One of the questions we ask most often during this crisis is ‘how long will this last?’ Behind this question is an understandable desire to go back to what life was like before and to wish our inconveniences were over. But given the scale of the pandemic and the sheer number of people affected, we would do well to wonder whether such a simplistic wish to return to normal can ever be possible. For people of faith, there are deeper questions to consider here. For instance, ‘is all of this pandemic unfolding under the providence of God?’ And, if it is, then ‘what is God doing and trying to teach us? What is the new equilibrium that will emerge once this crisis is over?’
In this book ‘Spirituality of the Psalms’, Scripture scholar Water Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories that he calls the ‘Psalms of orientation’; ‘Psalms of disorientation’ and ‘Psalms of new orientation’. He traces common patterns in the psalms under those three headings. First, the psalms of orientation. These describe the situation of an individual or a community that was in a certain state, in a certain condition and in a certain space. Then something caused the author of the psalm and/or their community to become disorientated, confused and suffer a loss of control. It could be a great trial, a sudden loss of faith or in the case of the Jews, their experience of exile in 587 BC. Finally comes the third stage of the dynamic process where the psalmist and the community are moved into a new space, given a new trajectory, move in a different direction and live their lives in a different way with new hope. All of this of course is under the direction of God’s providence.
One Biblical giant who best epitomizes these three stages is St Paul. As Saul, his life had a definite orientation. He was a zealous Pharisee who was on a mission to destroy the nascent Church. Then as he tells us in both Acts and Galatians, he had a experience of disorientation, being blinded and confused by the voice of Christ who asked him ‘Saul Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ In later Christian art, Paul is portrayed as having fallen from his horse as we see in the famous painting by Caravaggio as he extends his arms for help, unable to see and blinded by light. Then after Paul recovered his sight, he becomes the greatest missionary in the history of the Church with his life moved in a completely different direction. In his own words, the one who persecuted those for believing in the Lord Jesus had now become a believer himself.
These three categories of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation come to mind as we try to tentatively explore the meaning of the coronavirus pandemic. Before it came to the world’s attention after it began in China, the world was on a certain trajectory. If you read these words on a digital screen, the chances are that, like me, we belonged to a minority in the West who lived comfortable life. We might have had minor inconveniences but we had enough to eat, were not effected severely by climate change and enjoyed the freedoms that we took for granted. Then the coronavirus began to appear in our news bulletins every day as we noticed it spreading west and as it edged closer to our shores. And then the first diagnosis and then the second and the third. And then the first death, the second and the third. And so on. Fear, lockdowns, cancellations, inconveniences and uncertainties. This is the time of disorientation in which we are now living - not knowing how long this will last, not totally in control, not knowing how bad it will get and what will come next. But rest assured that whatever the outcome, we will be living in a different world. It will not be back ‘business as usual’ nor can it be. This is not Christian hope. The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has already moved us into a different space and set us on a new trajectory in which there will be an new equilibrium in the order of the world.
So if God is permitting this evil to take place, what then will be the features of this new equilibrium we can expect for the future? Here caution is needed for it is too early to make definitive interpretations of a situation that seems to be changing daily. Talking with too much certainty about what God is up to is a dangerous business and very presumptuous. Yet, for the believer in God’s providence, sovereignty, presence and action in the world, there is something going on here. God is at work and the new equilibrium will be of his making. Here I tentatively explore four of the possible features of this new equilibrium that may emerge once the dust settles on this current crisis.
Solidarity with all humanity. The virus did not respect borders between countries or boundaries between peoples. We were all vulnerable and the dead come from all over the world. As I pray at this time, I am conscious more than ever of the unity of the human family and how this disease effects everyone. We all live in these extraordinary times together. The recommendations on social distancing serve to remind us of the truth of Paul’s words that ‘the lives of each of us has its effects on others’. This human solidarity is the foundation of the practical response by governments that has been required to fight the virus. But it is about more than being aware of the plight of fellow nations. It is about the need for a new economic order and international financial reform that protects poorer nations and helps them to cope with a crisis like this. Such a new world order would be overseen by a world political authority – an idea by first proposed by St John XXIII in his encyclical Pacem in Terris back in 1963 and re-proposed by Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate in 2009. In the light of the current crisis, the need for such a global body seems more urgent than ever – not just to cope with the virus but to bridge the gap between the rich and poor in this world. As Christians we both act and pray for a new world order where the blindness of the rich man will be healed and the sores of his brother Lazarus be soothed in a badly divided world.
