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Does Everything Happen for a Reason?

As I grew up in the 1990s, few hours of television were as sacrosanct to me as Quantum Leap. I was already a lover of science fiction and fantasy thanks to Star Trek and comic books, but Quantum Leap had something extra. Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), a man unstuck in time, leaped into other people’s lives to set right what once went wrong. Every episode was different, but there was a trajectory to the mythos. Things were supposed to turn out a certain way. The universe is supposed to be a just place. The heroics of Sam’s leaps into the past offered me hope for the future, that all would turn out well in the end because the long arc of time moves toward progress, even if there are bumps along the way.

Last year, NBC rebooted Quantum Leap, and the new series is just as fun to watch as what I remember from childhood. In fact, in some ways the new series is more fun, as it shows not only what happens to the leaper, Dr. Ben Song (Raymond Lee), but also what happens to the scientists in our time as they try to bring Ben home. Also, Ben is able to do something Sam could not and jump outside of his lifetime, allowing us the fun of seeing him battling outlaw gunslingers in the Old West and even becoming a priest performing an exorcism in the 1930s. Yet the show’s heart is still the premise that history is meant to move toward greater and more enduring good. All events in our lives are tied into a larger fabric of reality that is not purposeless or random but oriented toward the good of all of us.

This understanding of history reflects an attitude that seems common in our age, despite the reactionary secularism that is now more or less our dominant religion in the West. When the first Quantum Leap began airing in 1989, belief in anything resembling Judeo-Christian dogma was already waning, but the trappings of religion were still common enough. All of that is gone now. Scientists and social-media influencers are our priests. Few people feel the need to feign interest in going to church anymore, even on Christmas and Easter.

Yet there remains for many people a desire to understand the events of our lives as part of a wider narrative. We still yearn for an eschatological hope — for an end to history — even though we no longer have any foundations for that hope. The result is that what is left of religion in our time is purely sentimental. A bad thing happens in your life, and someone pats you on the head and tells you, “Everything happens for a reason.”

But does everything happen for a reason? And if so, what is that reason?

People often speak of the universe today in the same platitudinous way they once spoke of God. The Universe knows what it’s doing. Ask the Universe to guide you. But the universe is nothing more than a collection of matter and physical processes. The universe does not care about us, because it is not a person. It directs nothing. So, to what then can we ascribe this gnawing sense within us that our lives are supposed to turn out a certain way? Is it just a comfortable delusion, or is there more to it than that?

In the original Quantum Leap, this sort of philosophical inquiry was unavoidable. Something or someone was controlling the leaps. The supercomputer, Ziggy, could predict with relative accuracy what Sam needed to do in order to leap to the next place and time, but Ziggy was only responding to likely outcomes based on data. The question of why the correcting of past wrongs would ever be a necessary component of what was happening to Sam was not one that even a supercomputer could answer. It seemed to Sam that there was some other force or intelligence at work. He eventually came to believe that it was God who was moving him, and the series is filled with references to the divine.

The reboot operates from a different philosophical premise. The leaps are not random but were programmed by Ben and his accomplices, who were trying to prevent a great wrong, except that the effects of time travel prevent Ben from remembering what that wrong is. There is still a sense of mystery about the whole process, but God is not considered a viable hypothesis, at least not by the major players. In “O Ye of Little Faith,” the episode in which Ben is supposed to perform an exorcism, he asserts that he is an atheist and that science can dispel irrational claims like that of demon possession, which it eventually does. The show takes strong moral positions in almost every episode, but little time is spent wondering what grounds those moral decisions, or how it could be possible for morality to be in any way objective.

Does everything happen for a reason? Well, yes, but even a pure atheist materialist can affirm that. All things happen because other things happen first that set the events in motion. That’s basic cause and effect. But that isn’t what people mean by “Everything happens for a reason,” and it isn’t what Quantum Leap asserts either. The real question is, does everything happen for a good reason? Is there a purpose to the things we go through, or is it all just random luck of the draw?

The problem with reducing religion to mere sentimentality is that it becomes two-dimensional. When I am in the middle of a crisis, someone telling me “Everything happens for a reason” is not helpful. It seems to make light of my suffering, while not offering any concrete advice on how to either endure it or escape from it. The cross, on the other hand, addresses me in the particularity of my suffering. If the Christian claim is true that the center of history is Jesus, the God-man dying for the love of the world, then everything I experience has a connection back to what happened on Calvary. My cross is a share in his cross. I am united to him through my baptism, which means that I get by adoption what he gets naturally. My suffering crucifies what is rotten in me, while leaving me the hope of resurrection and new life.

This hope found in the cross of Christ is the only thing that makes sense of both our suffering and our intuition that things are supposed to work out a certain way. Secular notions of the progress of history assume humanity will experience a continuous moral evolution that matches our development of technology. If we become better and better people, then the world will become a better and better place. But we don’t become better and better people. A short glance at the last hundred years reveals as much. We are just as selfish, myopic, and reactionary as we have ever been, only now we also have weapons of mass destruction and the means to utterly consume ourselves. History is not a linear march of moral progress.

Our sense that things should be a certain way, however, is not wrong. We recognize both that the world is supposed to be just and that it is not, and the cross is the way of resolving that contradiction. Pope Benedict XVI explained it this way:

The purely individual need for a fulfillment that is denied to us in this life, for an everlasting love that we await, is certainly an important motive for believing that man was made for eternity; but only in connection with the impossibility that the injustice of history should be the final word does the necessity for Christ’s return and for new life become fully convincing.

Our lives are filled with sufferings and indignities that make little sense on their own, but the crucifixion of Jesus has inexorably linked all moments in time to that one event. We hope for Christ’s return because the same fruit that came from his crucifixion will arise out of our sufferings. His resurrection points to our future resurrection, as all of creation is swept up in the mystery of Christ’s sacrificial love.

The theism of Sam Beckett makes better sense than the atheism of Ben Song if the world is truly meant to be just and what was once wrong needs to be made right. In the absence of God, there is no right or wrong way for history to unfold. Make no mistake, though, regardless of the way the philosophy is presented, both versions of Quantum Leap point strongly to the eschatological hope of the cross of Christ, even if neither explicitly names it. Both Sam and Ben are strong moral figures, which makes it possible for them to do what they need to do. Each one is an icon of the just man who bears the suffering of others for the sake of setting the world right. Each leap is another small cross that brings with it the hope of the final leap that will bring all of us home.

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