- Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean of Sheffield, then Durham.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.
Wednesday, 29 April 2020
Chaos, the Virus and God
Most of us in the developed world have never before had this sense of a power beyond ourselves that threatens our very existence. My parents' generation did, living through the war. Survivors of the Blitz used to tell us as children what it was like to greet the morning with relief and gratitude at still being alive after a night of bombing. They learned to live from one day to the next, help one another through seemingly endless ordeals. It brought an awareness of the fragility, and therefore the sheer preciousness, of life.
In this pandemic however, the 'enemy' is far more elusive. We can't see it or detect its presence. It creeps upon us by stealth, lurking as an invisible threat that's all around us, maybe even within us, yet as an unknown, sinister presence to haunt our imaginations and stoke our fears. Not only that, but we can't even find strength and solace by facing this intangible foe by being physically together. There are no bunkers or air-raid shelters where we can hold one another through times of assault. In spite of our digital connectedness (which is a great benefit), we are more alone than we've ever had to be before, especially when we need one another so much.
I've been searching for metaphors and analogies that will do justice to what we are experiencing. To my mind, the image of warfare only takes us so far. But I found a different clue in a recent news item about the victims of the catastrophic floods on the Yorkshire River Don in February. Just as homes were beginning to dry out and repair works getting under way, the virus hit and lockdown was imposed. If you've ever been flooded, you'll feel for those poor householders trying to recover fromi a watery ordeal only to be overwhelmed by another kind of chaos that is putting a stop to so much everyday human activity.
Chaos is the idea I want to focus on. If you think about it, lockdown is how we always respond to chaos or the threat of it. Here in Tynedale, we became all too familiar with floodgates and sandbags in the floods of Storm Desmond in December 2015. As 'biblical rain' was bucketing down outside, I watched the water creep up the cellar stairs over a period of a couple of hours until it was two metres deep (yes, exactly that emblematic measure by which we now calibrate our social distancing). It was slow, it was silent, it was relentless - and it was sinister. How far would it rise? Would it invade the ground floor? That's when the image of chaos became a vivid reality. I was facing an invasion. The good order of my much-loved home was threatened by an enemy I could see (it's true), but could do nothing whatever to stop.
At once I was taken back to the Hebrew scriptures. The Psalms are full of references to keeping chaos at bay, mostly expressed in the language of the flood that was always threatening to overwhelm the dry land and civilised life. 'The floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.' To the Hebrews, for all its life-giving benefits, water was a force to respect and be afraid of. They never forgot the defining myth of the global flood that had all but destroyed life on earth. So they needed again and again to reassure themselves is that there was a power that was greater even than they were, strong enough to banish the waters to their proper place and reimpose order. 'More majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!' (Psalm 93.4).
This idea is fundamental in the first creation story in Genesis. 'In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep' (Genesis 1.1-2). In Hebrew, tohu wa vohu describes the chaotic ocean where, in semitic mythology, malevolent demons lurked, presences that needed to be overcome in a primordial battle with the god before the world could come into being. In Genesis, the separation of light from darkness, waters above from waters below, dry land from sea hint at this mythological battle with chaos. It was all part of the Creator's programme of introducing shape and structure into the cosmos so that it could become a place where life would flourish. When Jesus stills the storm in the gospel story by addressing the turbulent sea as if it were a malign conscious presence, 'Peace, be still!', he is recalling this ancient theme in an act of new creation (Mark 4.39). No wonder his terrified disciples were in awe of him.
I'm wondering whether we are experiencing the virus in this way, as a kind of flood that must be kept within boundaries so that its power to damage is limited. Most of us are locked-down in our homes, safe places that we trust are havens from the flood of infection. But for many they are also experienced as prisons where freedoms are drastically curtailed. Our health and care workers are armed (when they are) by layers of personal protective equipment (PPE) observing hygiene protocols that are as exacting as any sanctuary ritual. All these are necessary acts of defence against the chaotic threat we are not yet able to cure or immunise against. The watery analogy is especially apt when you consider the etymology of the Latin word virus. It means a fluid that has potency to change things, usually in the bad sense of a poisonous liquid or venom. Those who have experienced the effects of the virus in themselves or others describe the saturation of the lungs as akin to drowning. Which is to be overwhelmed by water.
There's an important consequence to draw from this. Water is good, wholesome and utterly essential - in the right place. It gives us life, keeps us clean, provides us with energy. But when it overflows its appointed bounds, it becomes a threat, even a danger to life. The point is that water isn't evil in itself. It's only when it becomes an uncontrolled chaotic power that it has the capacity to destroy. Similarly, without viruses life on earth could not have evolved in the form we know it, nor would we exist as human beings. However damaging viral mutations like Covid19 are to us, they are no more intrinsically 'bad' than water (or fire or storms or volcanoes or earthquakes or any other natural phenomena). They simply are.
