We have all heard the chatter about the meaning of all of this. It may appear in causal conversations, in social media platforms, or from sermons. I predict before the end of this year, there will be books written explaining, not from a scientific but a philosophical or religious viewpoint, why the COVID-19 pandemic happened. We had the same experience in this country after 9/11 and all other big news events. I wanted to address those religious or philosophical considerations now. This is consistent with my other ramblings about fate or cause and effect and even miracles. In my last post, I touched on this topic but it got me thinking even more, plus I came across several other sermons, comments, etc. which I found very disappointing at best so I felt the need to address this more directly.
For the atheists the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t beg for an explanation about meaning. For them, and any scientist who sees the universe as a closed-system (where natural laws control all events) there can be no meaning just a sequence of biological events following the laws of biology, chemistry, and physics. Certainly, they can and should study these sequences with the hopes of interrupting them and reducing human suffering in the end. But they would never, logically, look for philosophical meaning and if they try to inject meaning, they are cheating.
As I’ve said before, my conversations with pantheists are limited, but from what I understand, most would see this pandemic as under the control of the god-force and the suffering is the result of our over-involvement in the material world (rather than transcending it). They would hold to the belief that all these things will work out for good in the end.
Most of my thinking and study is related to the Christian perspectives because, as I said before, I spend a chunk of my early life in the evangelical movement and I am often thinking about how that movement approaches life issues, including the errors we made then and they make now. I still consider myself a Christian but certainly not of that mold and am often a critic specifically of the American white evangelical subculture.
I usually lump the Islamic view in with the Christian because of similarities. Actually I see a lot of similarities of the radical Islamic people I’ve talked to and the conservative American Christians, like being attracted to conspiracy theories to explain things. But there are some differences.
The Evangelical Concept of God
I profoundly love history especially the history of western civilization and Church history. I could start to write here and go on for pages and pages but I will resist that temptation. But history sheds light on what we think now and why we think it.
The evangelical has a concept of God that has four major legs. Imagine these are the legs of a throne on which their God sits.
The first leg is that God is all-powerful or what we call omnipotent. This requires no explanation except to say that this leg is closely braced with the next leg, sovereignty.
The evangelicals take omnipotence further to say that God is sovereign in all things. What they mean by this form of sovereignty is that God is a profound micromanager, that NOTHING happens unless he so orders it or at least consciously allows it for a specific purpose. If you don’t believe me on this, I challenge you to walk into the vestibule of any evangelical church (in the pre-quarantine days) and say somethings like, “Man am I unlucky. I threw my back out yesterday and neither me nor God saw that coming.” You will be immediately admonished (unless they are just being kind because you are a stranger and visitor).
A great king can have overwhelming power, but may not micromanage his kingdom but the evangelical God does both. We see many examples in history of both kinds of kings. In the evangelical view there is no natural course, no fate, no natural laws that govern, and no luck. To question that position, to them at least, seems to question both legs, sovereignty and omnipotence and the throne totally collapses.
I must add that even some evangelicals make exception to this, what I will call the “Job clause.” This is where they see God allowing evil to play out, and that evil comes from Satan’s directive. They would explain this situation as where God allows this evil as a test of the human where the human’s obedience during the trial of evil proves their faithfulness to God.
The next leg to this throne is the concept that God is totally loving toward humans. That every action of God must be defined in the terms of this perfect love.
Goodness / Justice
This last leg is the concept that God is also perfect in his goodness, applying perfect justice to all situations.
So, when you have an evil event in the world such as this pandemic, described as evil because of the suffering it causes, the evangelical faces a real dilemma and a tension starts to form between these four legs, and the throne starts to wobble.
The rise of the COVID-19 is one of these worldwide waves of evil. So, to support the four dimensions of their concept of God, they have to assume that;
- God created this terrible virus (see the cover photo above where God is doing just that) because he is omnipotent and sovereign.
- Despite God creating this horrible evil, he still loves us and is perfectly just. Therefore, the suffering that we experience is related to either our own sin, God using to test or teach us, or Satan’s attack (see the Job clause).
While the four-legged concept of God is what evangelicals say you must believe to be a real or good Christian (many have told me, even here on this blog, that I’m not a Christian because I don’t hold these views), it creates an illogical tension that is unsustainable.
I’ve met countless people who left Christianity when they saw the collapse of this throne under the weight of a personal crisis. As a cancer sufferer, I hear so much evangelical bullshit about cancer, for example it is God’s gift) and if I didn’t know better (having taken a decade to think this through after my first major crisis thirty years ago) I would leave Christianity for good because of it.
Before I close this topic, I must look separately at one other approach to suffering by the American evangelical. It mirrors the “Job clause” which I mentioned above but what I will call the “End Times Mentality”
In summary, starting in America (with some British influence) in the mid 1800s, a brand new theology emerged within Christianity and that was forms of dispensationalism or “we are living in the last days” mentality. Note, if you were a student of Church history, you would see that this theology was not part of the Church, including the great theologians and Church fathers, for the Church’s first 1800 years of existence.
This new theology was an idea created mostly by a con-artist lawyer, turned armchair theologian, Cyrus I. Scofield and solidified as part of American evangelicalism in the early twentieth century’s development of the “Fundamentals of Faith,” what became “Fundamentalism” and then eventually “Evangelicalism.”
Now, you can’t have any conversation with an evangelical about evil in the world without them quickly reference this ideology by saying things like, “Well, we are living in the last days,” or “It’s all going to burn,” or “Jesus is returning soon” or worse yet, link it to some obscure prophecy in the Bible.
So, What is the healthy Christian View?
When I was an evangelical it was paramount that we were certain in all things theological. This was especially true in the area of God’s character. I mentioned this story before that we had it drilled down to the point that we knew what color of underwear God favored that we, men, wear. It was white. Tighty-whities to be precise. And God didn’t like poop stains in the back.
This boxing in of God reminds me when I was a little boy and I came up with the idea of catching a lot of fireflies and putting in a corked test tube. I thought I would create an eternal flashlight, that never goes out. But there were two problems with that. First, the light was too dim and faded. But the worst one, which I discovered the following morning, that even fireflies needed oxygen. You can’t box them in.
Now, I love meeting someone who says to me, “I have no clue what God is like because he is the great unknown or unknowable mystery. He is the other. He is so, so big, that my mortal human brain can’t get around him or define him.” This reminds me of where God describes himself as “I am” to Moses. If I remember my Arabic correctly, the word “Allah” has its roots in “The, The.”
So I will share the truths, as philosophy demands (too complicated to explain here) and scripture suggest about God when we explain horrible things like the COVID-19 virus pandemic. . . or the atrocities of World War II for example, or any war. You can hold the belief that God is good. You can hold the view that God is just and as scriptures tells us, loving with a perfect love. You can even, and must, also have the view that God is omnipotent because the moment he (I could as easily say “she”) that God has less power than something else, then the other thing becomes god. Actually, you must say all these things are true, otherwise the whole throne metaphor would collapse if you removed any of those.
However, the only way to relief this tension of the forth leg (sovereignty) is to dissolve the necessity of God being sovereign to be God. Now, before you start writing your e-mail to me, telling me that I’m going to burn in hell, let me explain what I mean by this term. I already know that if I explain it, I will still be misunderstood by someone in the spirit of “unorthodoxophobia” or as my friend “Headless Unicorn Guy” likes to call it, “Group Think.” If you don’t think like the group thinks you should think then they think you stink (my paraphrase).
I started my religious life as a Southern Baptist in the Bible belt. They had a significant amount of “sovereignty of God” woven into their theology. But then in college, I became a card-carrying Presbyterian and have remained once since. Now John Calvin, the father of Presbyterianism, wrote the book on “sovereignty.” We had a God that had to manage. . . well, I’ve already talked about our underwear so I can’t think of an example that showed our God to be even more of a micro-manager. I will mention, and I’ve mentioned this several times, about one of my Presbyterian / Navigator (para-church organization) friends, Owen, who jumped in front of a freight train just to see if he could escape God’s deterministic, puppeteer strings. Owen was a great man, and he died that night. Good theology, or the lack thereof, does matter.
The Problem of Evil
But to deal with evil in the world, and to keep our sanity, we must allow for cause and effect, or a natural law, running its course without purpose or intent. If we hold all the three “must beliefs” about God, which I mentioned above, we must also allow God to have the choice (very, very different than him being impotent) to let the laws to work themselves out without him choosing to interfere. These laws include the laws of physics, chemistry, biology, and psychology.
What I mean by psychological “laws” is that if you take a child and emotionally as well as physically abuse them for years, the natural psychological law would mean that they will, most likely, have issues as an adult. To say that God made them that way, a sociopath, or whatever, would be ignoring the fact that the laws played out without any big purpose or intent by God. You can also not have to blame the victim for their flaws or rearing.
These things can play out for good or bad. For the good, think of the example of the kid above but replace the abusive with loving, nurturing parents. So, this is a world that is full of the wonderful and evil.
Christian-theological term for the above is “The Fall of Adam.” Within that theology, I don’t want to argue that here, is where humanity turned against God and a curse came over the earth where there was the original good stuff, but now some evil sprinkled over it. . . you know, things like my damn cancer! So usually not the responsibility of the individual but of the collective failure. Of course there is evil that is the responsibility of individuals, but that’s another story.
While the COVID-19 virus has no intent, or even consciousness (it is really no more than just a chunk of RNA or DNA with a protein coating or package, see here) it plays by the rules of chemistry and biology. If you know physics, viruses are the equivalent of particle-wave problem in quantum physics played out in biology, meaning that when they are observed in one way, they are life and in another, they are non-life.
