Voices March 18, 2020
Responding as rational sheep: a theological reflection on COVID-19
By David Baird
We are still in the early days of this outbreak, and much about the virus and its impact remains to be seen. As the situation changes almost hourly and reactions become more desperate, it becomes difficult to evaluate what is actually a proportionate response.
As our policymakers and employers consult the medical and statistical experts whose opinions must, at the end of the day, inform decisions that will affect millions (even billions) of lives, alongside these perspectives it will be wise (especially for those of us who are Christians) to consider the situation from a theological point of view.
As one theologian among many, I humbly submit for your consideration the following five principles.
1. Humans are herd animals.
It is no accident that the biblical tradition frequently describes God as a shepherd. Like the sheep that bolts from the sight of a wolf or a particularly scary-looking leaf, even one human person’s panic is liable to spook the whole herd.
Let’s keep our heads, then, and respond to whatever threatens us with the calm, deliberation, and proportion of rational sheep. There may be a wolf in the pasture (or uncounted microscopic wolves), but stampeding over the hill toward who knows what other dangers might actually turn out worse.
2. We need each other.
The positive flipside to the above is that we human beings not only profoundly influence each other (and so bear responsibility for our decisions), but do so, at least in part, because we profoundly rely upon each other.
Sit through any postapocalyptic novel, film, or television show, and at some point you are likely to hear someone say a version of “Just surviving all alone … that was not really living; real life involves other people.”
The fathers at the Second Vatican Council described humanity as “social in our deepest nature.” As I understand it, this means relationships with others are not optional to human life. Relationships constitute human life.
For this reason, policies of over-isolation run the risk of undermining one of the elemental characteristics of human life: while quarantines and social distancing are, indeed, acts of justice towards the medically vulnerable, we should not be directing the sum total of our energies to safeguarding physical heartbeats. As vital as this is, we need to balance this concern with actively promoting what might be called the equally vital metaphysical human heartbeat, that is, love.
3. We are vulnerable.
Not only do we profoundly affect each other and depend upon each other (for good and ill), but human persons are also vulnerable because we are, in many ways, powerless. It is not something most of us like to think about, but many aspects of our lives are totally beyond our control.
Modern humanity exercises exponentially increasing scientific and technological mastery over the physical world – which is, at least in principle, a good thing. (Not so sure? Go back and read Genesis 1.) As a consequence, it can become easy to lose sight of how helpless we often still are.
Yes, we frequently can help ourselves and usually should. But in doing so, we should guard against the fallacy that awareness entails governance, or to put it another way, that if I know about something I can also control it.
Sometimes people get sick, and all we can do is sit there, watch helplessly, and suffer.
4. We are all going to die … someday.
Christians in particular ought to be on guard against getting swept up in the (essentially pagan) panic that treats death like something absolute. In that frame of mind, nothing is too extreme when attempting to prevent even the remotest possibility of death, because nothing is worse than death.
Death is bad, certainly. Jesus Christ did not want to die (see his prayer on the Mount of Olives in Luke 22), and Christians everywhere are commissioned to safeguard and promote the precious gift of life.
And yet, crucially, neither death nor physical life are of absolute value for the Christian. There is something better than mere life – eternal life shared in the love of God, the angels, and saints. There is also something worse than death – living without these (see Luke 15:24).
5. We are (and are in) God’s hands.
Finally, let us as people of faith truly remember to have faith.
First, let us trust that God cares for each of us. Second, let us trust that God cares for us as we are and as we care for one another.
God cares for each us as we are, meaning he knows that we are the same physical, vulnerable herd animals that sometimes lose our heads and yet remain capable of making good and less good decisions.
God knows our weaknesses and the risks and responsibilities we face. Let us trust and pray and act boldly in good conscience.
God also cares for us as we care for one another. In times of panic it can be just as tempting to run with the herd as to forget that the herd is composed of people: others can too easily become mere obstacles in the collective crush for the door.
As people of faith, let us not only remember to trust in the love of God for us, but to trust it far enough to risk embodying this love for others.
Christianity has a long legacy of counter-cultural witness in times of crisis. I think it fitting, therefore, to conclude by contextualizing our current predicament.
Writing after an outbreak of plague in Rome in the third century, a Christian named Dionysius recollects:
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains … The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest.”
As members of Christ’s body who are just as mysteriously members of one another, let us not be heedless of danger out of ignorance, hyper-spiritualization of real risks, or lack of due diligence to protect the most vulnerable in our society. But neither let us, out of an abundance of caution, be heedless of living truly human lives.
Rather, let us be people who value love more than life, and in so doing make whatever life we live, be it long or short, worthy of the name.
David Baird is Assistant Professor of Theology at Catholic Pacific College and a regular contributor to The B.C. Catholic.