Corona, God, and Human Freedom: Doing Theology in Times of a Pandemic

In this essay I attempt to make sense of the Corona crisis from a theological point of view, taking into account the harsh reality of survival of the fittest that is part of the world we live in but arguing that Jesus Christ invites us into a new way of being that is marked by compassion and self-giving.

As is always the case with major globe-encompassing events that loom as dark menacing clouds at the horizon of humanity’s future, would-be prophets and self-proclaimed men of God fill us in on the latest concoctions from the religious department.

I just witnessed Kenneth (Copious) Copeland heal donors of his ministry from Corona from the safe confines of his TV studio while Jim Bakker is using his ministry to sell a fake medicine against the dreaded virus. (He is now being sued by the State of Missouri, btw.) And I kid you not, one meme on social media asserted that “Corona is simply another name that needs to bow down to Jesus’s Name.” Either Corona has not figured out what it is to bow down or Jesus is having a hard time asserting his lordship over this world (and let’s face it, he hasn’t exactly got a stellar track record). There is of course a more sinister explanation, one that is not absent from popular religious interpretation either, Corona is God’s punishment on humanity and is a sign of the coming end times.

In order to do justice the whole issue of Corona in the light of the Christian faith, we need to address all this religious nonsense. Take the issue of the end time, for instance. Are the end times only now coming? Rather, I believe that ever since humanity became self-conscious and projected its life onto a path toward an imagined future, the end times have been with us, both as potentiality of love and as the certainty of mutual self-destruction. As we know the latter usually wins out while the former persists in the margin where it whispers of a world conceived otherwise.

Doing theology in times of crisis requires us to be sensitive to the widespread fear about how crazy things are going to get. We also need to address the question concerning God’s involvement and the matter of how one is to be Christian in dangerous times like these. The religious panderers are not making things any easier as they either give false hope or make things worse for those who are already afraid.

God and Creation

How should we begin writing about God? Not many believe in God these days and the word God is associated with superstition, backward thinking, and irrational habits. Not without reason, I might add. Yet we begin with God, because the word god signifies a basic intuition that we and the world are more than matter. We are not simply determined by the givenness of matter but strive to form it into a project of our own imagination. There is an idea that entices us, a will that drives us. It is this will to live that we call God or at least associate with the notion. We do not want to pantheistically conflate the God-concept with the world as such, but that here we find a basic inkling that there is more than atoms. It is this basic notion that, while not necessarily our starting point for thinking about God is necessarily its justification. We are spirit in the form of flesh; the world is on its way to the future and we contemplate and imagine this reality and frame ourselves in it.

God is ever evolving. Indeed, God is an event, a process, that is, God as given to the world is in process in search of life, ever emerging, ever coming to self-expression. We are justified in saying this when we take in consideration the process in which life on earth has evolved and is still in the process of evolving. Evolution is this marvelous, daunting process that has led to us as we are today. It is both frightening and wonderful for it makes us feel both special and lost. One thing we notice is that this self-evolving movement of God is structured as gift. Life is free to evolve as it does; it is free to mutate, organize in higher complexity, attain feelings, and become self-conscious. Bounded by its environment, life finds itself free to be what it is according to the nature of each species it produces. It can become mammal, human, or virus.

One dangerous misunderstanding that needs to be dispelled is the idea that all of the world including all its events, because it is willed by God, is also determined by God. It leads to the erroneous concepts of predestination and providence. In and of themselves such concepts, properly understood and applied, may be helpful in thinking after God’s ways. One could say that because God willed the world God also carries the world to its proper end and fulfillment. In that sense God has predestined the world. Many, however, take this idea to mean that everything that happens is determined. Such divine determinism robs the world of its freedom and therefore its identity and meaning. One could also say that since God willed the world God provides for the world in all its needs. This is true in the sense that God pours Godself into the world in a kenotic self-abandonment. Many however take providence to entail either that God will make everything well in a person’s life or even that when evil befalls, it needs to be seen as divine providence.

The Corona virus is, to the contrary, neither willed by God in the sense of predestination nor intended as a kind of torturous divine providence. Viruses are part of life as it evolves on earth and as such are in a general sense willed by God. They are part of the preconditions under which life is possible. They are, however, not willed in a particular sense or concocted as a way for God to interact with the world and humanity. Bible writers may have been prone to see God’s hand in cataclysmic events interpreting these events as either retribution or blessings from God. With our knowledge of our complex world as well as our understanding of the devious ways in which the human heart finds self-justification and divine support for its own actions, we know that such interpretations do not hold water and fly into the face of the world as presents itself to us. Such understandings belong to a view of the the world that we have left behind in the modern age.

