About Me

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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.

Sunday, 17 May 2020

God, the Virus and ‘Tragic Optimism’

Where is God in all this? That's the question I've tried to wrestle with since  the Coronavirus became a fact of all our lives.  For vast numbers of people in this country and across the world these are terrible times. Where is God in the suffering and dying, the loss and the loneliness, the hopelessness and despair that so many are experiencing in this pandemic? When the world finally emerges from this ordeal, what kind of story will faith tell about it? What difference will it make to the way we believe?

I opened up some of these questions in an earlier blog, Chaos, the Virus and God. I was looking for a metaphor that would help make sense of the threat and disorder that the Coronavirus has posed for the world. I came up with the idea of flood, a pervasive image in the Hebrew scriptures of the primordial fear of being overwhelmed by chaotic forces beyond human control.

All four of the elements believed by the ancients to constitute the physical universe - earth, air, fire and water - are necessary to sustain life. Yet when they break out of their bounds they wreak havoc. I want to write about one famous example in history when all four were let loose at the same time. Because this particular event happened not in some remote country on the other side of the world but to a proud and prosperous European city, it had a dramatic effect on the way people thought about natural disaster. I'm referring to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755.

It struck at around 09.40 on the morning of All Saints' Day, Saturday 1 November. It was remembered as a calm clear autumn day. On a major festival in this devoutly catholic city, churches were thronged with worshippers, processions and carnival-goers squeezed along the narrow streets. The earthquake probably measured about 8.5-9.0 on the Magnitude Scale, catastrophic by any standards. Its epicentre lay about 120 miles offshore in the Atlantic. Within minutes damage to the city was extensive. This was followed by a fire storm that engulfed the centre, fuelled by thousands of church candles lit for the feast and a fierce wind generated by the flames.

Then came the most destructive event of all, three tsunamis that rushed in from the ocean and up the Tagus estuary causing devastation on a huge scale. No-one knows how many were killed in this disaster. Modern estimates reckon around 25000 in Lisbon, maybe 10000 more in the surrounding areas of Portugal, Spain and North Africa. The Lisbon figure would amount to around ten percent of the city's entire population. Death on this cataclysmic scale had not been known in living memory though the Great Plague that had ravaged London in 1665 had killed even more. But it was not only the magnitude but also the character of this calamity that would never be forgotten: how earth, air, fire and water had come together in a deadly embrace to the destruction of so much human life. And that it had happened in the heart of civilised Europe.


What did it mean? - this was the question that preoccupied philosophers and preachers for years afterwards. The overwhelming conclusion among religious people, both Catholic and Protestant, was that the city had been punished for its sinfulness. John Wesley wrote a tract Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon in which he refuted 'natural causes', described nature as 'God's method of acting in the world' and warned that if the message of Lisbon was not heeded, God might deflect Halley's Comet, due in 1758, so that it would hit the earth and 'burn it to a coal'.

You have to wonder how even good theologians could read events with such naivete. You would think they had never read the Book of Job which comprehensively dismissed the idea that suffering reflected a cosmos ordered according to the laws of reward and punishment. What was needed was what the theology of the time could not supply, a new way of thinking, a seismic shift (as it were) away from the discredited paradigms of retributive justice and direct divine intervention to understanding how even violent natural phenomena simply followed the physical principles intrinsic to the way the universe works.

The key thinker in the aftermath of the disaster was Voltaire. He had imbibed the doctrine of the German philosopher Leibniz that ours was the best of all possible worlds. But his sunny (because highly privileged) outlook on life was turned upside down by the Lisbon Earthquake. In his comic novel Candide published four years later in 1759, he has two men, the ever optimistic Pangloss and his pupil Candide undertake a grand tour to see the world. They arrive at Lisbon just as the earthquake hits. They live through its mayhem only to fall prey to the Inquisition: as if natural disaster had not done enough, they were now to be subjected to extreme human cruelty. The bloodied, terrified Candide turns to his tutor and asks plaintively, ‘if this is the best of all possible worlds, what must the others be like?’


