Can we think now about anything other than pandemic graphs, empty shelves, school closures, postponed events, and our global state of emergency? While some remain at various stages of denial, and others have high fevers of existential panic, most of us are at home trying to figure out how we can homeschool our kids, do our jobs, avoid contagion, and endure an uncertain sentence of an unexpected internment.
In many conversations we hear that we are in “uncharted water.” This is true in the sense that most of us have never experienced this sort of disorienting disruption to everyday life. We can read the histories of the 1918 or 1957 pandemics, but they don’t touch our experience. We’ve been knocked off the tracks of our daily habits, and we’re all unsettled. Everything that seemed solid suddenly seems shaky. The only thing certain now is that we must talk about the Coronavirus.
Strangely, this has all fallen upon us in the time of Lent—a kind of wilderness in the Church, likened to the forty days and forty nights of Christ’s desert temptations and to Israel’s own exilic wilderness. Many churches were closed on Sunday. Masses were celebrated without the faithful. Saint Peter’s Square is empty. Christians everywhere find themselves not only social-distancing, but also at a distance from sacred worship and sacramental communion. In some ways, Christians this Lent are like Israel in Babylonian exile, bereft of land and temple. So I have tried to escape the Coronavirus a little by retreating into the meaning of ancient Israel’s exile.
In his famous homilies on creation and the Fall, In the Beginning, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes that Israel was long “preoccupied with the sufferings or hopes of its own history,” but it was not until their Babylonian exile that creation became crystallized as a dominant theme. Like many Christians today, the ancient Israelites in Babylon were overwhelmed with an almost ineluctable fear that all the boundaries had been shifted, that the center no longer held, that there was no ground beneath their feet, nor sacred canopy above their heads—they were exiled in the fear that all their vulnerabilities would gradually be overrun. As Ratzinger notes, it was something “incomprehensible.”
It’s out of this exilic despair that the prophets showed Israel that their God was not like other gods, “he was the God who held sway over every land and people.” He was the God who made not only the land beneath their feet, but everything seen and unseen. God made everything in heaven and on earth. God was the solid ground beneath them, as well as their shelter.
But this redolent and true faith remained enclosed, as it were, within the gates of Babylon. Babylon had its own creation liturgies in the Enuma Elish, which depicted the world emerging out of a struggle between opposing powers. Marduk, the god of light, appeared in the beginning to split a primordial dragon to divide heaven and earth, and fashioned human beings out of the dragon’s blood. As Ratzinger observes, “At the very origin of the world lurks something sinister, and in the deepest part of humankind there lies something rebellious, demonic, and evil. In this view of things only a dictator, the king of Babylon . . . can repress the demonic and restore the world to order.”
The Babylonian exile is thus a theological enclosure for Israel’s faith, and it is also a temptation in the wilderness. Yet Israel’s faith confronted these pagan myths. The world arose not out of chaos and conflict. Rather, it “arose from God’s Reason and reposes on God’s Word.” Thus Ratzinger calls Israel’s creation account the decisive “enlightenment.”
Israel’s enlightenment also contrasts with our modern Enlightenment, which typically sees evil and suffering as proof that we cannot depend upon God. The secularist mocks prayer as irrational, irrelevant, ineffectual, and ultimately irresponsible. Yet implicit in their mockery is another kind of faith—a Babylonian faith.
The secular account of creation is also an enclosure for us Christians and Jews. It is not quite the same as the Babylonian account, but it bears certain similarities. It sees the world as tending toward entropy, and so every crisis is a kind of total loss from which we will never recover. In the “immanent frame” of the secular enclosure, the center is never holding because there is no Logos holding the whole cosmos together. The world is directionless, and it is up to us to make the world, to sustain the world, to keep it alive against the sinister entropy lurking within. Everything is “managed” by chance and charts, and none of it can account for the reasonableness of creation, nor can it even take into account Israel’s claim that, to borrow from Ratzinger again, “creation is oriented to the sabbath.”
So it is no surprise that in a secular age, we constantly feel exhausted and vulnerable—without land or temple. We feel the panic of this pandemic within a Babylonian kind of enclosure. Yet the Christian must bear witness to a different faith. Our account of creation is the same as that of ancient Israel in exile. As St. Augustine taught, God created and sustains the world through his eternal Word. Immeasurably different from the Babylonian faith, creation is not chaotic and capricious, but has measure, order, and weight—creation is reasonable, it has purpose. And suffering has purpose, too.
This last claim is the one that the immanent frame of the secular age most fervently rejects. The Babylonian enclosure teaches the world that evil and suffering makes our faith in God void, since a God who cannot stop suffering is no God at all. Only “science” can help. But such a faith is patently empty and lost. It leaves people without hope or purpose, without land and temple.
As St. Augustine teaches us, God is not the cause of any evil; evil is nothing but the privation of the good. God has made the world “very good.” Yet due to our primal Fall, God does permit suffering—not as a limit upon himself, as the secularist faith would insist—but precisely to reveal his love and respect for his creature as a cause in his own image. Just as God can bring the most superabundant good out of evil, through Jesus Christ, so has he made us capable of drawing good out of the temporal evils by his grace.
Thus Israel’s faith in creation, which is also the Church’s faith, carries with it a doctrine of providence. God has created the world, and he governs the world. This is the faith that breaks through Babylonian darkness and the fear of apocalypse. The Christian faces suffering differently because we see the Creator and creation through the Word made flesh, through Christ Crucified, through the hope of the Risen Lord who is our way and our end.
I am reminded of the elderly St. Monica, who made a long and dangerous journey from North Africa to Milan in order to join her son, who had just become Imperial Rhetor in that capital city. The journey was so dangerous that even the sailors in command were frightened and uncertain that they would make it into port. Augustine tells us that while it is usually the experienced navigators who comfort and reassure the frightened passengers in mortal danger, it was his vulnerable mother who “kept up the spirits of the sailors,” and promised “that they would come safely to port.” Such is the witness of saints in times of trial. Be not enclosed by the faith of Babylon. Be like St. Monica.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.
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