A virus cannot reproduce on its own and that is why it eventually becomes inactive without a host. The way it reproduces is that the protein shell attaches to a living cell like ours, and injects its bundle of RNA or DNA into our cells’ blueprint. Part of the blueprint written on that fragment of RNA or DNA is how to reproduce the virus and spit out more of it into the local environment of the host (or outside the host in the example of a droplet from a cough).
Because these virus are not benign when they hijack our cells, over millions of years, our immune systems adapted to blocking them when they enter our body, not allowing them to do their dirty work.
But it is like a game of chess. The viruses also adapt, for reason too complicated to explain here, the RNA-based viruses mutate easier than DNA (my son Bryan can explain how if he wants). The COVID-19 is a single stranded RNA, so it mutates relatively easy. Smallpox is a DNA virus the same vaccine is good for generations and we don’t have to worry, too much, about a mutant stain of smallpox coming on the scene.
So a virus can exist and multiply in one host. That host may have built up a resistance to the virus over the years, which allows it to survive but not do a lot of damage (I saw on the Discovery channel the other day, which means it may or may not be true, that 60% of all skunks in LA are infected with rabies, but it does not harm them because they have built up a resistance). They think the previous host to the COVID-19 virus was chickens in the market, but the chickens got it from local bats. But then other species, like humans in the case of the previous version of corona virus family that COVID-19 came from, would not even allow to set up house keeping in our bodies.
But the virus is constantly playing the roulette wheel, trying out new combinations that will allow it to sneak back into the resistant species, under the radar. COVID-19 has already mutated since it re-enter the human population last year and there is a L sub-type and a S sub-type. The L came first and then mutated to the S. Most of the original infections were from the L but now most, especially outside of China, are the S strain. My son, Bryan will let me know if I got this wrong.
Sometimes, because the virus is like the fox getting back into the chicken house after a long absence, the body’s immune system is really pissed and reacts so strongly that it is the immune reaction that causes most of the damage to us. From what I understand, and I could be wrong, this is how the COVID-19 virus causes structural damaged to lung tissue.
This is getting long so I will pause. I will come back with just one more posting as a summary about the theological discussion of all of this and try to tie this together.
P.S. Personal Update-Follow up (if you are still interested after that saga above)
So, I had labs yesterday and met with my oncologist today. He has agreed to apply for the outrageously expensive oral chemo tablet. Maybe the insurance will cover it as they seem to be more generous in these days of COVID-19 crisis. It has the potential of being at least as good as my present chemo, but with far less side effects. I pray that they will cover it.
I don’t worry over my labs so much anymore as there has been clear evidence that my cancer is in remission and my kidneys are slightly improving or stable. However, I was blindsided today when my major kidney labs (Creatinine and BUN) came back much worse (well .6 for creatinine). My oncologist expressed great concern as he came through the door. I was suddenly, going from worrying about catching COVID-19 at the hospital, to being damned depressed. Bad news, as we all know, is one thing but when it blindsides us, it is much worse. I felt the tears start to build as I sat the two hours waiting on my chemo (we are doing my old, side-effect “enriched” chemo while we are waiting on the insurance company’s approval for the new one).
However, I’ve spent some time studying my labs since that visit this morning. In medicine there is a saying that if something doesn’t smell right, then you need to retest. My bad creatinine and BUN doesn’t smell right to me as a PA and it is more than just wishful thinking. I won’t bore you with the details here, but for the sake of those who are interested and in healthcare, it was the fact that my other renal labs, such as electrolytes, where the best they have been since I’ve been sick. Also, the evil proteins that damaged my kidneys in the first place are almost non-existent. Lastly, my CBC looks the best it has and my hemoglobin suddenly jumped in two weeks from 11.5 to 13.2 (almost normal). So, (and there are many other life factors that support what I’m about to say) I believe that my creatinine and BUN when up from me cheating and having a steak dinner the day before, exercising hard, and being quite dehydrated the day of the labs. But the next test in two weeks will tell if there is a trend.
I want to close this by thanking all of you who reached out and offered us your homes for Denise to re-locate to. It is a hard decision. I am now disinfecting the entire house every day. Denise is coming in through the basement door, depositing her clothes directly into the wash machine, washing her hands, and going straight to the hot tub. The CDC has some evidence that a hot tub with high temperature setting and adequate bromine, deactivates COVID-19 from surfaces.
Please, everyone stay safe and take the precautions seriously. I am grateful for you in essential professions and keep working. I am so sorry for those who have lost their jobs or income. Don’t go hungry! We are in this together and what is ours is yours. However, regarding the “markets” (not The Market as in the local grocery store) can all go to hell as human lives are far more important than money, at least that’s what Jesus said, but what did he know.