"Reason is always a kind of brute force; those who appeal to the head rather than the heart, however pallid and polite, are necessarily men of violence. We speak of 'touching' a man's heart, but we can do nothing to his head but hit it." --G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, April 16, 2020

God, Gaia, and COVID: at the root, be not afraid

My latest work for the BC Catholic:

With the COVID crisis now in its second month, it’s increasingly common, and completely understandable, for people to search for meaning in such an unusual and frighteningly impactful event. Indeed, our search for meaning, in times of both crisis and contemplation, is central to humanity.

In ages past – during the time of the Black Death, for example – plagues such as the one that currently befalls us were widely seen as punishments from God. Today, however, our more scientific and rational worldview largely eschews such “angry-god” interpretations.

Exceptions exist, of course. A spokesman for the radical Islamist group ISIS, for example, asserted that the coronavirus is a “soldier of God” sent to expose the “brittleness and vulnerability” of the West’s material strength. And John Carson, an adviser to a leading Irish political party, asserted in early April that COVID-19 is “God’s wrath against corrupt governments” that legalized same-sex marriage and abortion.

As well, the traditionalist website LifeSiteNews reported that Catholic prelates such as Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes and Bishop Athanasius Schneider “see the corona crisis as a punishment from God, just as God has punished His people in the past when they erred into sin and faithlessness. Recently, Bishop Schneider had called the coronavirus crisis ‘a divine intervention to chastise and purify the sinful world and also the Church.’”

A theology student at a protest in Toronto.
God may indeed be displeased with both humanity’s obsession with material goods and its legalization of morally indefensible activities, but a belief that he is now punishing all of us for those actions is not consistent with Church teaching. Indeed, as Archbishop Michael Miller observed in a March 27 video interview, the COVID-19 outbreak “is not a chastisement or a punishment or anything of that sort. Sometimes people start thinking that way, and I think that’s just mistaken.”

Wise words, indeed.

What, then, of a growing number of published opinions that view the pandemic, not as a punishment from the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but as a reprimand or castigation from another entity, one that goes by the names of Mother Earth and Mother Nature?

Consider the words of Ed Finn, a former leader of the NDP in Newfoundland, who wondered whether COVID-19 is “Mother Nature’s latest effort to rid herself of the virus of mankind.” At the least, such a comment strikes a discordant note coming from someone who, as a former politician, should be seeking to serve humanity, not describing humanity as a “virus.” Equally troubling is Finn’s characterization of Mother Nature as a conscious entity who has decided to wreak vengeance on mankind. We await the evidence.

Similarly, writing on the “Counterpunch” website, Evaggelos Vallianatos, an environmental strategist who worked at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years and is the author of six books, had this to say in a column titled Nature’s Revenge: “The corona virus pandemic is no accident. Like past global epidemics, it’s a warning that nature has had it with the ecocidal proclivities of man. Nature (the Earth) is fighting back. Climate change is sowing pandemic diseases.”

One can be forgiven for having difficulty finding a foothold of prudence and wisdom, let alone scientific fact, in such an assertion. What’s more, one searches in vain for an explanation for the inconvenient fact that pandemics aplenty existed in the pre-Industrial Age.

It doesn’t take someone with a degree in theology to see that the ubiquity of such responses is linked to enduring remnants of the New Age movement’s attribution of mystical aspects to the Gaia hypothesis – the conjecture that the Earth is a complex and self-regulating system involving all organic and inorganic entities. While meant to be a scientific theory, it has encouraged adherents to, in effect, deify the Earth by imbuing it with qualities associated with the primordial goddess of Greek mythology after whom the hypothesis was named.

Certainly, humanity’s appreciation of the many wonders of the Earth has grown in lockstep with the deepening not only of our scientific knowledge about the natural environment, but also of the harm humans can do to it. As Christians, it is also natural for us to ponder the question of how we can best be responsible stewards of God’s creation.

A good example of such rumination is Pope Francis’s 2019 book, Our Mother Earth, which called for a “spiritual rebirth” leading to “a profound revision of our cultural and economic models” that would not only be more environmentally prudent but also promote justice. The work challenged many Catholics, but should not have come as a surprise given Pope Francis’ long record of social and environmental declarations.

His more recent statements related to the cause of the COVID pandemic can be more challenging still. He told a Spanish journalist in March, “There’s a saying, which you have heard: ‘God always forgives. We sometimes forgive. Nature never forgives,’” the Pope said.

Pope Francis did not portray the pandemic as a punishment from God, but he did opine that it was the result of nature having a “tantrum” or a “fit” over environmental degradation.

He elaborated on his comment in a later interview. “I don’t know if it is nature’s revenge, but it is certainly nature’s response,” he said of the pandemic. “Every crisis contains both danger and opportunity: the opportunity to move out from the danger. Today I believe we have to slow down our rate of production and consumption and to learn to understand and contemplate the natural world.”

Coincidentally, the quasi-quarantine condition that we are currently enduring has inspired some of us to do exactly that – contemplate the natural world (as found in our backyards at least). And although Pope Francis has not made a technical argument about the relationship between human action and the natural world’s reaction, his opinion certainly deserves our contemplation too.

So, what are we to make of all this? As always, we are called upon to give prayerful consideration to life’s problems, especially when they involve such grave issues. God gave us our brains to engage in rational thought, our hearts to feel, and our conscience to guide us. Our faith illuminates all this and will surely help us to act accordingly.

What seems to be important now is to keep the faith as well as to keep calm. Indeed, in his video interview, Archbishop Miller acknowledged that while “fear is understandable” as an emotion and something leads us to act prudently, “there is no need to fear in the deeper sense, the spiritual sense.”

He suggested the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, who proposed the following way of discerning: “If there is fear or panic or lack of calm interiorly, that lack is a sign of things not going well, not going for the best. And so I think that we have to really rely on our faith and be able to experience both fear as a human emotion, and understand that, but not ultimately to be afraid.”

Terry O’Neill is a journalist and a parishioner at St. Joseph’s, Port Moody.