Why COVID-19? What is the meaning of this global pandemic that we are all currently living through? This is a question that might sound nonsensical to many readers. It’s a rather embarrassing category confusion. Seeking to find “meaning” in something like a virus is silly, at best.
Why COVID-19? Well, because biology and virology, because wet markets in Wuhan, because international travel, because globalization, because bad hygiene, because stuttering and inconsistent government responses, because poor planning and inadequate resources, because Trump (because, well, why not?). The list could go on. But what does it mean on a moral or spiritual level? Well, nothing, obviously. It’s irresponsible religious lunatics who are forever talking about divine judgment and recklessly declaring what God is saying through this or that disaster or crisis. We’re not money-grubbing American televangelists, after all.
I’m pretty sympathetic to this view. It’s remarkable how consistently the objects of God’s judgment when it comes to this or that disaster fairly seamlessly map onto the enemies of the person claiming to speak for God. I’ve yet to hear of this or that calamity being described as God’s judgment on, say, the greed and charlatanry of religious hucksters. And leaving our distaste for God’s loudest and most obnoxious spokespeople aside, most people—if they believe in God at all—don’t think this is how God actually works. It’s not as though God is up there intentionally and specifically doling out disasters according to humanity’s moral performance. If God acts at all in the world, it’s through natural processes. If God speaks, it is from a distance.
And yet, I’m reflecting upon the question of “why?” more than I have in the context of past calamities. Perhaps it’s because COVID-19 hits closer to home and isn’t a world away. Perhaps it’s because I’ve reached a saturation point with corona-media. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older. Perhaps it’s because I’m growing weary of well-meaning religious exhortations to sit with the mystery of suffering, to lament, to not need an answer. I get all this, but sorry, sometimes I do need an answer. I find myself hungering for meaning in the midst of all this. Yes, Christ suffers with the world and there is indeed deep comfort in this. But I’ve sat with enough people in pain to know that this isn’t all they need. People will settle for truly terrible theological rationales for suffering if the alternative is that there is no meaning to be found and that all Christianity has to offer is an impotent divine co-sufferer.
All human suffering seems to demand an explanation, Ivan Karamazov’s forceful and devastating rebuttal notwithstanding. We need to know why. And we need to believe that all that our planet endures can be healed and overcome. If not, well, why Easter?
On Holy Saturday, the New York Times ran a piece by Ross Douthat called “The Pandemic and the Will of God.” It’s a piece worth reading if only because it accomplishes the difficult task of refusing to minimize or trivialize human suffering without abandoning the human desire to always, relentlessly, stubbornly be seeking meaning in the midst of it all. According to Douthat (and countless Christian thinkers down through the ages), “there is a religious duty to interpret the present moment, not just seek to endure it or escape.” That’s a tolerable way of putting it, I think, even as I recognize how open to abuse a phrase like “a religious duty to interpret the present moment” might be. We can’t seem to do otherwise, whether we’re religious or not (see pieces like this one which, while not overtly religious, are certainly making moral meaning out of the pandemic).
At any rate, I’m sitting this morning with a weighty quote from Douthat’s piece. These are the words of Dominican theologian Father Thomas Joseph White:
What does it mean that God has permitted (or willed) temporary conditions in which our elite lifestyle of international travel is grounded, our consumption is cut to a minimum, our days are occupied with basic responsibilities toward our families and immediate communities, our resources and economic hopes are reduced, and we are made more dependent upon one another? What does it mean that our nation-states suddenly seem less potent and our armies are infected by an invisible contagion they cannot eradicate, and that the most technologically advanced countries face the humility of their limits? … We might think none of this tells us anything about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice. But if we simply seek to pass through all this in hasty expectation of a return to normal, perhaps we are missing the fundamental point of the exercise.
I’m inclined to take this seriously—both that our way of life is, in some important sense, being judged by this pandemic and that there is, in fact, a point to this exercise. That God is trying to tell us something. And that we have a duty to listen.
It’s often been remarked that it was somehow appropriate that this pandemic struck in the Christian season of Lent—a season of trial, absence, suffering, testing, penitence, and lack. I think it’s equally appropriate that the pandemic grinds on into Easter—the season of divine hope that transcends all suffering. As Douthat marvellously ends his piece:
[I]f there is any message Christians can carry from Good Friday and Easter to a world darkened by a plague, it’s that meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.