For me, growing up in Alabama, the waters of the Gulf always held a certain charm. My family vacationed regularly on Dauphin Island, Alabama’s large barrier island not too far from the Mississippi state line. Once part of “New France,” the island was named after the heir apparent (“dauphin”) to the Sun King, Louis XIV. Despite its regal beginnings, we knew perfectly well that this was not Malibu; it wasn’t even the upscale white-sand beaches of the Florida panhandle. This was beachgoing in Alabama and that meant a certain grit: rundown motels with their blue-collar, fishing clientele; a waterscape pocked with remnants of piers ruined by hurricanes; sticky, salty, delicious air; water always a bit cloudy from the tangle of brackish rivers that pour into Mobile Bay from the Mobile-Tensaw Delta; shrimpers with their sun-baked skin, Miller Lite, and cigarettes; brown pelicans preying on unsuspecting mullet; and afternoon downpours announced well in advance by dark clouds galloping across the horizon.

Then there was small Sand Island, a barrier island to a barrier island. Called “Pelican Island” on older maps, it rose enigmatically from the Gulf, a lonesome patch of windswept sand. You could get there only by boat, and once you had arrived, there wasn’t much to do but size up the mystery of being itself. Horseshoe crabs, unchanged for eons, occasionally washed ashore. Seagulls, nesting amid sea oats, would squawk and dive if you got too close. In the shallow waters, you might see a whole school of stingrays—phantom-like platoons scurrying underwater. With luck, you might spot a dolphin just offshore. My family treated them like unicorns, rare and magical. “Look, there’s one over there, right out in front of you.”

Like many others, I was captivated by the tragedy of the oil spill this summer. On the PBS NewsHour Web site, one could view six screens simultaneously showing oil gushing into the water, a wound in the very floor of the world. The underwater lighting and the pipes of the collapsed rig combined with the geyser to create an image both eerie and mesmerizing. Click the mouse and it went away; click it again and there it was, unchanged and irredeemable. I now live in New England, far away from Alabama and the Gulf Coast, but my sadness is not tempered by distance, especially when I consider the thousands of people—shrimpers, fishermen, oystermen, restaurateurs—for whom this has been an immediate, livelihood-threatening tragedy.

In August I had the opportunity to travel back to the Gulf Coast. Sand Island has been transformed into a peninsula by recent hurricanes, but people persist in calling it an island. (Land changes faster than language.) Although the oil leak is now capped, the mood on the Gulf remains tense and uncertain. The tourism industry has been devastated; a local real-estate broker informed me that the island lost 90 percent of its summer rental business. My kids had the run of a condominium complex where we stayed. Driving around the island, you often felt as if you were in a ghost town. Some residents blame BP; some, the government. Others complain about the “media hype” over a horrible but manageable spill.

In the Christ-haunted South, disasters can result in calls to repentance and revivalism. You see a lot of church signs reminding the faithful of one Old Testament verse in particular, 2 Chronicles 2:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” Some churches contrast Jesus’ sturdiness with human shoddiness. As one Baptist church’s marquee puts it: “Man uses WD-40 and duct tape. Jesus used nails.”

Anyone following the news knows that shoddiness has not been in short supply. There’s the shoddiness that led to the spill of course, and then there’s the shoddiness of the cleanup. Determining exactly how much oil and dispersant remains in the water and what to do about it now is an imprecise science, to say the least. The long-term ecological and economic consequences of the spill will weigh on the region for years, maybe decades.

Like anyone from the Gulf Coast, I want justice to be done. I want people to be fairly compensated, and nature restored. I appreciate the political dimensions of the event—how it can and should change some of our policies with respect to energy and the environment. But even as we aim at justice and reform, we should take some time just to gaze, unflinchingly, on the naked cruelty of the calamity, and allow it to purify our affections. Delight in creation meets hard limits in our finitude and ignorance. Sometimes what delights us comes to a sudden and irremediable end, and there’s nothing to replace it.

After the death of a childhood friend, St. Augustine was reminded of that fact. In book four of his Confessions, he famously recorded his world-weariness and restlessness.

Not in pleasant groves, nor in sport or song, nor in fragrant bowers, nor in magnificent banquetings, nor in the pleasures of the bed or the couch; not even in books or poetry did [my soul] find rest. All things looked gloomy, even the very light itself.... Thus I remained to myself an unhappy lodging where I could neither stay nor leave. For where could my heart fly from my heart?

It’s important to remember that the oil spill, unlike the last calamity to befall the Gulf Coast, wasn’t a natural disaster. It was man-made, like the Ixtoc oil spill in Mexico in 1979, Three Mile Island in the same year, and the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded us, often our best, most advanced ideas and achievements incubate ironic and tragic consequences beyond our powers of anticipation. The Gulf oil spill should curb our confidence in technology and strengthen our commitment to prudent regulation, but it should also remind Christians of what medievals called the deep sadness of the world (tristitia saeculi). We will never be able to discern in advance all that we might later regret. “Who can unravel such a twisted and tangled knottiness?” Augustine wrote. “But I do long for thee, O Righteousness and Innocence, so beautiful and comely to all virtuous eyes—I long for thee with an insatiable satiety.”

I thought about that passage from the Confessions as I walked around Sand Island one morning during my recent trip. As I neared the remotest tip of the island, a downpour came. Rounding a bend, I discovered more than a hundred pelicans huddled together in the rain. My presence created a stir, sending them aloft into the wet, gray air. We long for our Creator, who cannot fail us, but we also ache for this sometimes disappointing, disappointed world.


Related: Shoddy Work, Shabby Excuses, by Tom Speight

Thomas Albert Howard is professor of humanities and the holder of the Duesenberg Chair in Ethics at Valparaiso University. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Faiths of Others: A History of Interreligious Dialogue (Yale University Press).

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Published in the 2010-10-08 issue: View Contents
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