A weekly column by Father George Rutler.
“What if?” is a simple game, also known as counterfactualism, in which one speculates as to what might have happened if events had taken a different turn. What would have happened if Caesar had not crossed the Rubicon, or if Lenin had been prevented from re-entering Russia? Such conjecture resembles what a computerized generation has come to call “virtual reality.” What is almost real is definitely not real and may lapse into nothing more than daydreaming, but speculating about the “What if” can help us understand the present.
This requires a mind willing to exercise itself, and a knowledge of history, so it is not very popular in many quarters. Winston Churchill may have over-exercised his mind when he whimsically wrote an essay titled, “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg.” And he enjoyed being able to correct President Roosevelt who thought the battle took place in 1864. We might ask: “What if there had been no Black Death? . . . if Henry VIII had stayed Catholic? . . . if Napoleon had not lost at Waterloo? . . . if the scholars at Bletchley Park had not cracked the German code?”
Of course, we cannot go “back to the future.” The past cannot be altered, and while the future can be shaped, it cannot be stopped. We are living proof of that, having once been the future. For those who play “what if,” the problem, and blessing, with the Incarnation is that eternity and time intersected. Jesus never had to speculate about how things might have ended up differently, because to the bewilderment of everyone, even his own apostles, he knew that all things had been planned and that his “hour” had come. What if Jesus had never been born? That is a question asked only because he rose from the dead. Otherwise, his birth would have been forgotten along with all the others once inscribed on the census rolls in Bethlehem. But what if there had been no Resurrection? There would be no eternal bliss, no saints, no sacraments, and daily life would be worse than before the Resurrection: the cruelty of old paganism would by now have turned the whole world into something like North Korea, there would be no benign science, and the best moral guides would be like the Cynics and Stoics, but without their remnant virtues.
John Greenleaf Whittier wrote, “For of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’” But that is the sadness of dreamers, not saints. Like Saint Anselm, who asked, “Cur Deus Homo?” – Why the God-Man? – the saints do not bother with “What if” but only ask: “What are we going to do about it?”
“The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). While our culture increasingly is sinking into the misery of living as if He had never been, those who prefer reality rather than its imitation, say “Laetare! Rejoice!”