Archive | March, 2020

Belief in the Age of Coronavirus: Dread, Science and Mystery

23 Mar

There’s the existential angst that comes with self-quarantine and the awareness of why it’s necessary—we call it “plague dread.”  And then there are the various levels of explanation, the micro-meanings, you might say. And then there’s the mystery—the big meaning, macro-meaning.

Each of us will fill in the dread with the facts of our own life. I am approaching age ninety, with at least three of what the media call “underlying conditions”—more than enough empirical ground for me to dread the Coronavirus.

Almost hourly, we hear precise scientific descriptions of the virus. These descriptions are crucial, because they enable competent people—physicians, nurses, and researchers—to treat the disease and even prevent its spread.

The scientific theory of evolution helps me understand our situation. The Coronavirus is an example of an evolutionary process wrapped within larger evolutionary processes. The behavior of the virus follows Darwinian expectations. All of the processes that take place within our bodies—from the nano and molecular levels to the cells—follow the same evoIutionary pattern. 

These evolutionary processes within us are fundamentally ambiguous in that they bring us life and they also bring us death. Leonard Hummel and Gayle Woloschak describe this ambiguity in their fine 2017 book, Chance Necessity, Love: An Evolutionary Theology of Cancer (Cascade Books). 

This presents us with a dilemma—we are grateful for the life-giving work of our internal body processes, and we dread the deadly work of those processes. Like cancer, the presence of Coronavirus is fully “natural.” Nature within us is “naturally” ambiguous. Further, these micro-evolutionary processes take place within a much larger story of evolution with several chapters: the evolution of life, which began millions of years ago, within the larger 4 billion year-long story of planet Earth’s evolution, within the still larger story of cosmic evolution, 12 billion years in the telling.

Our response to COVID-19 is to resist the flow of evolution and redirect it. That’s what our practice of medicine is about, the attempt to redirect evolutionary processes in our favor. The long processes of evolutionary bend because of our efforts. This reminds me how infinitesimally small we are, and yet how amazingly gifted we are. Evolution has brought us life and also the skill to reorder evolution itself.

Nevertheless, despite our efforts, even when they are successful, the struggle with evolution takes its toll—and that means injury and death. In my case evolution in my mother’s womb caused me to be born with spina bifida, which, though moderate in severity, has radically impacted the last ten years of my life.

Even as I write, I am aware of the Mystery (note the capital “M”) that wraps around us. We—and these incomprehensible processes of evolution—float in a sea of Mystery. Why is it that our existence is woven on this vast and complex loom of evolution? Why has God chosen this particular way of bringing us into life and sustaining us?

Many thinkers down the millennia have pondered this “Why?”—and they have given us no satisfying final answers. We can probe Mystery, but we cannot resolve it like a puzzle. The Book of Job speaks to me at this point. When Job raised the question and demanded God’s response, the voice from the whirlwind spoke to him: Your mind is too small and weak to comprehend the height and depths of Mystery—you simply must accept it and trust it.

The Existentialist Albert Camus acknowledged the Mystery, and he believed it is indifferent to human hopes and longings; we cry out for answers for our lives, but in return we hear only silence—he called it ultimate absurdity—Absurdity with a capital “A.” His novel, The Plague is the story of life during a plague. The plague was indifferent to human existence, the epitome of Absurdity.

Others have called the Mystery Enemy, malevolent, intending to destroy us, if it can. 

Christian faith calls the Mystery Friend, Redeemer, Suffering God. Much like the message of Job—death at the hands of the Mystery is real; our attempts to understand it are futile; but the same Mystery is our Redeemer.  We can trust it.

After all, evolution is a process—faith believes the process is going somewhere, and that “somewhere” is in the life of God. The life of God is love, which is why in the midst of plague we find love, caring for others.

Medically, for most people our current plague will not have serious consequences. Psychologically and economically, it will damage most people, at least to some degree. A small percentage of people will die. All of us will be borne along the same evolutionary process into our future. And for all of us, that future will be God’s gift to us.

Think of the image of a train. Some of us will get off the train at this station, everyone will get off sooner or later, at different stops. Every station’s name will be the same, “God’s Destination—Love.”

(c) Phil Hefner 23 March 2020

Let’s hear it for poetry!

20 Mar

Pablo Picasso, in his “blue” period, painted an old man with a guitar. In a poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” Wallace Stevens interpreted the guitarist as a poet whose music had to accomplish two things at once: evoke a transcendent world of peace, love, and justice and at the same time portray that world as a real possibility in the lives of his listeners.

Poetry borders two worlds, as Stevens suggests—the world of concrete experience as we live it and a transcendent reality that peeks at us through our everyday life.for some, this transcendent dimension is God, but for many others the idea of God doesn’t work. Stevens himself wrote:

“If there must be a god in the house,. . .

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,

Or moonlight, silently, . . .

He must dwell quietly.” 

Poetry is the poet’s act of responding to the world and the people of her experience. She is responding to a “mystery that enlarges our existence” (the words of Christian Wiman). If you believe that your everyday life floats in a sea of mystery and surprise, you will love poetry. If you don’t—if words like “mystery” and “surprise” seem pretentious and far-fetched—you’ll find poetry a hard slog.

A friend once said to me that her problem with poetry is symbols. “You’re always saying that a word or image symbolizes something else, and I don’t see things that way,” she said. Why should the old guitarist symbolize a poet, and why should his music symbolize poetry? She was right—to the poet, everything in life is a symbol that refers to the mystery in which we live, to the God who dwells quietly in our world.

Some people insist that scientific language sets the bar for all our language—we should aim always at precise description of our experience. Poets are also obsessed with precise language, but at the same time they are aware of the inadequacy of our words. The richness of our experience defies precise words—and the quietly dwelling Mystery evades all efforts to capture it.

Scientists struggle to describe the natural world precisely. The task facing the poet is even more daunting: to evoke a sense of the mystery that surrounds our lives in the natural world.

April is National Poetry Month. The mystery that surrounds us at this moment, in the COVID-19 epidemic, challenges both our science and our poetry. I’ll take that up in my next installment.

(c) Phil Hefner.  March 20, 2020