The new coronavirus variant SARS-CoV-2 is gripping the world. Borders are closing, economic activity has been forced to come to a halt for an uncertain period. The invisible enemy is transmitted easily and multiplies before its onset becomes apparent to the patient. This allows it to spread rapidly and particularly endangers the elderly and sick in our society. Not everyone has yet grasped the problem. The number of people infected is doubling every two to three days and we struggle to envisage this exponential growth. The number of sick people and deaths is clearly rising, but today’s figures only show the number of cases from several days ago. Health-care systems are threatened with overload*. There are as yet no remedies, only testing possibilities, but too few of those.
From an evolutionary point of view, the “success” of the virus is, unfortunately, understandable. Even if it is debatable whether viruses, which always need a host, themselves constitute life, they share features of it: they obviously reproduce and, at least in this case, in a way which generally allows their host to survive. Now this should not be interpreted as “selfish” or otherwise, but is simply part of the mechanism which generated all life on Earth. The miracle of life and of its beneficiaries also has its horrors for human beings, who emerged from these same conditions.
But is this biological explanation sufficient for us?
What makes us human is the fact that we look for the meaning in things, that is, we interpret the world with reference to ourselves. An initial reflex is perhaps the question of who is at fault. This search for a scapegoat is ancient, but it does not help. One can also look for more meaningful answers: on a higher level, are these happenings perhaps a good thing? The virus is achieving within a short space of time what the climate movement could only dream of: aeroplanes are grounded, pollution is decreasing, the planet is recovering. Is the planet defending itself?
Some people also believe that the virus could perhaps be a punishment from God, for any of a number of reasons. I do not share this concept of God and I wonder what the people who are disseminating it understand by the love of God. I think that the rapid spread of the virus is rather making visible the highly-connected nature of modern human society.
One might ask whether God has left the world to its own devices. But it would also be a strange “Father in Heaven” who just watched to see what happened in the end. One might well wonder what is “very good” about this nature, in the way that the Bible describes creation (Genesis 1:31). Nature and creation are, after all, not the same thing: the idea of creation is an interpretation of nature in a particular light, that is, from the viewpoint of faith.
But, in these times, is it really possible to imagine that God has ordered everything well? This question leads quickly to the thought of a punishment from God, whether in a religious sense or, as part of a naturalistic philosophising, perhaps as a kind of revenge on the part of the planet.
The vindication of God in the context of the suffering of the world, known as theodicy, was particularly brought into question following the great earthquake of Lisbon. When I worked with scientists, I understood that plate tectonics together with its earthquakes are necessary so that a planet can host life at all. This is, as it were, a defence of natural events from a longer-term perspective. The conditions necessary for life, one could then say, which also produced us human beings, are simply such that viruses also have to exist. Do we humans in general think in too self-centred a way? Should we show more respect to occurrences of nature, of which we also form a part?
I believe that we should certainly look after ourselves. And we should definitely try to control nature to our advantage, while bearing in mind our interconnectedness with ecosystems and planetary boundaries.
From a faith perspective it is a unique feature of humankind to have been created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). This entails a responsibility for this creation, for our fellow human beings and for natural resources, for we can obviously reflect on our actions; this distinguishes us and at the same time characterises our responsibility. To me this means not only management of natural occurrences, but active structuring of the world. I therefore by no means reject technological development per se, but see it as essential to our survival, if correctly managed. Let us be glad that we have science, including modern medicine, which is also one of the fruits of technological development.
Humankind has long been regarded as the crown of creation, this being justified by the hymn of creation (Genesis 1) amongst other things. More recent interpretations have, however, pointed out that the high point of the work of creation is not man but the day of rest, the Sabbath. All the same, the creation up to this point, everything that God has made, is called “very good”. There is an ancient interpretation from a rabbinic midrash on Genesis 1, which asks provocatively what is meant by “very good”. The answer given is: death.
This appears offensive. I have learnt and understood the interpretation to mean that the limiting of our life creates room for new life – whereby death is understood to mean death after a full life, that is, dying in old age having had one’s fill of life.
Now, this is obviously not always the case. Many people die far too young. At least from a Christian viewpoint, death therefore does not have the last word, and the groaning of creation (Romans 8) is an indication that God in accordance with the symbol of resurrection has long been working on bringing forth a new creation. I also believe that God is not merely watching us, but is with us in our pain and suffers alongside us in the dark side of this world.
But this raises new questions along the lines of “Why did God not make it better straight away?” The only answer that occurs to me is that the experiences that we have and that characterise us in this life are turned to the good and have a role in the life to come. And that God forgives and lovingly transforms our bad aspects, remembers our good aspects and will grant us new life.
We have a choice about how we will one day be remembered: here and now we can also have the experience of showing respect from a distance and offering conscious charity and help to our fellow human beings - hopefully both at the same time. One example might be going shopping for neighbours who are no longer able to do it themselves and leaving it in front of their door, while taking all due precautions.
The goal of creation is rest. The fact is that we have now gained a breathing space to consider our activities on this planet. Let us use it well.
*Published in March 2020
God creator creating the world, graphic collage from engraving of Nazareene School, published in The Holy Bible, St.Vojtech Publishing, Trnava, Slovakia, 1937 by fluenta © Adobe Stock #142394690
Nightly planet Earth in dark outer space. Civilization. Elements of this image furnished by NASA by dimazel © Adobe Stock #302537669