Last week brought us the image of a half-naked man, painted and crowned with buffalo horns, howling from the speaker’s dais in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol. Seeing him standing there, it is not unreasonable to conclude that we have all lost our minds. But why?
Is it simply the result of almost a year of lockdowns, punctuated by a toxic election cycle and mass events of civil unrest? Or have we lost touch with something more basic?
The two inescapable realities, as the saying goes, are death and taxes. You don’t hear the phrase much anymore, and for good reason. We have done our best to forget death and what it can teach us about how to live our lives—as evidenced by our nursing home culture and the burgeoning euthanasia movement.
Along with our willingness to look death in the face, our postmodern society has largely jettisoned faith in God, in whose image we are made with love. Faith once helped us to understand both death and the dignity of every human life. Faith once sustained our communities, and helped individuals make sense of the inevitable things beyond our control.
As we have given up faith and obscured our mortality, we have clung more tightly to political life, elevating the ultimate significance of politics. The coronavirus pandemic has laid painfully bare the limits of our politics. Politics cannot sustain us, let alone save us. COVID-19 has revealed a crisis of faith, and the evidence is all around us. The coronavirus has taken a deadly toll, and has made us all suddenly aware that we could die.
In a remote way, we always know this. We drive past accidents on the road, maybe we think to check our seatbelts. But there’s something very different about a virus that spreads invisibly, spiraling beyond our attempts to control it.
We are all afraid of death. How we react to that fear is a question of formation. A society formed largely without any mature understanding of mortality and mostly shielded from suffering, one that believes the here and now is all there is, encounters the uncontrollable immediacy of death in a pandemic as an existential shock. To a society with no formation in the hope of eternal life, death is a maddening abyss, and will inspire irrational fear.
An irrational fear is rarely constructive. It can lead us to imbue tools like masks with talismanic power, and wear them even when alone in a house or car. It can also lead to nihilistic denial, both of the virus itself and of real chances to mitigate it.
When politics replaces religion as the object of faith, our fear of death also leads us to misplaced messianic expectations. In this country we have seen many drawn to the gnosticism of conspiracy theories and Internet demagogues, devotedly seeking explanations and answers to our mortality in politics.
We have seen, in addition to men dressed up as pagan gods, sincere expressions of religious fervor for a politics of deliverance: Men and women sincerely professing that their preferred candidate is God’s anointed, their opponent the antichrist, and the peaceful transfer of power the Apocalypse.
There is, of course, another way. A person—or society—formed with a healthy understanding of mortality, enlightened by faith, does not cease to fear death, but can react to that fear rationally, and have a rational conversation about how to carry on.
A society with a rational fear of death is grounded in knowledge of the value of every human life. It can evaluate and accept the utility of some public health measures, like mask-wearing in public spaces, social distancing, and avoiding large-scale indoor gatherings. It can also, in valuing human life, have conversations about the social costs of lockdowns: the effects on mental health, the surges in drug and alcohol abuse.
Above all, a society with a rational fear of death, illuminated by true faith, can accept that no solution is perfect and no plan foolproof, because nothing apart from God—and nothing this side of eternity—is. It can prize the good of every life and accept each death in hope, and in doing so it can be a sign of hope to others.
This is not faith as fatalism, or freedom from responsibility to the common good. On the contrary, a rightly-ordered perspective on the mortal and the eternal calls us to mutual concern and sacrifice: to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.
The virus will eventually pass. When it does, we will need to revitalize far more than our economy. Mere technocratic solutions will prove as flawed and limited after the pandemic as they were during and before it. We have the chance, if we can see the need, to form our society in faith—the only vaccine against the madness of death without hope.
Ed Condon is editor at The Pillar.
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