MLA: This is a much longer essay than normal; I started writing and kept going. It is publicly available (unlike my other newsletters), but if you think it would be helpful to others please do forward the email accordingly. Thanks for reading.
We can name the moment the coronavirus pandemic reached the center of the American consciousness: around 8:30 pm, Central Standard Time, on Wednesday, 11 March. In the span of a single hour, the President addressed the nation, the National Basketball Association suspended all its games, and Tom Hanks announced he has tested positive for the illness. Within 24 hours, every major sports league had followed suit, and the prospect of winning $72 in the office March Madness pool was officially stripped from workers across the country. Things, as they say, got real.
In the shadow of the Cold War, C.S. Lewis was asked to address how humanity should live in an atomic age
. Many of us have forgotten the astonishing fear that gripped the world then—some of us are not old enough to have known it. Yet the terrifying force of nuclear power made the question of humanity’s extinction seem plausible in a new way. Or so people thought, at least. In his response to such sentiments, Lewis frames the atom bomb as a revelation, an apocalypse, that disclosed how fragile the world has always
been. Look beyond the question of the bomb and we would hear the scientists tell us that nothingness is where the universe is going to end anyway. The atomic bomb, Lewis writes, served to “forcibly remind us of the sort of world we are living in, and which, during the prosperous period before 1914, we were beginning to forget.” The imminent
threat of extinction has woken us “from a petty dream,” he went on, “and now we can begin to talk about realities.”
There is something comforting about a bit of Platonism in the midst of a pandemic. For many middle-class people, the security and seeming invulnerability of our lives has deceived us into believing that it always ought to be this way. As the painful memories of 2008 receded from view, we returned to our ‘natural’ condition as the bronze people,
as Arthur McGill once called us
: we do all we can to expunge from our lives “every appearance, every intimation of death.” We bury every sense of dependency and weakness beneath a host of creaturely comforts, inoculating ourselves against the irrepressible sense that are not so godlike as we appear. To live this way, McGill wrote, is neither easy nor natural; it is, instead, “one of the most disciplined and strenuous moral achievements.” Yet the attitude is a lie. We do everything we can to hold on to the illusion that for Lewis the atom bomb so callously stripped off: that we have somehow become free from the threat of death and annihilation. For all our attempts to quell it, we cannot escape (as McGill writes) “despair about the uncanny power and pain, the uncanny destructiveness of death.” Living within a pandemic assures us of that.
A pandemic strikes at the heart of our illusory security in a way that even an atom bomb cannot. Regardless of how imminent it seemed at the time, the possibility of nuclear annihilation remained in the hands of others. Lewis could encourage his audience to allow the bomb to find us “doing sensible and human things” like praying, teaching, reading, and seeing our friends. But resistance to the fear of a pandemic must take an altogether different form, as it is precisely those ordinary acts through which a virus like Covid-19 spreads. While the threat of human extinction forces upon us the possibility that life simply might not matter at all, a virus prevents us from participating in life at all.
We rightly speak of Seattle as a “ghost town,”
because the signs and marks of life are no longer present within it. Moreover, death by atom bomb happens with a bang, not a whimper: we would know how it comes to us. But the death-dealing of a virus has a pernicious, insidious quality: we never quite know whether we are being infected or not. A virus reshapes the whole texture of how we relate to one another, introducing a layer of fear and suspicion that other cataclysmic evils simply cannot do. For most of us, it will not even be the concrete and definite death to which we are headed that will animate our fear, but the vague and indefinite possibility that we shall lose the way of life we knew and contribute, unwittingly, to the death of our neighbor.
In that way, a pandemic makes us acutely conscious of just how fragile our life together really is. Matters were always this precarious, to be sure. And the communities that will be most affected by coronavirus—the working classes, the aged, and the sickly—have no delusions about how vulnerable life can be. But for the rest of us, well, Covid-19 is God’s megaphone to a slumbering world.
What if the fear that we have now, though, is itself evidence that we have feared the wrong thing all along? Consider Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 85:11 (86 in most Bibles): “Lead me in your way, Lord, and I will walk in your truth; let my heart be so gladdened as to fear your name.” We shall someday have a gladness that is free from fear, Augustine contends—but the present insecurities of this world mean that our gladness is imperfect and that fear is necessary. “If we are completely secure,” he writes, we “exult in the wrong way.” The fear of the Lord disrupts that security, by reminding us of the passing nature of this temporal world. This fear is especially important to cultivate in the midst of blessings: “Whenever our undertakings prosper, my brothers and sisters, we should be the more fearful.” This is true even of those things which “prosper for us in the affairs of Christ and true Christian charity.” Make a convert, and remember to take care. Defeat an intellectual foe, and pay heed to the present troubles. “Our rejoicing must not make us careless…” Augustine contends. “Let us not expect security while we are on pilgrimage.”
