Covid and the God-Sized Hole in the Heart of the West
The pandemic has exposed a deeper sickness in secular-humanist society.
In early April our Catholic Church offered a drive-in food donation drive and Eucharistic Adoration. Stranger than the social distancing practice of dropping off the donations was the incongruity of seeing our priest approach us with the monstrance and to feel repelled and attracted at once. Repelled by fear of the virus. Attracted by the sacrament Covid denied us and which Catholics believe is the body of Christ. The Priest’s eyes were sullen as he said “I miss you, and I love you” as we slowly drove past.
As I think back on this moment now, I am reminded of Mathew 4:4 “One does not live by bread alone.” A truer verse could not be spoken of these times, when many of us are lucky enough to have our fridges full but still hunger in our souls. Covid has exposed a crack, with the potential to become a catastrophic floodgate failure, in the dam that materialism and secular humanism has built around man’s search for the eternal. What held the water back until now was a simple premise: Progress, technology and material comfort will sate your needs and provide all the answers. Death can be pushed to the margins of consciousness by various forms of self-care and chalked off to the random machinations of the universe when the Grim Reaper prevails over the former. You are both the source of and the solution to any problem you may encounter in the search for meaning you may embark upon. Any attempt to justify your existence likewise starts and ends with you. You are the measure of all things.
All of these anthropological claims about the nature of existence, as Anthony Pagden points out in The Enlightenment: And Why it Still Matters (2013), are not in fact timeless truths, but inventions of 18th Century philosophes. The Enlightenment philosophers took Thomas Aquinas’s Christianized natural law, rebranded it as natural rights, and made off like a thief in the night with new presumptions about human nature. Gone was the idea that all humans were by nature relational beings who sought out the community of others; gone was the notion that man had imprinted on his soul the desire to search for and know God. In their stead was Locke’s “blank slate” of a potentially perfectible mankind shaped by his environment and the freely assumed obligations of the self-interested individual. Even things as fundamental as ties to family and nation, as Yoram Hazony points out, were construed as somehow “chosen” by the individual as he emerged from the pre-hisotrical “state of nature.” As Hazony surmises:
“In reducing political life to the individual’s pursuit of life and property, Locke did not merely offer an impoverished and unsuccessful account of human motivation and action. His political theory summoned into being a dream-world, a utopian vision, in which the political institutions of the Jewish and Christian world–the national state, community, family, and religious tradition–appear to have no reason to exist.” (30)
It is a great irony–Or is it?–that Covid lockdowns have compounded the flaws of the West and America’s individualistic technocracy construed since the Age of Reason. We live lives surrounded by technology, relative material comfort, and bonds which are freely chosen, dissolved, or added upon according to individual choice. And yet despite our manifold freedoms to self-invent and self-define to our heart’s content, we feel alone. According to a recent CDC study, 40% of respondents identified adverse health effects related to the pandemic, ranging from depression to substance abuse and even suicidal ideation. All of these statistics are up from pre-pandemic levels, but arguably accentuate trends already evident in American life such as the opioid crisis and a burgeoning anxiety crisis among the young.
The question of what to do about our overlapping Covid and loneliness crisis–each of which reinforce each other–is where Covid, Christianity, and the Culture Wars all converge. One the one hand, as the prospect of a successful vaccine becomes increasingly likely–and thank God for that–secular humanists like Steven Pinker will continue to stall for time with bromides such as the following: “Evolution is a competitive process and we are kind of sitting ducks except for our ability to defeat our natural enemies by the application of reason.” This is a simple run-out the clock strategy: defer all the questions and all the existential angst generated by the pandemic until reason once again comes to the rescue, at which point we can pivot back to bread, circuses, and the god of progress. The other alternative, of course, is to make politics the end goal of our lives. Civil rights becomes civil religion. The latest iteration of wokeness is one of the many born-again revivals found acceptable within the confines of secular reason, because they point to eternal struggle, but not to eternity itself. Earthly utopias are not heavenly edifices and thus pose no danger to the technocratic arrangement.
Christianity, on the other hand, provides a more comprehensive–and thus more threatening to the Pinkers of the world–view of human existence. Our life is not about us, as Catholic apologist Bishop Barron says, but about discovering God’s will for us. It is precisely our unchosen obligations–to God, to our families, to our fellow human beings, even to the natural world–and how we respond to them, which define us as human beings. In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen similarly points to the pre-modern definition of freedom as liberation from our own egotism in service of the common good. The Covid crisis is a unique, temporary, ( hopefully once a generation or less) opening for Christians to plead their case for meaning, purpose and fulfillment. It’s also a chance to gain a leg up in the Culture Wars before “back to normal” or “life as usual” buries us once again in a world of distraction by design. As liberals love to say, never let a crisis go to waste.
Kurt Hofer is a native Californian with a PhD in Spanish Literature. He teaches high school history in a Los Angeles area independent school.