The current coronavirus pandemic can be coped with much better if there is a system of meaning ‘from above’, rather than merely ‘from below’.
The ultimate expression of men and women, is their minds. The paradox is that we have to play the role of God (or a ‘god’), while, at the same time denying this role.
There are two ways in which a human dilemma or disaster can be tackled. Depending on the answer to this, there are two possible responses: If the crisis is deemed manageable, then an active response, tackling external causes and effects, should be attempted.
And, if the crisis cannot be managed by active, behavioural responses, then an internal, cognitive, and belief-orientated response might be more helpful.
Ideally, both strategies might yield the most fruitful strategies for addressing a social or personal disaster, such as a pandemic. Some beliefs and active strategies can indeed prove delusional and dysfunctional, and, in this case, a ‘weak absolutism’ might be the best answer. This is the case where a proposal is put forward as if an absolute, but is open to critical testing and amendment, and thus development.
Regarding coronavirus, both active, behavioural, and inner, cognitive, belief-based strategies should be adopted. Much depends on the inventory of tools, scientific and spiritual, that are available.
It may be that proud, vain and insecure tyrannies with huge egos can enforce lockdowns more efficiently, but are more vulnerable to secretiveness and lack of prosocial disclosure of information wherewith to prevent both the emergence and spread of a virus.
Democracies may be slower to react, but have better answers in the longer run, as information flow and cooperation begin to take effect, and investigative journalism presses in on secretive laboratories.
Modern western people look downwards towards the creation; people in the past found their coping in looking ‘upwards’ to God. This, of course, begs the question of the nature of this belief, as some beliefs are highly dysfunctional in terms of health, while others enhance life and health. For most people, facing reality improves their adaptability and problem-solving ability.
Exceptions might be those facing severe illness, where delusion might enhance their coping. The 3,000 year old proverb that the ‘simple man believes everything, while the prudent looks where he is going’, stands true, as longevity studies demonstrate.
In a Christian view, there are two theologies with very different understandings, and therefore which facilitate completely different coping strategies. These outlooks will determine how coronavirus will be managed.
The more dominant approach is Calvinism, which understands that every event that happens in the universe is directly under God’s sovereign power, even demonic powers. If this were not so, God is not God.
‘Arminian’ Christians, take a very different view. Arminianism, and its modern offspring, Openness Theology, understand God as being Love. God does not ‘act’ love; He is love. This is the essence of who God is, not his ‘sovereign power’.
Calvinism, and its progenitor, Augustinianism, must therefore provide coping by explaining that coronavirus, like all evil, is in fact ultimately ‘good’, because it is part of the Divine Will. It is not difficult to see that the slavery in the Caribbean, the Nazis and Pol Pot and all other mass genocides are thereby the result of God’s will.
The Arminian/Openness perspective holds that the future is open, and not determined, at least by God, and certainly not directly. God started the process in the original act of creation; after that, in Sartre’s famous words, ‘man is condemned to be free’, that there is ‘no reality except in action’, and that ‘action precedes essence’.
There is indeed a well-known dynamic flow between action and attitude. Relative to both individual and collective self-understandings, people are responsible for their actions and the identity (‘essence’) they make for themselves.
To the extent that we have understanding and physical capacity, people have accountability. The cruel randomness within a pandemic may indeed contribute to levelling the playing field to some extent.
Coronavirus shows a spread of victims, thereby suggesting genetic factors, while a concentration in the Black and ethnic minority communities suggests epigenetics (chemicals attaching to the cell and releasing or inhibiting the expression of the gene) could well be involved, derived from both past and present history of trauma, abuse and poverty.
The theologian Paul Tillich wrote that all anxiety is rooted in anxiety about meaning.
Society has always concerned itself with creating a ‘sacred canopy’, as Peter Berger has said, as a collective expression of this, and thereby needs constant reassurance through its ‘plausibility structures’.
How the coronavirus is understood, and the huge anxiety at both individual and collective levels that this pandemic generates, therefore relates to the reservoir of meanings that facilitate coping, whether this be in the form of denial or directly facing the potentially deadly illness, recognising its pathologies, and addressing them.
Sartre wrote that man is “condemned to be free”, and that he is ‘in consequence forlorn’. Both Camus and Sartre saw man as a hero, a Sisyphus, rolling a stone up and down a hill, for ever and ever, heroically triumphing over the meaninglessness of life.
Is the battle against the coronavirus such a battle, or is it part of a cosmic struggle, far bigger than we can imagine, or understand? Could it be that there is better answer to the ‘cruel necessity’ of the coronavirus?