The fear of the Lord perfects our natural fears, by reminding us that there is one who may touch what death cannot: our souls. The hope of the Gospel sets us free from the anxious panic to preserve our own lives at any cost. It relativizes any concern for our own security or safety, and even that of the species. It is “part of our spiritual law,” Lewis writes, “never to put survival first: not even the survival of our own species.” We may follow the “law of love and temperance even when they seem to be suicidal.”
Yet by turning our eyes beyond this life, we are given it back: “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation,” Lewis goes on, “than a determination to survive at all costs…Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best.” The Lord’s perfection of our fears does not mean their abolition, at least not in every case. Covid-19 is a palpable reminder of how deeply insecure our lives really are, of how vain our pretenses to control the world can be. Fear of the coronavirus is not the fear of the Lord. Yet it is a sign of such a fear, a shadow that has fallen across our path which reminds us to look upward as we walk. Our freedom from the fear of coronavirus in Christ is freedom to fear coronavirus. When we are baptized into Christ’s death, we are liberated for life—for its completion in the knowledge of God, yes, but also for its preservation and protection. We may fear the coronavirus because we fear God, who loves the irreplaceable and fragile life he has given to each of us. For when we love our lives as Christ does, we shall be prepared to lose them like he did.
Such a ‘chaste fear’ must be embodied within a pandemic, if a people are to escape the crushing reality of our fundamental fragility. There are ways of going wrong everywhere. Like Rudy Gobert’s flippancy
, we may be so presumptuous about our standing that we disregard our responsibility to resist the operations of death at work in Covid-19. Or fearing such operations, we may withdraw ourselves entirely, hoarding our resources while we watch the world burn. Between this presumption and despair lies the practice of hope, in which we responsibly sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our neighbor, incurring risks to our own health and well-being when theirs is clearly at stake.
Such practices begin with the ongoing gathering of God’s people around his word and table—the very inverse of the ‘social distancing’ which is currently being demanded of us (and which I am practicing). While churches have been vectors for spreading the disease
, prompting the Vatican to shut down masses through Italy
, meeting together in celebration of Christ’s resurrection is the Christian’s central act of defiance toward death.
Don’t greet each other with a holy kiss—indeed, stay a good six to ten feet apart, wear masks and gloves, and take every other precaution
. Limit the size of your services to fifty, yes, and run them non-stop over the weekend so everyone can safely attend. Cancel every gathering but the worship service. Encourage those who are sick or acutely vulnerable to stay home. But if we are to leave the house at all—as surely some of us occasionally will do—we ought do so first to bear witness to a life which would accept death for the sake of knowing Christ and to be fed for the work God has called us to do. The end and summit of the Christian life is the source of all our other acting as Christians, such that to cease to participate in it is to close ourselves off from the very life we need to embody God’s grace within a pandemic.
If we will not gather together—and I would need to make a much longer case to persuade a reasonable reader we should—we ought at least be prepared to leave our house for the sake of extending resources and fellowship to the ill, aged, and other shut-ins who will be beset by loneliness in the days to come. While our first priority will be toward those in our churches who are unable to come gather with us, we cannot forget our neighbors. There will be a great need to share resources with those who lack them, to resist the possessiveness and pride that so dominates our consumeristic mentalities by having all things, for this next season, in common.
Just over one decade ago I gave a talk critiquing online churches
. During the Q&A, someone defended them using just this scenario: online churches would be able to bear unique witness to the Gospel, they claimed, in the midst of a pandemic. It was my friend and mentor John Mark Reynolds who offered a rejoinder: it will be the Christians who go door-to-door like the Christian nurses who gave their lives in the midst of the bubonic plague, he said, that persuade the world of the truth of the Gospel.
Those practical proposals may be wrong. Yet whatever direction our path takes, we must begin by asking for it to be illumined by the great light of God’s grace. A pandemic could easily exacerbate the divisions that have wrecked America public life: it might allow the seeds of hostility to grow, turning neighbor against neighbor in more explicit and violent ways. The presence of the people of God in its midst, though, is the only antidote to the ruinous distrust in our institutions and each other that this pandemic threatens. The church may act in ways that will appear foolish, by subjecting ourselves to danger while saving others from harm.
But the only way trust is restored within a people is if one party heroically accepts the burdens of suspicion, and extends an extraordinary care and grace to those who are in need. There is no better time than a pandemic to begin practicing the disciplines of hopeful and courageous witness—because the time a pandemic discloses is the real time, in which God is urgently hastening the world toward its dissolution and reconstitution in Him.