Where is God in Coronavirus?
Coronavirus is a name given to a type of virus, and although the class was first described in the early 1960’s, the name has been applied to a particular virus which infected humans late last year in China, and have now spread, causing illness and death in a significant part of the population of the world. Coronavirus (its proper name is COV-2-SARS), doesn’t harm most people who get it. Some don’t have any signs of illness. Some have a mild fever, headache and cough and get better quickly, and others have a ‘flu type illness, and recover. A small number get very ill, and some of those die, despite the best efforts of medical staff and medicine.
SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) gave epidemiologists (doctors who specialise in the development and spread of disease in the population) a particular set of problems to worry about. It first emerged in Hong Kong early this century, and a second outbreak in South Korea some years later suggested that it had the potential to become a pandemic (a disease spreading around the world). As we now know, Hong Kong and South Korea took those events very seriously, and learnt how to contain the disease and limit its spread and the number of people who might become ill, or die from it. The role of the Chinese authorities is unclear at present, but whatever the answer is, this outbreak has already caused significant loss of life, and in an effort to control and contain the extent of damage, much of the world will experience disruption to normal everyday life, and economic harm.
It is hardly surprising that many people have wondered how we can continue to talk of a loving God, whilst the world faces disruption and death and damage from this seemingly unstoppable disease. These reactions are entirely understandable, and it would be odd if any of us failed to feel something similar to despair, anger or confusion about how to hold on to our faith in the face of this change to our world and our lives.
In the face of this challenge to our sensibilities and emotions, there is much that our faith can say to everyone about these problems. Some of you will find some of what I have to say reassuring. Others may be angered, and others think it irrelevant. However, I think it is important that we make an attempt to answer these provocations to our equanimity, because coming to terms with what has happened in terms of our thinking is an important, if not a key step in our recovery to a point where life becomes normal again.
The area of theological thought which deals with the problem of evil in the world is termed Theodicy. Not all of what I will say belongs within theology and theodicy, but some of it will. It is important to acknowledge that evil, pain and suffering are a challenge to belief, and unless we find a response which meets the challenge even part way, it really is difficult to continue to believe and worship a God who we believe cares about and loves us.
Theologians will tend to distinguish between what is termed ‘natural evil’ and ‘moral evil’. Coronavirus is an example of ‘natural evil’. Tim Brooke-Taylor died of coronavirus because he was unlucky enough to catch it and his body had a vulnerability to infections of this kind. As far as we know, no-one willed him to die. It just happened because the virus entered his body, and the nature of the infection in someone of his physical and physiological type meant that death happened. Viruses do not have a sentience and they don’t have a conscience. They do not have volition and they don’t decide who they will infect. They do not intend that the consequence of their presence will lead to the deaths of animal and people.
By contrast, we woke up this morning to hear that in Ilford, East London, two young children were murdered and that someone is in hospital with wounds. The police are not looking for anyone else in connection with the murders. Although we do not know the story and circumstances, it is reasonable to surmise that someone did something with the intention to cause serious harm, if not death. Without that intention, and action, those two children would still be alive. This is an example of moral evil.
In relation to natural evil, some ask why God did not create a world which did not have bad things happening. This question appears in the Bible in the book of Job. It is one of the more sophisticated books in the Old Testament, and for some the answer it provides is unsatisfactory. Job is answered by God, as Job has pestered God for an answer as to why he has been afflicted with disaster and illness. God replies that Job’s mind, and the circumstances of his life (and by turn, his perspective) limit his understanding to the point whereby he is so inferior to God in terms of his ability to think and understand, that he has neither the authority to challenge God, or to understand the answer if it was given.
The writer of Job argues from the majesty and glory of the natural world that anyone who contemplates the beauty and awe-inspiring things that we observe in the natural world would contemplate the creator of the universe with a sense of profound respect and wonder. To question the creator in relation to the inconveniences and pains of our limited human existence is not only an impertinence, but an act of folly and conceit.
‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? (Job 38:4)
However, if we accept that this is an argument that holds authority, it doesn’t deal with the sense of pain and anguish that we can experience when confronted by pain, suffering and death. If God loves us, why do we go through this? Any of us who have gone through difficulty, illness or distress can relate to this. If you don’t, then something odd has happened. Some never emerge from this questioning, or if they do, they are angry and seething with a sense that if God loved them, then they would not have entered into the pain and distress that has happened to them.
