Responding to the Virus with Honesty, Humility, and Hope: Lessons from Science and Religion
High Calvary, Mount Saint Bernard Abbey. Image credit: DeFacto / CC BY-SA 4.0
This is the final post in our series ‘Making Sense of Coronavirus with Reason and Faith.’
Coronavirus brings us face to face with our limitations: uncertainty, weakness, and death. This is a deeply painful place to be, but it can be hopeful as well. When we come to the end of ourselves, we see others more clearly.
Surprisingly, the Bible pairs hope with death. It reminds us that death is inevitable but not invincible. We need not fear our limits because the final limit, death, has been overcome. We misunderstand the message by thinking of resurrection as continuous and everlasting life, life without limits. Jesus suffered and died, and he promised the same to all who followed him (Mark 8:31–38). We look squarely at death because death comes before new life.
And so, the Gospel of Matthew speaks of humans as grass, a common metaphor in the Bible for short, fragile, often futile life (Psalm 103:15–16; Isaiah 40:6–8). Grass reminds us of the sheep and the reaper. Jesus said, “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). When time is short and food is scarce, we have a choice. We can hoard or we can share. We can retreat behind walls or we can step out into the unknown. But suffering and death will come regardless. Our power comes from how we face them.
At a time when humans can travel to Mars, find extrasolar planets, slow the speed of light, and communicate from any point on the globe, we can forget how easy it is to lose control. Those of us with health and wealth can forget, for a time, but the blessings of prosperity and technology do not fall evenly on all people. And so, the biggest shock is not the mortality of individuals, but the discovery of limits upon the young, the healthy, the wise, and the rich. Coronavirus reminds us that the elite are also mortal. They, too, must face the limits so familiar to the poor and the outcast.
“The narratives we employ really do matter. They can change how we understand our situation and how we respond to it in action.” Hopeful stories remain honest about our limits but encourage us to embrace them as new ways to learn about self and other. Jesus compared us to grass in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–6). Far from encouraging apathy, passivity, or fatalism, these words call for dramatic and difficult action. It is not enough to refrain from lying; we must tell the truth. It is not enough to refrain from stealing; we must be willing to share all that we have. A Christian response to the virus requires humility and creativity to face our limitations and step through them. We cannot end poverty, suffering, and death; we are only human. But we can face them together and lighten the load.
We need science at precisely this point, where we work through limitations to solutions. Naïve Christianity denies death, but biblical Christianity moves through it. Similarly, naïve science tries to overcome nature, but mature science engages with it. Too often we hear descriptions of scientists and doctors at war with the virus. And yet, at the heart of the scientific method lies an art and a skill for listening to and working with the things they study. Scientists learn to find answerable questions by getting to know their subject. Doctors learn to heal bodies by harmonizing with systems already in place. Most vaccines work by taking part of a virus and using it to train the immune system.
And so, we find that we have new powers — like travelling to Mars (with robots if not people), like finding extrasolar planets (even when we can’t see them directly), or like slowing the speed of light (instead of accelerating to it). Science works best at the border between the possible and the impossible, when you never know how the experiment will turn out.
I cannot eliminate racism, not even within myself (given my personal and family history), but I can face it by listening, reflecting, and trying out new ways to live. Coronavirus reveals the inequalities of our society and gives us hope to face racism and move through it.
I can neither fully isolate myself nor join with others as I would wish, but I can approach isolation and quarantine with justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. I can approach (or not approach) my neighbours in faith, hope, and love, trusting that they, too, struggle with limitations.
This series has been all about science-engaged theology and how narratives help us face the virus. Dr Thoko Kamwendo brought to mind the sorrow and hope of being lost and finding ourselves again. “I know there is no normal to go back to, but I am here to help you build a new one. (And I’ll bring snacks).” Revd Dr Kathryn Pritchard encouraged us to think about where we are and where we’re going: “resilience requires flexible goal setting and an approach which is based on core values.”
For my part, I follow the progress of vaccines. I look for new ways forward as Christian and as a citizen. I know the answers will be both unexpected and wonderful. And I accept that I will reach my limits, eventually even death.
Coronavirus reminds us that we are not in control and, much to our chagrin, never have been. It brings us face to face with our mortality, our neighbours, and the limits of our lives. And now we must choose hope or fear. I choose hope. And I will keep telling the stories of Christianity and science that embrace our limitations, invite us into closer relationships with God and neighbour, and bring us through death into life.
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