladeer, the Waylon Jennings voice-over, in “The Dukes of Hazzard”: the picture freezes when He weighs in.Okay - one has to be careful with any article that mentions The Dukes of Hazzard :) (But Waylon Jennings brings back some credibility). But now back to the blame game:
Questions of agency, divine or otherwise, dog us these early-summer days, amid a pileup of ill tidings: an intractable war; hints, once again, of economic depression; the deep-sea oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Who’s to blame? Who’s in charge? On the day of the Mayor’s pronouncement, a technician who is working with British Petroleum to drill relief wells told the Times, in response to questions about the state of the damaged well, and about the prospects for fixing it, “No human being alive can know the answers.” A line like that could put a man in a theological mood—especially on the heels of the technician’s previous remark, a triumph of the triple negative: “I won’t say there haven’t been relief wells that haven’t worked.”
Did the technician, with his assertion of earthly ignorance, mean to invoke the omniscience of the divine? Probably not. Was he putting his money on a dead engineer, or a well-informed squid? Hard to imagine. But he had, at least subconsciously, echoed the efforts of B.P. and many others to distance themselves from responsibility and, more to the point, liability. B.P. wishes—prays—that it could call the Deepwater Horizon blowout an act of God. But it is an act of man, no matter how primal, eternal, Biblical, or infernal it may seem.Hmm...okay so we have to pick and choose events or actions that really qualify as "double agency". Of course.
Henderson, a native Alabaman who has lived in Baton Rouge for forty-five years, has lately found himself to be in an apocalyptic mood, as he considers the havoc wrought just to his south. As a believer (“I was raised a Presbyterian, but Farrer made an Anglican out of me”), he can only have faith that God acts through people’s response to calamity, rather than through, say, the suffocation of a fishery and the death of a sea. “It’s at the level of human freedom that you can distinguish between action that is or isn’t underwritten by the pervasiveness of divine will,” he said. Good Lord.