God is God and we are not God. A few months ago, we seemed to be living in a world that was making less room for God all the time. Human confidence was growing with new powers to pass laws to shape the lives that we wanted. The power of freedom was exalted in the same measure that faith in a natural order of things declined. As Jean Paul Sartre used to say, ‘existence before essence’. Now as we pass through this crisis, this confidence has been dented. We have come to realise that there is much out of our control. We are learning the hard way that we are more vulnerable and more mortal than we realise. We are also learning to become a bit more humble with eyes that have a clearer grasp of reality. We have come to realise that God is God and we are not God.
Listen to this testimony from Julian Urban, a 38 year old doctor in Lombardy who is working at the epicentre of the crisis in Italy. ‘Up until two weeks ago, my colleagues and I were atheists…I laughed at my parents when they went to church…Now we realise that we have reached the limits of what man can do. We need God and we have begun to ask for his help…we who were fierce atheists are now seeking interior peace by asking the Lord to help us…I want to dedicate my last breath to helping others. I am happy to return to God while I am surrounded by the suffering and death of my fellow people’.
We hold that God’s essence is love and that love pre-supposes freedom. In making us in love, God gave us the power to be free. But we have used that freedom to play God ourselves and to remove ourselves from his ways and laws. We have become distracted by idols and false gods that have taken priority over prayer and worship. As Pope Francis reminds us: ‘The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations’ (Laudato Si, 66).
God’s passionate desire is that humanity turn back to him and enjoy a loving relationship of friendship where the gift of human freedom is enhanced and not reduced. God wants us to know our strengths but also our limits. He wants us to know our limits, as Dr Urban has come to know in these last weeks. This crisis is bringing us back to the truth that there is a natural order of things, that there is right and wrong, truth and falsehood and that we cannot continue to play ‘god’ without serious consequences. We have to come to the realisation that we need a saviour and that we can’t save ourselves. Our hope is that in the new equilibrium, we humans will come to see ourselves as the creatures we are and understand ourselves in the light of the Creator who made us.
Respect for Human Life. It is said that the abortion rate in Italy has been reduced by 95% since the pandemic hit. Louisiana has seen the first closures of abortion clinics in the US since the crisis. What this means is that while many will die because of the coronavirus, others will live because of it. Again, we might ask ourselves what is happening and what is God is teaching us. Could it be that the global effort to save lives from the virus is helping to save lives from abortion too? In Laudato Si, Pope Francis suggests that the deaths of millions through abortion each year and the denial of rights to people who are poor or disabled is part of a crisis whereby ‘the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion. Then the very foundations of our lives begin to crumble, for instead of carrying out his role as a co-operator with God in the work of creation, man sets himself up in place of God and thus ends up provoking a rebellion on the part of nature’ (para. 117). In this crisis the lives of the born and unborn are intertwined. May the new order of the future include the voices of those who will be alive thanks to this crisis that has given them the opportunity to live.
Care for the Earth. Since the world wide lockdown and mass cancellation of flights and other means of transportation, there are hundreds of thousands of tonnes less of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Since the outbreak of the crisis in China, there’s been a dramatic drop in pollution across the country as it tries to contain the coronavirus. New maps using data collected from NASA and European Space Agency satellites show how nitrogen dioxide, a dangerous gas released by burning fuel, has dissipated since the outbreak. In Venice, the clarity of the water around the city has improved dramatically. Cormorants have returned to dive for fish they can now see. All of this was totally unimaginable a while ago.
Blaise Pascal once said that ‘all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone’. If that is true then now is an opportunity to face ourselves by slowing down and being happy in our own places. As the pause button is pressed on life for a while and as the pace of life slows down, deeper questions are allowed to surface in us. Who am I? Who is God for me? What is the meaning and purpose of my existence? What is my place within this vast universe to which I am deeply connected? The better air in China and the return of the fish in Venice are small but significant signs that mother nature needed to rest and heal from the relentless exploitation of her limited resources. In the new equilibrium after this crisis, perhaps we will listen more attentively to the cry of the earth that has been drowned out by so much noise caused by the restlessness of the human spirit that seeks happiness in places outside itself. In the new orientation of the world, may there be an end to humanity’s ‘claim to absolute dominion over the earth’ and a stop to ‘trying to impose our own laws and interests on reality’ (Laudato Si, 75).
Four signs and features of humanity’s future post-coronavirus. Four signs that are already evident. For us believers, these are signs that God never abandons his people and the world he has created for ‘behold I make all things new’ (Is. 43:18; Rev. 21:5). May we hope and pray for a new future in a new direction where there is a greater solidarity in the human family, where God is restored in his rightful place as the object of our worship and devotion, where all human life is respected and protected and where God’s creation is allowed time to heal and be renewed. Orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. May these days of disorientation be born patiently and give way soon to a new future and a new equilibrium marked by global fraternity, right worship, reverence for life and harmony with all creation.