Usually, I write here about “purely” ecological processes. Occasionally, we lean in to wonder, spirituality, and religion, and try to integrate these aspects into a coherent whole. A task I for which I inevitably feel inadequate.
The COVID-19 pandemic gives us opportunity (and for many of us, ample time) to consider the deeper questions.
(Here I will provide a few personal musings, and link to some thinkers far more coherent than I. I enjoy engaging with Catholic theology & social teaching, but I speak here for myself and not on behalf of the Catholic women religious who support this ecological work. My family has spent time worshiping with ecumenical, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Anabaptist Christian communities).
First we might ask: What is this coronavirus, and what is the “purpose” of it?
Well, it isn’t a biological species. But neither is it life-less, exactly. Viruses are are weird. They exist “between chemistry and biology.” Not alive, but nonetheless within the Tree of Life. It exists, at some level, simply in order to replicate more of itself. That’s what life (or life-like things) tends to do on this planet.
What is the purpose, ecologically? One might conclude, rather academically, that like any other species, humans have population dynamics that include limits and curtailments by disease, predators, and habitat restraints. Our technologies have really changed how those forces play out, but they still exist.
But the most vexing question at hand is not the “what” but the “why” … why is it causing pain and discomfort among us humans? This is not a new moral/spiritual challenge. By no means do I wish to discount this current suffering, but famine, war, and pestilence have been causes for immense pain and sorrow for ages, long before we had some additional tools of technology and science to mitigate the effects. Humans have always faced this.
And at a personal level, even the singular suffering of a loved one strikes much deeper than the abstract knowledge of massive famines distance in time and space.
The “problem of pain” presents what is probably the hardiest challenge to the idea of a loving God or Creator in the universe. As someone who has not suffered much in this life (yet), I won’t be the one to offer definitive metaphysical answers to the society of the suffering.
My atheist and agnostic brothers and sisters resolve this tension by accepting it as a simple fact of the laws of the universe working themselves out. I have to say that I’m sympathetic. The myriad suffering within natural systems over many millions of years, the small suffering of a single child… why design a system like this?
It’s seems absurd, if not a bit cruel. This introduces some serious cognitive dissonance, as well as our search to resolve it.
I think it timely that we just finished the season of Lent, culminating in the Paschal Triduum. On Good Friday we remembered the crucifixion of Jesus. Jesus showed us how to live, inverting the pyramid of wealth and social hierarchy, offering up a truly fraternal (and maternal) community of belonging. A threat to the political, economic, and religious order, he was tortured and murdered.
Having grown up with some heavy doses of pop-evangelical theology, I took that for many years to mean that Jesus stood in as God’s whipping boy, whose vengeance needed an outlet. I now believe it to be less a story about God’s wrath and more about God’s insistence on resisting evil with love.
The Gospels of Matthew and Mark record Jesus calling out on the cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”
The Scriptures do not record any reply.
What seems to draw me back to the Christian tradition is the incorporation of its own critiques and doubts. Christianity is a religion with developed theological doctrines and traditions, which also celebrates the Rebel who upended doctrines and traditions whenever they impeded the movement of love. It is a system of rites and membership and borders, but celebrates the one who kept looking out to the margins, trying to expand the edges and bring in as many as possible. It is a community, that sometimes subverts and undermines community. A society by hypocrites, for hypocrites.
So here, the doubts and pains are not banished, they are absorbed and held. Yes, there is the Resurrection end of the story as well (another topic for which I’m unqualified), but it is also worth noting that the Gospel of John reports a resurrected body of Jesus still bearing the wounds of crucifixion. The wounds are healed, not erased.
Coming back to COVID-19. Last year I read The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen, who is one of America’s best science writers. In it I learned that viral DNA makes up some 8% of the human genome. Yes, you read that right. Genes don’t just move vertically (descending via inheritance) but also laterally (between species).
Take this for what you will, but we also have just as many bacterial cells on as than human cells. It seems that the story is as much about incorporation & uniting than vanquishing. An echo of “The Great Oneing” that Fr. Richard Rohr writes about.
… … …
Well, I don’t know that I tied that up with a neat enough bow, but you should definitely read these thinkers below (I’ll admit that the world has probably had enough western white male theology for a few centuries, so please share with me some links from other saints and sinners:) :
*A reflection from a friend and retired Episcopal priest, Fr. John Schramm. Fortunately, he has much more pastoral instincts than I, as you can see: “Consolation in Pandemic Time“
*N.T. Wright (who needs little introduction) in TIME Magazine, with a provocative title: “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To“
*For a Wesleyan perspective, see “Is COVID-19 God’s Judgment?” by Dr. Ken Schenck (now at Houghton University, he was my New Testament prof at Indiana Wesleyan)
*Tangentially, this delightful On Being segment, “Asteroids, Stars, and the Love of God,” where Jesuit astronomers George Coyne and Guy Consolmagno are interviewed by Krista Tippet. They touch on the problem of pain later on in the episode.