On two plagues: Bishop N. T. Wright and Albert Camus.
Bishop N. T. Wright has written a challenging book about Covid, titled God and the Pandemic. It’s challenging because it requires us to rethink God. We tend to think of God, if we think of him at all, as all powerful, able to fix Covid in a moment if he wished, as Jesus healed the sick and the lame. So why doesn’t he?
Wright’s answer, though it takes a while to figure it out, is similar to that finally arrived at in several places in the Bible. God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). Job comes to a similar conclusion. The best way to understand God in the face of Covid is to accept that we shall never understand.
Wright does not stop here, however. He says that God’s non-answer is really an answer. God is a God of suffering and lamentation. Until we understand that God is not a mighty warrior who exists to vanquish our enemies, we shall be lost. Consider what Jesus first did when he learned of the death of Lazarus. “Jesus wept,” the shortest sentence in the Bible (John 11:35). Consider Jesus hanging on the cross, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
The hardest lesson
It’s the hardest of all the lessons that the Bible teaches. God’s sovereignty is not earthly sovereignty, God’s dominion is not earthly dominion. Jesus demonstrated a new kind of power, the sovereignty of suffering, the power of offering oneself as gift.
If you want to know what it means to talk about God being ‘in charge of’ the world, or being ‘in control’, or being ‘sovereign’, then Jesus himself instructs you to rethink the notion of ‘kingdom’, ‘control’ and ‘sovereignty’ themselves, around his death on the cross. (Wright, p 25)
Perhaps God’s kingdom has already come, but we have to look in the right places, not among politicians and influential businessmen, but among those who struggle every day just to survive. Or in Haiti, less than 700 miles from Miami Beach, and a world away. God’s sovereignty is his “strength made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Can we even begin to get our heads around this idea?
Actually, we already have two answers to the question of God and Covid. The first answer is that we shall never understand God’s ways, and there is no point in trying. Repenting after questioning God’s will, Job says
I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful [awesome] for me to know . . . . Therefore I retract my words and repent in dust and ashes. (42:3,6)
The other answer is that it’s not God’s job to save us from illness and each other. God’s job is to lament with us, to share our sorrow, and feel our pain.
Albert Camus, The Plague
The Plague is a novel written by Camus while in exile during World War Two. In it disease overwhelms Oran, a city on the Algerian coast. Some have interpreted the disease, evidently the bubonic plague, as a metaphor for the Nazis, sometimes called the peste brune, the brown plague. But if it is a metaphor for the Nazis, it is above all a serious confrontation with God. The suffering is horrible, beyond man’s measure, as if from another world (pp 36-37).
A priest, Father Paneloux, takes a position at first similar to Wright’s.* We must love what we cannot understand. Only Wright is smarter. Not “love” what we can’t understand, but lament what we can’t understand.
In response, Dr. Rieux, the story’s narrator, responds “until my dying day, I shall refuse to love a scheme of things in which children are put to torture.” (p 203)
What’s natural is the microbe. All the rest–health, integrity, purity (if you like), is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter. (pp 235-236)
For a moment Wright and Camus come together. Our task, says Wright, is not just to lament, but to do what needs to be done: wear masks, practice social distancing, comfort the sick and the poor, and work as a society to develop a vaccine. We are God’s arms, hands, and legs. God works through us in this world.
Camus makes a similar point. The good person is the person who pays the most attention to what he is doing. Says Jean Tarrou, a thoughtful visitor caught up in the lockdown of Oran.
I know, too, that we must keep endless watch on ourselves lest in a careless moment we breathe in somebody’s face and fasten the infection on him . . . The good man, the man who hardly infects anyone, is the man with the fewest lapses of attention. (pp 235-236)
One might argue that it makes little practical difference whether one holds with Wright or Camus. Both recognize the need for humans to act in a responsible manner, and that the plagues that afflict us can be mitigated by thoughtful acts. So, what does it matter if one believes that God is lamenting with us? Our tasks are the same in any case: paying attention and practical action.
It makes a difference in how we situate ourselves in the world. Is ours a world in which God is with us, and the Holy Spirit groans (στενάζω) with our suffering, in an agony too deep for words (Romans 8: 26-27)? Or do we live in Camus’ world, where
Each of us had to be content to live only for the day, alone under the vast indifference of the sky? (p 71)
But if the sky is indifferent and we are alone, we still have a responsibility (even more of a responsibility) to work with others to make this a world fit for human beings. If we are born into a world that cares nothing for the human being, then what task could be more worthwhile than to care for each other? As Tarrou puts it,
All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences. (p 236)
But isn’t Wright’s world more meaningful?
Wrights world is a richer and more reassuring world. God groans with our sorrow. Nor can anyone can say it isn’t true; true becomes truth only through belief, whether in atoms or God.
For Camus, the world is absurd. That doesn’t mean meaningless. It means that human need is confronted by the unreasonable silence of the world. (Sisyphus, p 28) To make meaning out of such a world, humans must cooperate to make this world a better place to live. To truly do so is perhaps not as comforting as lamenting with God, but it is an act of human solidarity.
* In another post, I tell the story of Howard Mumma, a Protestant minister at the American church in Paris, who claims that Camus came to him asking to be secretly baptized. The time lines fit, and it’s a plausible story. Camus, in any case, was always more receptive to religion than his contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre.
Albert Camus, The Plague, translated by Stuart Gilbert. Vintage Books, 1972.
Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, translated by Justin O’Brien. Vintage, 1955.
N. T. Wright, God and the Pandemic. Zondervan, 2020.