So we should be careful about our language. In particular, we need to resist attributing personality to the virus by calling it 'evil' or even 'the enemy' as if it had some devious moral purpose in being out to get us. It doesn't. It just is what it is. In a universe of accident and risk, the only kind where life can evolve and humans come into being, stuff happens. It's unbearably cruel at times. But we're not to take it personally. Nature is already 'red in tooth and claw' as Tennyson said, as capricious against itself as it is against us. It may be a cold comfort to realise that the virus is indifferent to our destiny, and is only being true to its own nature in finding hosts in human beings. Indeed, what we experience as ‘chaos’ is in reality merely following its own rules which can be understood and described, such as the behaviour of the virus in human populations or of floodwater flowing in particular environments. But it's not 'meant' in any ultimate, metaphysical way. We all tend to ask, when afflicted by pain or disease, what we've done to deserve it. But as the Bible's wisdom literature makes clear, it's not only unanswerable, it doesn't even make sense as a question because it misconstrues reality. When they asked Jesus whose sin had resulted in the man being born blind, Jesus' response was to challenge the very assumptions of the question (John 9).
But there's one more aspect to the flood analogy. Just as the chaos of flooding is the result of water violating its proper boundaries, we can say precisely the same about this virus. The science points to Covid19 having 'transgressed', that is, crossed over from one species to another. In the bat (or whatever animal life it was resident in), the virus did no harm as far as we know. In jumping across to human beings, it transmuted into a presence whose effects we are seeing all too clearly. It not only causes dreadful chaos and destruction to the human body, it's also capable of replicating that same chaos in our collective social and economic life together, not to mention our spiritual, mental and emotional health. The body corporate is as much a victim as our physical bodies. Like flood water, it's an alien intruder that has violated its proper bounds. (I'm aware that even this graphic way of putting it may invoke memories of the Alien films and invest the virus with personality and moral agency which it doesn't have.)
What's the answer to chaos?
In the Psalms, God's reign reintroduces order into the realm of chaos by subduing it, driving it back behnd its boundaries so as to contain it and recreate a safe place. Subduing the virus is what social distancing, quarantine, self-isolation and screening are all designed to do, 'flattening the curve' so as to contain within secure boundaries. At the same time, testing, tracing and monitoring help map the way this chaos is infiltrating the population and in time, please God, retreating to its proper place. A vaccine will probably not be the 'answer' to Covid19, but it will be a powerful tool to help curb its worst effects until it poses no further threat to us. (But it's imperative that we learn from this experience how to respond next time a pandemic strikes - which, the experts tell us, is not a matter of if but when.)
We are not to look for a deus ex machina to rescue us from this or any other predicament that ambushes the human race. It's futile to pray that the virus will go away as a result of divine intervention. The chaos of this Coronavirus will not be subdued by divine fiat, only by natural processes such as the virus exhausting itself, or, more likely and certainly more swiftly, and at vastly less cost in human lives, as a result of concentrated human intervention. And theology wants to say that it's precisely through skilled human agency in ordering chaos that the hand of God is at work. I think this should be the clear focus of our prayers, alongside holding victims in our hearts and remembering those who care for them. And the very act of praying in this way begins to lay a template of good order over the chaos because it's fundamentally an act of love. It makes a real difference to the Zeitgeist, the sentient world of thought and feeling in which we experience our life together. It puts positivity and hope back into the system. We mustn't underestimate what this can do.
I think of St Benedict in the sixth century. He lived in the aftermath of the collapse of the Roman Empire, surrounded by the crumbling ruins of a great civilisation whose memory he held dear. It must have felt as though darkness was extinguishing every lamp of knowledge, culture, law and social life for which ancient Rome had been famed throughout the world. Just as the prophet had predicted of the holy city, it must have seemed as if the entire world was unravelling, reverting to that primitive chaos of Genesis, tohu wa vohu (Jeremiah 4.23).
How might the best of the empire be kept alive in these disintegrating times? Not the cruelty or love of display, not the lust for blood and sex, not the self-deceit and idolatry but all that was best in Roman civilisation as Benedict understood Christianity had transformed it: its nobility, its virtue, its public institutions, its art, its discipline, its sense of honour, its spirituality. His answer was to create monasteries, cells of men and women living under Rule, in which the light of civilised life, however precarious, could be cherished and safeguarded. He saw the good order of his communities, and especially the ordering of place and time through the threefold division of activity into prayer, study and work, as vital to a healthy common life. These local efforts at keeping chaos at bay may not have seemed much at the time. But it's hard to exaggerate their influence fifteen centuries later. It's not too much to say that the monastic vision and the movement it gave rise to kept European civilisation alive.
By kindling lights in dark places where people are overwhelmed and frightened, we 'bear witness' to the conviction that chaos does not have the last word. It's a mighty act of faith, of course. But it's the only antidote to despair that I know. We all have a part to play in affirming God’s good order in the face of the threat we face, indeed, helping to establish it in every aspect of our life together. It’s what I understand by the kingdom of God which, says the gospel, is already birthing within us.