Last week, Pennsylvania state representative Stephanie Borowicz proposed a resolution that called for a day of prayer, fasting, and humiliation. The coronavirus, she wrote, “may be but a judgment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins.” The reactions of incredulity were predictable, though they perhaps misunderstand the Christian position on prayer. Orthodox Christianity does not see prayer as an alternative to prudent action, such that praying that one does not, for example, develop measles renders redundant the need to be vaccinated. It is rather an acknowledgment that nothing takes place in the created realm independent of the transcendent reality of God. To borrow the apocryphal saying attributed to Cromwell, we trust God but also keep our powder dry.
Christian claims about the meaning of particular incidents of suffering are always on shaky epistemological grounds because the Bible itself presents such things as arising for a variety of reasons—from punishment for wrongdoing, as with Ananias and Sapphira, to the deeply mysterious, as with Job. Yet while speculation by contemporary Christians regarding the significance of the coronavirus may be epistemologically misplaced, it is no more so than secular claims that, for example, certain events indicate that holding particular moral positions places one on the right side of history. Both represent not so much metaphysical truth claims so much as rhetorical strategies designed to provide personal views or preferences with some kind of objective and thus authoritative status. Appeals to metaphysical teleology take many forms, and those who deny the privilege to Christians should make sure they also deny it to themselves.
At some point, however, the COVID-19 crisis will be over, and the question for Christians will be simple: “What should we learn from this?” And one thing seems obvious: The levels of general panic indicate that few of us have been properly prepared for the reality of our own mortality. As a friend pointed out to me recently, when Jesus references the tower at Siloam and the murder of Jews by Pilate (Luke 13), he precludes a simplistic connection between death and particular personal wrongdoing. Yet he also asserts that such deaths should serve as a reminder that all of us are destined for the grave. And thence, in Christian theology, to judgment.
Modern Western culture has tried valiantly to domesticate and marginalize death, both by taming it through fictionalized representations in movies and TV shows, and by keeping the real thing out of sight. But as in the case of that other target of the modern culture of trivialization, sex, we have been mugged by reality. Earlier societies surrounded sex and death with sacred ceremonies, and for good reason: They cannot be trivialized, domesticated, or marginalized with impunity. They are simply too significant and powerful. And so, as #MeToo has led the Hollywood elite to realize that their sex-as-recreation gospel was falsehood, so the coronavirus reality has made implausible that comforting thought of Cicero, that no man is so old that he does not think he will live for another year. This should remind the church of her priorities. “Redeeming the arts” doesn’t seem quite so urgent when your immediate problem is not that of obtaining tickets to the Met but of potentially dying before the box office reopens after the COVID-19 crisis.
We have clearly become accustomed to remarkably comfortable lives. How else do we explain fights in supermarkets over toilet paper? Make no mistake, I regard bathroom tissue as a most wonderful invention, of greater importance than any cell phone or coffee machine, but it is hardly one of life’s absolute essentials. And I have often wondered about the significance of “saving lives.” “ Delaying deaths,” while culturally tasteless, is technically more accurate. We are born to die. Death is inevitable, which is why each of us finds it so terrifying.
In this situation it is the task of the church to mug people with reality before reality itself comes calling. Yet that note seems to have been signally absent from the public profile of the church in recent weeks. Efforts to fight the virus are important; but so is the church’s task of preparing us for death.
This was a point rarely lost on earlier generations of Christians. Take, for example, the Book of Common Prayer’s funeral liturgy. Rooted in biblical texts and suffused with biblical allusions, it speaks powerfully in a manner foreign to our own culture:
Man that is born of woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
That is a liturgy at odds with today’s culture. It is worrying to speculate that it might also be at odds with the expectations of today’s church.
As Philip Rieff once commented, in past times people did not go to church to be made happy; they went to have their misery explained to them. If the Book of Common Prayer is a guide, that is understandable: Life in the sixteenth century was miserable, and it ended in death. People wanted the tools to face reality, not distractions to make them feel good about themselves. Our lives may be, on average, more comfortable than those of our ancestors, but that is a temporary state of affairs and our end is just the same as theirs. So, grim as it sounds, it is the task of the church to fight not so much against physical plagues, which come and go, but rather against that which Leszek Kolakowski dubbed the age of analgesics.
The church is certainly to help people to live, but to live in the shadow of mortality. She must set this earthly realm in the greater context of eternity. She is to prepare people through her preaching, her liturgy, her psalmody, and her sacraments to realize that death is, yes, a terrible, terrifying reality we must all some day face, but that the suffering of this world—or indeed, this passing superficial prosperity many of us enjoy—are but light and momentary ephemera compared to the eternal weight of glory that is to come.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, and senior fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom.