Every Human Action Can Have Consequences Beyond Fathoming

From Fr George W. Rutler’s ‘Weekly Column’

The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo, 1914

As with quotations that are variously attributed, journalists including Charles Anderson Dana of the “New York Tribune” and John B. Bogart of the “New York Sun” are said to have coined the aphorism: “‘Dog bites man’ does not make the news, but ‘Man bites dog’ does.” Human nature is fascinated by what is exceptional and scandalous. But “skandalon” really means more than that. It is a “stumbling block” that trips up the way mere mortals think things are supposed to be.

Theologically, there is the “Scandal of Particularity.” It has two aspects. First is the doctrine that the Creator of the universe has solicitude for every minute detail of it, even every sparrow and each hair on your head (cf. Matt. 10:29). This has ramifications even in mathematics where the “Chaos Theory” proposes a “Butterfly Effect,” meaning that something as slight as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in New Delhi might cause a hurricane in New York. So too it is with people.

Every human action can have consequences beyond fathoming. There is the prime example of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, that started a domino effect leading to the First World War. His chauffeur spoke only Czech and did not understand the orders of German security officers to follow a route safe from assassins. So he drove according to the original plan and came within feet of a radical Bosnian who had not expected such luck. It might be said that 17 million people eventually died because one man took a wrong turn.

The second part of the Scandal of Particularity is the acknowledgement that Christ, whose divine nature has no beginning or end, came to our small planet with a human nature as the unique savior from sin and death. “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1-2a). His divine nature enables him to see “the big picture” while his human nature involves him in the minutest details of ordinary life. If this is scandalous, it is because presently we are limited to categories of time and space, and we find it hard to think of importance without being overwhelmed by size and power.

In another quotation variously attributed, Stalin is said to have remarked: “The death of one man is a tragedy; the death of a million men is a statistic.” The same dictator mockingly asked, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” He knows now – though a bit too late. But the biggest scandal of all to the limited mind, and so bold that it is refreshing when it expands the mind, is the Lord’s declaration: “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father apart from me” (John 14:6).

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