In times of real and genuine distress, it is sometimes terribly difficult to answer these questions. All that one can do as a priest, or lay worker, is to ‘accompany’ an individual in their time of darkness.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)
I find it interesting that the Gospel of Luke talks of Christ accompanying the grief-stricken disciples on the road to Emmaus. The love of God and Christ was demonstrated to them by an act of accompaniment and listening, followed by the breaking of bread, a liturgical rite, which finally released their minds from the pain and upset that had overcome them.
All of us know that into every life some pain must fall. For most of us, in the pain and misery of suffering, we encounter something which leads to our developing and growing. This can seem terribly trite to someone who has suffered needlessly or who has dealt with grief over a lost child. Sometimes we just don’t understand why things happen as they do. However, in seeking answers with integrity, we can usually find some comfort and peace when our hearts are exposed to love and compassion. Sometimes it comes quickly, but at other times, it is a ‘long journey’. For those of us faith and who have experienced something of life, we are able to acknowledge that God’s mercy and love are infinite. To doubt that or to struggle is not about disbelief or lack of faith. To do so with integrity is an act of authenticity and sometimes bravery. The best and most lasting answers are ones that we discover for ourselves, and it is sometimes through the dark night of the soul that we emerge with new understanding, renewed strength and hearts that are bigger and more resilient.
Learning how to encounter God and to wrestle with our pain, misunderstanding and confusion are not easy lessons. To emerge with metaphorical bruising and aches, may not be pleasant, but as we heal we are usually happier, stronger and more resilient. For those who do struggle, then the best advice is to find someone with whom you can express and explore your feelings. You have to go through these times yourself, but you don’t have to be alone. Finding in your own terms of reference and understanding, the crucified and risen Christ accompanying you on your own particular journey can be a liberating and joyful experience. Christ is able to hear your deepest anxieties and most profound doubts. Feeling pain, confusion and even anger are not sins, but to linger in them needlessly in a negative state of mind is a foolish place to be, regardless of whether you are atheist, agnostic or of faith. All of us sense when we are genuinely questioning, or whether we are in a protracted state of negative thinking.
After the two World Wars of the last century, many theologians struggled to explain a God of love in the face of what had happened. The best answers are works of integrity and of intellectual and emotional struggle resulting in something of extraordinary depth and profound thought. We are told by those who have been troubled (and the best thinking is from the German Philosophers and Theologians) that it is only a God who has suffered who can understand and heal the pain of the world. Christ’s own narrative is one of unimaginable suffering and anguish, physical, psychological and spiritual. It is at the foot of the cross that we encounter the beginnings of answers to questions that can overwhelm us.
Christianity emerged from the crucible of one of the most vicious and brutal acts of genocide the world has known (the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70). One of our contemporary commentators (Snoop Dog) said that the previous generation had to win a World War for us, yet some of us whinge because we’ve been asked to sit on our sofas for a few weeks. This isn’t the place to dive into the complexity of relativity in relation to suffering, but we are charged with the moral responsibility of contemplating what is required of us as individuals and a society in relation to the current situation. For those of us who are uncertain, then the place to hold these questions is at the Altar of our hearts. We are commanded to love God above all and our neighbours as ourselves (not instead of). I leave you to seek your own answers and encourage you in the belief that an answer sought for with truth will persist and serve you well. If it has been forged on the anvil of prayer, then it will be solid and strong.
In summary, Christianity has some answers to the problems around the debate as to why bad things happen. However, for most of us our personal faith and belief informs our search for answers and understanding, and it is the answers we find for ourselves which sustain us and nurture us best. For some, contemplating the richness and diversity in the natural world will guide us best. For others, the experience of encountering love and care during suffering will carry us to a place of understanding. For others who are capable of spiritual discernment, contemplating the life and teaching of Christ will inspire and lead to understanding and peace. Many of us know that a world without pain or suffering is unrealistic, and that some pain can be beneficial. We also acknowledge that evil is often beyond comprehension but faith and history has taught us that our faith emerged from pain and suffering beyond our comprehension. Christianity is formed out of human pain and anguish. It is not a wishy washy sop to those of little or unformed character. To hold faith is an act of courage and depth.
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