The death toll due to the Coronavirus in this country is comparable to the Lisbon Earthquake. It is a catastrophe of the first magnitude, but unlike 1755, this one affects the entire world. This makes it unique among natural disasters in our lifetimes. It would be strange if we did not ask what significance lies in what is happening to the human race. In an article in The Guardian American responses to the virus are examined, and the majority are found to be looking for meanings of some kind, whether or not they are derived from organised religion or particular traditions of faith.

The quest for meaning in the cosmos seems so elusive because it appears to function according to principles that are indifferent to human beings. Our experience at times of trouble is not that the cosmos is necessarily hostile, simply that it doesn't care. That's the conclusion drawn by the world-weary author of Ecclesiastes where what goes round comes round, nothing is permanent, all is ‘vanity’, as light and insubstantial as air. As the wisdom writings of the Hebrew Bible show, faith has to find a way of negotiating the capriciousness of things, living with risk, accident and disaster, turning to the best ends we can whatever happens to us whether it is good or bad. Far from Alexander Pope’s notorious ‘whatever is, is right’, it's more a case of ‘whatever is, just is’.

In such a universe, could it still be ‘Love that moves the sun and the other stars’, as Dante puts it in the last line of the Divine Comedy? One response of contemporary faith is to reflect on the convergence of mind and matter, exploring whether consciousness of the divine could be the goal of the cosmos as it moves towards realising what the Jesuit palaeontologist-theologian Teilhard de Chardin called its Omega Point. Process theology asks whether evolutionary theory, relativity, quantum physics and the cyborg expansion of the human psyche could all be relevant here.

This would still be a universe where things still go wrong, disasters happen and life is damaged. But faith is able to affirm that in an ultimate sense, 'all shall be well' by envisaging how pain, suffering and death are woven into this cosmic ‘process’ that is always moving towards finality. This kind of faith wants to explore how God is present, not above or outside the cosmos but within it, embedded even in its changes and chances. And this ‘withinness’ is mirrored by a personal spirituality that emphasises the journey inwards, towards the centre that we symbolise as the human heart where, as the mystics of all religious traditions teach, God is found. It would mean that the Creator was humble enough to be immersed in the fabric of the cosmos, in the natural processes of the created order and in our own human life and relationships. That would be true kenosis, self-emptying, the ultimate act of love. Just as the Incarnation was. (Or do I mean is?)

Whatever we believe, it seems to me that faith in these times has to be more tentative than before, humbler in the face of a universe we know to be more profoundly mysterious than our forebears of the eighteenth century could have guessed. In particular, contemporary faith must show the utmost sensitivity to pain. With our awareness of suffering, whether due to natural events or human agency, the existence of a deity who is both benign yet ‘in control’ is more and more difficult to articulate convincingly. To many people who are sympathetic to religious faith, traditional statements of theism seem not so much impossible as incredible. They want to know what kind of power we are claiming for God when we address him as the ‘Almighty’, what we mean when we speak about ‘God’s will’ while human hearts break under the burden of pain and sorrow. Theodicy is the study of these questions. We cannot help but ask them, if not during a crisis, then later on. But however we respond, it must surely be provisionally. If we follow the Book of Job, we’re bound to conclude that in the end, the problem of suffering is unanswerable. Meanwhile we have to go on living, and very possibly suffering, and if we can, like Job, trusting and praising God.


What I learn from the Lisbon Earthquake is that at a time of catastrophe the last thing we should do is find refuge in explanations that sound easy or obvious. If they don’t do justice to the complexity of the real world, they are certain to be wrong. The short-lived comforts of Panglossian optimism will always be unmasked in the end. To try to reassure a terminally ill patient or someone who has just been bereaved or lost home and livelihood by saying ‘don’t worry: it will be all right in the end’ can be an act of real cruelty, not least because it sounds like a denial of what they are experiencing at the time. Indeed, explanations of any kind aren’t likely to be what’s needed in a time of crisis.