God and Evil

If God has given the world its life and its freedom, one question that comes up is this: Does God as creator not stand guilty of human evil, natural evil, or destructive viruses? One important point to make is that all theodicies (justifications of God in the face of evil) will ultimately fail because they ask for the wrong thing: the how of the nature of God. God is a bottomless ground with unfathomable depth to whom we can only refer by way of metaphor and myth. Claims of God as existent or non-existent are hopelessly inadequate to address the reality of God. An intuition that may be helpful to conceive of God as life-giving is to understand God as an unconscious ground whose consciousness emerges with creation’s awareness and consciousness (the Holy Spirit). This does not have to fly into the face of life as a gift. It simply means, that we encounter a barrier we cannot and should not cross. Another way is to understand God as the word we use to cover the problem of being and that in limit situations that cover is torn from the abyss at the heart of reality. We will come back to that later.

While the notion of God as corollary of the world may seem natural, it forces us to identify a problem. The world as it is is broken. We see both natural and human evil happening all around us. We don’t know what should perplex us more: natural, blind evil that simply happens as the result of natural processes or the willful human evil that intends something to be evil for its own sake. The first perplexes us because, we wonder, what is good about a world full of suffering? The second perplexes us as evil seems to have its own ontological reality, its own desire to manifest in flesh. Both lead to questions about God and God’s goodness. 

At the very least we have to propose a bifurcation between the intentions of God and what the world does with its freedom to be. The self-evolving process of the world leads to an existence, as Tennyson called it “red in tooth and claw.” There is evolution precisely because only the fittest survive. Without natural selection there is no life possible as we know it. The Corona pandemic shows us exactly how this mechanism works. The virus had adapted to its environment, mutates, and finds an effective entryway to new hosts as the host has no defense mechanism. Among the host species we see that the weakest cave in and die. Both virus and host are blindly involved in the struggle known as survival of the fittest. The virus will eventually have made enough inroads into the host that once antibodies develop it has found a way of reproducing itself and keeping its species alive in that particular host. 

The moment this process of natural selection becomes conscious in the human species something novel happens. We find a world that is turned in on itself. The blind process becomes a will to kill, torture, and maim, first for survival, then for gain, then for power, and then for its own sake. When we describe the world as the self-evolving self-giving of God’s life, we also acknowledge that it is given under the domination of mechanisms and systems of power and control. In pandemics most victims fall not only among those who are physically weak but among those groups that find themselves marginalized, among the economically disadvantaged, among those who are oppressed and exploited. The urge for survival has turned into a conscious act of domination and the rich are able to ward off the worst impact of the pandemic.

We notice, then, that the freedom accorded creation is turned inward unto bondage. The amount of self-inverted bondage is inversely proportionate to the amount of freedom given. Freedom increases with the self-unfolding of life. A virus has little freedom to stay alive beyond adaptive mutations. Human freedom, however, is self-reflective and rational, capable of moral decisions, capable of interpretation of means and needs, capable of understanding the address of the other as a call. It is also capable however to subsume such interpretations to the self-inverted freedom of bondage. For instance, where a virus can cause great harm, it is often the mechanisms of power, the systems of oppression, and the processes of self-enrichment that cause the virus to wreak havoc in ways the virus could never do on its own. We observe that the freedom to choose turns into a bondage of self-interest.

Human Freedom

To be human is to be called into relationship. This call is essentially ethical in nature and extends into the religious dimension of life. As such, to be human is to be religious. The religious nature of human beings expresses itself in this that we always make our lives about something, i.e. we dedicate our lives to a project; this is the sacrifice we make and it is inherent to human self-consciousness. The call of the other invites us to make the other the project of our own lives. My fulfillment lies in the thriving of the other. 

This is not what we do, however. Where a virus can decimate entire populations it is not guilty as it is without reflection and not conscious of the consequences of its own life. Human beings, on the other hand, are, in spite of their reflective capability, not only able to inflict as much harm on others but able to will it so. As such, many members of the human race and entire civilizations stand guilty for the harm inflicted on their fellow human being or groups within their societies. 

Another way to put the matter is that freedom entails guilt for there is no freedom that isn’t abused for selfish gain. This is where survival of the fittest is no longer the unavoidable mechanism by which life propels itself forward but becomes instead the self-destructive force that annihilates everything that is good. This is because the mechanism transgresses into the ethical sphere precisely at the point where human beings discover they are free; free to taste the tree of life and free to eat from the tree of of knowledge of good and evil. The knowledge makes evolution no longer innocent. And the freedom we discover is automatically inverted into bondage.

God as Problem

This, however, is not what God is at heart. The bifurcation between God and the world is commonly referred to as the fall. In spite of the mythical expression in the Genesis narrative, the fall has always been; it is given with creation. The fall is a historical event in the sense that there is no humanity with the willed decision for self-interest. The two mythical notions of creation and fall are wrapped up in the reality of the world’s self-evolving life; they constitute its potentiality and its self-destruction. This understanding of creation and sin’s self-involvement also implies that God as the name for that which gives life is, from our side of the equation, part of the problem. God is not the solution but the origin of the question and then only origin because we name it so. 

