Saturday, April 25, 2020

Plague Theology


The woman in the new report from England looked to be in her 50s or so. She was in the hospital, in a bed turned to her side in a position to help her breath. She had a mask on for oxygen, and wasn't intubated. The doctor asked her about being intubated, and the woman said she didn't want it. She would have to be put under, and she couldn't be sure she'd ever wake up. "I just want to get well so I can go home. I want to go home to my children and husband." That evening I thought over the interview, remembering her fragile state, and wondered how many people in the COVID-19 pandemic have muttered similar words in the hospital, only pass. It's a grim thought, and yet it is our reality.

As much as theists would like to provide an answer for what literally plagues us, whatever they produce will ultimately only be unsatisfying. Certain conservative evangelical leaders would have us believe that this is God's judgment on the nations for 'sin.' Nevermind that evangelical Christians are as susceptible to it as anyone. Besides, who are they to say? Are they now prophets with a direct line to divinity? Doubtful. Progressive Christians and adherents of other religions based on supernatural beliefs are as unlikely to provide meaning from on high. 
"With circumstances as those we face currently, religious communities typically turn to theology as a way to address the threat. And this often takes the form of theodicy – asking questions like: what can be said about divine justice in light of profound suffering? However, theodicy never satisfies in the long term, and its failure is even more graphic as the coronavirus devours life. In fact, theodicy is a dangerous consideration as it disrupts reason and threatens to challenge faith." Dr. Anthony B. Pinn, You Can't Theologize a Virus
When I was young, in my late teens and early 20s, I found the 'problem of pain' rather uninteresting. I was satisfied that although bad things happened in the world, God would make meaning of it sooner or later. As the time passed and I experienced betrayal, reversals, setbacks, and challenges of every kind, that idealism slowly evaporated. I grew anxious and frustrated. Then something happened. When my faith ended, so did the angst. No longer was I compelled to seek a reason for every bad thing that happened to me. Instead, I came to understand that this is simply life. Cause and effect, human action, and natural events produce results that we experience as varying degrees of good and bad. And so, with COVID-19, I have no need to find a reason for it, rationalizing why any benevolent god would allow so much suffering, death, and sadness. Instead, I understand the basics of how viruses work and how this particular variety of coronavirus has spread.   
"But what does it mean, the plague? It's life, that's all." Albert Camus, The Plague
There are a couple of ways I can speak of what's going on in loosely religious terms.

First, COVID-19 is laying bare the truth that ideology does not match reality. We already had anti-vaxxers and Flat Earthers. Now we have people protesting to be able to get everything back to normal, or at least go back to work, which scientists tell us is a terrible idea. The spread of the virus will happen more rapidly, overwhelming our already stressed healthcare system. The loss of life would be immensely tragic, and the long-term impact on the world economy worse that already will be by practicing self-isolation. Preachers are calling the closures, which often include churches (rightly so) an attack on liberty and their Christian faith. And yet their congregants keep getting sick. The other day I read about a man who had been very vocal in March on Facebook about the novel coronavirus being a fiction created to discredit Trump, and now that man is dead from COVID-19.

People in the United States in particular have had it easy, being able to believe in Trump, a flat earth, creationism, and so forth because they were relatively safe from harm in this country. Their beliefs could hurt other people, like Trumpism with immigrants, lgbtq+ folks, and people of color, but they would be left unharmed. Now, no such safety exists. Their ideology cannot shield them, no matter how much they refuse to accept facts. 
"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it."Neil deGrasse Tyson
Second, since what doesn't matter in this crisis is some higher purpose for it all, we can focus instead on how to respond to this situation. While the worst of what we can be is revealed by faith and ideology hitting the very hard wall of reality, the best of us shines forth with medical professionals and first responders. It's not just them, though. An elderly farmer in Kansas had one N95 mask left from his farming days, and he mailed it to Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York. Mr. Cuomo was visibly moved when he spoke about it on TV. People are pulling together to take food and groceries to shut-ins, assist with food distribution with local pantries, and more. 
"I have no idea what's awaiting me, or what will happen when this all ends. For the moment I know this: there are sick people and they need curing." Albert Camus, The Plague
In closing, I share an example of human compassion and community spirit with a video of a young woman in a Brazilian favela who is doing everything she can to help her neighbors. She stands in stark contrast to Jair Bolsonaro, a man who claims he is too athletic to be harmed by COVID-19, and who speaks out against his own government's efforts to educated the public and curb infections. There is judgment in what we're facing right now, and it isn't coming from beyond our world.