After their ordeals in eighteenth century Lisbon, Pangloss and Candide survive. Voltaire’s novel takes its leave of them placidly tilling the soil. Pangloss is still exhorting Candide to look on the bright side. To which Candide replies enigmatically, ‘’Tis well said...but we must cultivate our own gardens’. That is not perhaps very different from the outlook of another work published in the same year, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas. It too asks what we can do in the face of human suffering. Johnson concludes that we must each labour for our own happiness ‘by promoting within his own circle, however narrow, the happiness of others’. Which is to follow the Golden Rule, care about the welfare of others and love our neighbour as ourselves.

This needn’t mean that ‘optimism’ should be written off. But it does need nuancing carefully. Following his desperate experiences in the Nazi death camps, Victor Frankl coined the phrase tragic optimism. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he turns the fundamental human question round from ‘What do I expect of life’ to ‘What does life expect of me?’ ‘Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.’ To be able to say ‘yes’ to life in spite of tragedy is to make the best of every situation, to live purposefully even at times of pain, despair and death. Optimism means believing that the best will happen. And so it will, not in the inevitable course of external events, but in the best selves those very events help us to become.

We have all seen countless examples of tragic optimism in this crisis. We find it wherever there is kenosis, self-emptying love happening in practice. In the courage and devotion of men and women in frontline caring roles in our hospitals, residential homes, surgeries and schools. In the dogged perseverance of those engaged in biomedical research that may one day transform our management of viral disease. In the work of ordinary people who, as it says in Ecclesiasticus, 'maintain the fabric of the world' by enabling society to go on functioning. And in the myriad little acts of kindness that are happening all around us as friends and neighbours recognise need and try to meet it. The virus has brought untold suffering to so many, but it has also released untold goodness and love that bring help, lift spirits and lighten heavy hearts. There is something miraculous in that, and very comforting.


There is something deeply Christ-like in this washing of one another’s feet as we might see these beautiful acts of service. For self-emptying, kenosis, is precisely what takes place in the upper room on Maundy Thursday, and in the cross of Jesus on Good Friday. In the darkness of Golgotha, he opens his arms wide to embrace the human race, not in a coercive act of naked power but in the crucified power of love to give itself without limit, persuade, accept, entice, draw us to itself. It’s what makes love what it is, offers us the lens by which to read the world, convinces us that even the smallest act of service done in the name of love confers meaning and has the potential to transform our vision of life.

Which makes me think Candide was right. To cultivate our own gardens in the face of catastrophe is not an act of selfishness or shoulder-shrugging indifference. It is to defy death and say yes to life, yes to hope and yes to the future. This is tragic optimism at work. Frankl tells of someone in the Warsaw Ghetto who had placed a pot of brilliant red geraniums on their window sill above the street. What could be more eloquent than a blaze of colour in a dark and desperate place? Maybe painted rainbows and candles lit in our front room windows can do something similar in our time and raise the hopes of those who pass by.


  1. The popular city quarter of Alfama, home of prostitutes and bad standing people, was spared by the earthquake, while posh quarters and religious buildings went levelled. Then prime minister, Marquis of Pombal, used such fact against the religious explanation you refer to. In Portugal, Jesuits were the primary promoters of such a stupid "theory".

  2. So, this is my issues with you SADgrove; you speak with an entitled pomposity that is outdated. Perhaps you miss the Cathedral audience, although you have been tweeting long before that was lost to you. Its when you tweet to BBC Radio3 and ask a question, particularly when you assume 'we all' are of agreement. Many of us do 't have a clue what you are on about Does that make us crass? You are a snob, a dinosaur with no teethe, hair or sense of reality. And its always about you. 'Mrs S' comments are always made towards promoting you, always you. The oxfam thing when you raised money for your birthday. Self promotion, pomposity, arrogant liberalism that pretends to be humble, wise and considered. Your a narcissist, a balding sad narcissist. Rest in peace SADgrove