In all fairness, we might also erase the word God and speak of a void, of a limit to understanding and meaning. We pick up on an earlier train of thought that described God as the cover for a problem at the heart of reality. Indeed, as philosopher Slavoj Žižek suggests, we build our lives and societies around an empty hole, a nothingness. This doesn’t necessarily mean there is nothing. It simply means that we face a boundary of meaning which remains a gaping hole that gets masked but never solved. This is essentially a brokenness rather than a source of meaning.

This is not to suddenly take God from the equation but just to make clear that as much as the givenness of the world invites us to propose the idea of God, that same world in all its complexity leads human thinking to finally acknowledge the question mark and void that remains at the heart of reality. Metaphysical speculation will only get us so far in finding meaning in our world today. God or no God, we face tremendous challenges that need to be overcome with a pragmatism that reaches deep and high enough for us to find the courage to move on. 

The Corona virus, given the ways it is spreading and how defenseless the human immune system is, presents us with a tremendous challenge that, taken together with other threats like climate change and the impending collapse of biodiversity, overwhelms us and makes us realize that our systems were always fragile. The pandemic is a limit situation that forces us to realize that certainty and meaning are mere constructs. Before we know it, we may be plunged into an abyss of chaos and destruction. We wonder: where is the meaning and purpose to this all? Where is the guiding hand of providence in history? Like the Jews discovered in Auschwitz we may have to acknowledge: there is none.

Jesus Christ 

Luther was one of the first theologians to insist that we minimize metaphysical speculation and focus on the givenness at hand. Luther spoke of the hidden God and thought it was quite useless to determine the nature of this God or figure out what this God thought. Rather, following St. Paul in his first epistle to the Corinthians around 50 AD, Luther opted for a more or less radical reduction in theological thinking. We ought to focus on the revealed God in the person of Christ. Only the revealed God tells us who God is and what God wants. In the Christian tradition believers confess that the Word became flesh. God became human in the body and person of Jesus of Nazareth. We find a radical break between the way God is at times portrayed in the Old Testament and the way Jesus lives out the life of God in this world. Consonant with the insight of the prophets, Jesus represents a God who heals the wounded and does not snuff out the smoldering wick.

The trend, set in with Luther, to concentrate on Christ and not go beyond Christ to speculate about the divine nature has found a welcome seedbed in the 20th century trend toward post-metaphysical discourse. Bonhoeffer’s insistence on the importance of the natural embodied world and the nature of the Church as the continued presence of Christ as community in this world, fit right into this tendency. No attempts should be made to link the pandemic to divine action or resulting from certain motives in some exalted divine being. Such speculation runs aground on its own inconsistency and is usually perceived as yet another example of human hubris, self-preservation, and insecurity, if not outright idiocy. Instead, Christians should focus on the question of the identity and lived reality of Christ and perform a self-involving interpretation of the meaning of Christ for today.

Jesus of Nazareth represents a powerful move away from not only a harsh, antagonistic, or xenophobic interpretation of the mosaic law–as is often correctly observed–he represents, moreover, an entirely new kind of existence. It was so novel and disruptive at the time that his followers were convinced that in Christ they had encountered God. Christ is, in the Christian tradition, the self-giving God in the form of human flesh. Jesus lived out a radical break with a world red in tooth and claw. Not only did he not aspire to dominate others, his life was characterized by a complete absence of vindictiveness, self-justification, or hypocrisy. The agenda he pursued was the very opposite of self-preservation. His followers were not able to follow him and those in power had to move heaven and earth to get rid of him. Only women seem to have gotten an inkling of what he was all about.

Following Christ

Christ called people to follow him. And he still issues a call to live a life that is in radical opposition to religious hypocrisy, political domination, in response to the need of the other. Inasmuch Christ represents this new way of life and lived it out, he embodies a new kind of being, as Bonhoeffer says, that is structured as self-giving. Christ’s existence is not like that of others with the mere difference that he exudes a positive vibe. Christ’s very being is self-giving and love. The remarkable thing is that he calls human beings to participate in this new kind of being of self-giving. 

When Christians talk about being in Christ they mean exactly that, namely, that they participate in the being of Christ that does not respond to life’s hardships, dangers, and uncertainty with self-preservation but by self-giving. The greater the threat, the greater the giving. The greater the suffering, the greater the participation in life’s sufferings. Like Christ, in whom God partook and participated in the sufferings and anxiety of the world so we, in Christ, give ourselves entirely to a world in need without the desire to hold back for the sake of our survival over against that of our neighbor.

