The COVID-19 pandemic has been a shattering event for humanity. Worldwide, there have been more than 1 million cases and 60,000 deaths.
In the U.S., nearly the entire population are subject to stay at home orders, pushing the economy into free-fall. More than 1,000 people are dying every day.
But, strangely, there is no cultural narrative about this event. President Donald Trump issued a National Day of Prayer Proclamation for March 15 that asked for God’s healing but did not say much about the virus. We have no story to tell ourselves.
Does this virus hold any ultimate meaning for us?
America has moved in the last 20 years toward a genuinely non-religious society. While three-quarters of Americans say that they are members of some religion—around 70 percent identify themselves as Christian—non-affiliation is rapidly growing and regular attendance at religious services is in steep decline.
New forms of spirituality may replace traditional religion. But, for now, the weakening of a common religious orientation, and the absence of deep knowledge of any religious tradition, have led to cultural acceptance of materialism as the most persuasive account of why things happen.
According to materialism, the universe is simply a collection of forces and matter. In this view, the jump of this virus from bats to humans is just bad luck. Such threatening transfers are inevitable as humans come into increasing contact with exotic animals and global transportation networks promote their spread.
There are steps we can take to protect ourselves, and we might learn lessons about globalization and scientific expertise. But the virus itself holds no meaning. Things happen.
There is a more spiritual view of nature that offers a different interpretation of the virus. Levi Sucre Romero, a leader of indigenous peoples in South America, told an international conference in March that the virus “reminds us that the balance of the Earth is in danger” due to deforestation, the destruction of natural diversity, and other environmental threats.
This spiritual view can take a more aggressive form in which people say the virus is “Nature’s Revenge,” and that the Earth is “fighting back” against human abuse.
This response can be expressed in a scientific format. In the Emmy Award winning documentary, “Journey of the Universe,” evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme describes a mysterious feedback loop in which carbon was withdrawn from the Earth’s atmosphere over a four billion year period, offsetting a 25 percent increase in heat radiation coming from the sun.
This reduction of carbon protected life on Earth by maintaining a relatively narrow range of temperature fluctuation. Swimme speculates that the Earth may somehow compensate for threats to life.
The virus has certainly slowed the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, at least temporarily. This could be seen as another such feedback loop maintaining stable temperature.
But these views remain at the fringes of the culture.
With the coming of Holy Week and Passover, Christians and Jews are reminded that in their traditions, God works in history. What do religious leaders in these traditions say about the virus?
Ralph Drollinger, who leads Bible study groups for some Trump administration officials, wrote that America was experiencing the “wrath of God” for homosexuality and, strangely, environmentalism.
Revealingly, however, Drollinger later claimed this was a misinterpretation of his remarks.
Drollinger’s embarrassment is surprising. In the Bible, it is certainly not unusual to explain natural threats as emanating from God’s judgement. Think of the storm threatening the ship that Jonah boarded to escape God’s command.
Apparently, however, this kind of traditional theological explanation is implausible, even offensive, to modern sensibilities. Someone like Drolliner, who is in public life, hesitates to invoke God directly as the cause of disaster.
Pope Francis, as close to a world religious leader as humanity has, did not point to the wrath of God as an explanation for the virus. In his “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer” addressing the virus on March 27, the Pope did accuse humanity of being “greedy for profit” and ignoring God’s “reproach” as we carried on our selfish activities, “thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick.”
But the Pope’s basic message was one of reassurance, not judgement. Just as Jesus calmed the waters in the Gospel of Mark, when the disciples called to him for help, we are not abandoned by God in this trial. We need to have faith and practice solidarity.
Though customarily thoughtful and inspiring, Pope Francis’s message treated the virus as something simply natural that tests our response. He never said God was involved in the virus’s arrival.
Yet, why should believers treat an event this momentous as just natural?
As the Haredi journalist Jonathan Rosenblum points out, the virus bears a striking resemblance to the plagues visited by God on the Egyptians. Rosenblum himself also does not call the virus a judgement of God. He says only that such animal viruses might represent a “Divine hint” that we are losing our humanity.
Indeed, Rosenblum praises the response to the virus by even non-religious people as the practice of the Mitzvah of self-sacrifice undertaken purely for the sake of others.
We may view the absence of condemnation by most religious leaders as an advance. But, it also stands as its own kind of judgment.
Americans no longer have a religious faith that can interpret events in the world, good and bad, as part of God’s plan. Unfortunately, we have not developed a convincing alternative account of reality that can help us come to terms with this crisis. We have no idea why all this is happening.
The ultimate meaning of the virus may be that it reveals a culture without a story. We have lost something important, maybe crucial.
We don’t know who we are or why we are here. In the future, we may become committed materialists who can flourish in a world without meaning. But we are not there yet. For now, we simply cower at home, bewildered, lost, and afraid.
Capital-Star Opinion contributor Bruce Ledewitz teaches constitutional law at Duquesne University Law School in Pittsburgh. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Listen to his podcast, “Bends Toward Justice” here.