Sooner or later, our pandemic triggers a heartfelt question from its reflective victims: Why us? Of course, we can sketch a biological answer in terms of viral mutation and transmission, but that only would scratch the surface. We sometimes have in mind a deeper ‘Why?’, unless we consider the world devoid of such explanatory depth.
In a world without purposes deeper than human purposes, our ‘why-questions’ lack deeper answers than those from the contingencies of nature and humans. Our pandemic then has a biological and social explanation but no deeper purpose behind it. In that case, there is no basis for a deeper explanation of it from an underlying purpose-holder. There is then, as a basis for purpose, only the combination of blind nature and its resulting purposive humans. So, our response then will be free of a deeper purpose behind our pandemic. Biological and human activity contributed to the pandemic, with no additional purpose at work. Beyond such activity, the pandemic, including its devastating suffering, is “all for nothing,” because there is no purpose at work beyond such activity. So, there is no basis for hope in a deeper, better purpose at work. In that case, our pandemic invites despair, or hopelessness, instead of hope in a deeper purpose. That is, by any standard, a pitiable scenario, and we are then the ones to be pitied, even if we happen to have survived so far.
Perhaps despair and pity are not quite fitting, in the end. Maybe something more subtle is at work. In A Death in the Desert, Robert Browning points to this alternative:
For life, with all it yields of joy and woe
And hope and fear,—believe the aged friend,—
Is just our chance o’ the prize of learning love,
How love might be, hath been indeed, and is.
The deeper purpose suggested concerns us and our attitudes towards others, even in the grips of a pandemic. We might say ‘especially in the grips of a pandemic’. The testing ground for ‘learning love’ is no play ground when a pandemic threatens, but it still could have a sustainer with a good purpose. This does not mean that we have, or should expect to have, a full explanation of the horrors around us, but it does open a door for grounded hope. If we can learn love in a pandemic, we can learn it anywhere, and we can learn thereby that good can endure in the face of evil. We see such endurance in the heroism of first responders, nurses, and physicians fighting against the pandemic. They model that genuine caring for others can be stronger than the evils of a pandemic.
What if God encourages our learning unselfish love even, or especially, in the midst of a pandemic? What would the world then look like? Perhaps it would look like our present world, complete with ‘yields of joy and woe, and hope and fear’, in the midst of our tragic predicament. Even so, the tragedy would not then go all the way down. It would hit bottom in a good purpose advanced by a good God. The crisis of a pandemic then could be an opportunity for religious experience, even beyond moral experience, as an experience of God’s deeper, good purpose. We would need eyes to see, because the purpose would not be on the surface. It would lie deeper in reality, where our purpose must meet, and cooperate with, a deeper Purpose. Failing our cooperation, we could miss out on the actual power and thus the reality of the elusive Purpose for good. We then would be out of perspective to experience its enduring reality. We thus would be pitiable indeed.
Which world is ours? The shallow or the deep? The hopeless or the hopeful? Our heroes now on the front lines behave in favor of depth. Are they right? In the focus of battle do they perceive something deep that may be neglected by some other people? Perhaps they are in an ideal position to show us the way to reality, to the deeper truth of our tragic predicament. Even if they refrain from theological language, they can exhibit attitudes and conduct fitting with theological reality. Divine reality can meet them at a level deeper than language, at the level of their willing commitment and action. That may be the best level for us to face our prime opportunity: ‘the prize of learning love, how love might be, hath been indeed, and is’. Arguably, here is the heart of religion and religious experience. If so, hope may be at hand, because our crisis has not extinguished this heart. On the contrary, it has elicited its strength and endurance. It has become a painful but hopeful context of seeing good prevail over evil, even when the latter cannot be fully explained.
Regardless of our preferred religion or our take on religion, the deeper purpose could proceed apace, for the deeper good of humans. The real tragedy would be our unwillingness to go deeper, our tendency to stay at the surface of reality. Our freedom allows for such tragedy, but it would bring harm, perhaps even greater harm than our pandemic. The deeper Purpose could see us through the ravages and killings of our crisis, but it would not destroy our agency with coercion. It would not rob us of ‘the prize of learning love’. In failing to value that prize, we would miss out on our deepest challenge, and perhaps even fail to see the power and reality of that prize. We would be like the unfortunate person whose ever-present dark glasses obstruct the beauty of the sunlight. Our evaluative attitudes can be at odds with the larger reality around us.
One lesson of our pandemic, then, suggests the importance of self-evaluation. Where do I stand in the midst of this crisis? At the surface, with no deeper meaning or hope? Or at a deeper level, where ‘these three remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love’? Our heroes encourage a response from us, sooner rather than later.