Christ, who suffered the ultimate violence of crucifixion, is the call to answer the call of the other. In him we see the other, through him we participate in a world in agony, with him we give expression to God’s desire to liberate humanity and world to its true freedom. This is the beginning of the kingdom of God, in humility, suffering, and love. This is the meaning of Christianity: the humble presence with those who suffer, not the doctrine that describes how the invisible God may be related

Jesus as Lord

Limit situations like the Corona virus outbreak but also the climate change that is going to impact us, bring us in a liminal space. We cannot go on as usual. The demand is upon us to act responsibly and work together with others to reduce the spread of infection, to care for the weak, alleviate suffering and prevent death. What we see happening, however, is that the world descends into chaos. If it wasn’t for the restraining effect of the government, people would respond to crises with self-preservation and even return to the depraved state of tooth and claw. Of course, we do not know how the COVID-19 pandemic will evolve but so far we see the infections rising at an alarming rate to a point where health care systems will soon be overwhelmed and collapse. We hear of heartbreaking situations in Italy where people are being denied care as people with a greater life expectancy are given preferential treatment. There are people who are left to die in solitude. Clearly, the fittest are surviving in Italy.

Christians confess Jesus as Lord over everything that lives. What does it mean that Jesus is Lord in the face of a pandemic? We need to take a principled stance against those religious voices that imply this to mean that the Corona virus is directly willed by God either as a punishment or as a way to test humanity. This is to confuse Jesus Christ with the becoming of God in and through creation. If Jesus is the Son sent by the Father this is not to be understood as two conscious entities who confer together about how to execute a plan of dominion. Those who claim to either sell God-given medicine against the corona virus or proclaim healing through a tv screen for exploited donors are clearly in the wrong already quite apart from their megalomaniac claims. Finally, those who think that Corona can simply be overcome by believing in and proclaiming Christ’s lordship are living with theirs heads in the cloud as it is obvious that Corona is a pandemic. No lordship here! These people confuse the world as it is now with the kingdom of God as it shimmers beyond the horizon of human possibility. What is more, claiming Christ’s lordship without being like Christ toward the world commits the fatal flaw that dichotomizes faith and works.

If we claim Jesus Christ as lord, we should pay attention to how the Scriptures portray Christ’s lordship. In the Gospel of John, the exaltation of Christ consists of a cross, while elsewhere it is insisted again and again that the divine king is the servant of humanity. The lord of life dies for his beloved, the master washes the feet of the servants. Jesus is the lord of a new kingdom that is coming. It’s dawning wherever people are encountered by the living Christ and partake of his nature. It doesn’t come in power but constitutes a power in and through weakness and meekness. This kingdom is a new reality, a new way of life that cares for the weak and sustains those who are broken. Of course, in the end, this kingdom is seen as a greater threat than COVID-19 or any other danger because there is no greater challenge than the one that invites people to lose their lives for the sake of their neighbor. 

The invitation to be truly free

Yet, this particular limit situation, where the world is in danger of succumbing to the mechanisms of a natural world red in tooth and claw and caves in to the pandemonium of mayhem, hoarding, and screaming, is for Christians an invitation to live their lives as not their own. Christians are, in Christ and as members of the kingdom, enabled and invited to understand our lives to be a gift to be lived and poured out for others. Practically, this can mean many things. The persecuted Christians in Wuhan, China, have offered themselves to take care of the sick. They are not taking their oppression as an excuse not to get involved but rather see in it an opportunity to show that they truly embody a different kind of life. When Christians respond to the need the civic duty of neighborly love and the call that issues from Christ conflate in making the kingdom of God a reality that whispers of what could be.

Dark clouds loom indeed but let us remember the words of St. Paul “whether we live or die, we do so in Christ.” May we remind ourselves that being in Christ is not a static position of privilege but an active lived out praxis of a certain kind of being in the world that is free to give itself. In Christ we are able to respond to the need of our neighbor. As rational self-reflecting and sentient beings we always hear the call but are not able to respond in true freedom because of our evolutionary self-inversion. Christ enables us to hear and respond. Christ is, as such, the fulfillment of the religious nature of humanity but is so in a non-religious way, for where true giving manifests the religious falls away and the reality of the kingdom of God manifests.

Precisely at the limit situation of a pandemic that, as a natural expression of the natural world red in tooth and claw, is a temptation to respond similarly in an utter attempt at self-preservation be it at the expense of others, we are reminded of a freedom that is otherwise and that doesn’t fear disease, death, or destruction. In Christ we have the freedom to be otherwise than the world in its self-inverted freedom turned bondage that is ultimately self-destructive. We are free to be available for others amidst the Corona pandemic and the other threats that loom at the horizon of our fragile neoliberal society. This is the kingdom of God that dawns wherever people are infected by the love of God in Christ.

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