Tuesday, June 22, 2021

COVID-19 and Suffering and God

Wati Aier

Thirty years ago, on my way to Bade to survey land donated by the village for what would become the Oriental Theological Seminary Campus I met a young man from Bihar at the Ura Village Tinali. I had stopped at this young man’s paan shop to purchase some bottles of mineral water that hot summer day. Over the years, this man became a familiar face on my daily trips to the Seminary, and over the decades, I saw him raise his children from small babies to grown adults. On May 6, 2021, COVID-related complications took the man’s life, which I came to know only after he was cremated. Last Monday, on returning from Bade I made a stop outside his home in Ura. The moment his wife and children saw me, I was engulfed by a feeling of sadness. Before saying a prayer for the grief-stricken wife and children, I said, “Iswar laga shanti nijor monti takibi”. Driving home to Dimapur, I wondered whether my prayer and words were justified when the deceased’s family members were so overwhelmed by the loss of a beloved husband and father.
This pandemic of our contemporary era, with over 3 million deaths, reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, a portrayal of human tragedy and absurdity. I am reminded of this play nowadays because of the seemingly tragic and absurd circumstances that surround the pandemic. Regardless, I find something inherently nihilistic in wallowing in this tragedy and absurdity. I, for one, am more inclined to look beyond the meaninglessness of our conditions and to face historical happenings without taking pleasure at nullifying the presence of a divine reality.
Without a doubt, COVID-19 has crashed the optimism of the post-modern era. In such a time, history tells us that any optimism, though helpful, is dangerously anthropocentric if based solely on the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Firstly, in our time, anthropocentrism is seen in the deification of humankind as saviors. Time and again, however, the notion that deified men and women can direct the course of history has proven to be false. As it turns out, the present happenings of pain and misery cannot be placed on the subject of theodicy ~ the justice and divine goodness of God; rather, they must be placed on anthropodicy ~ a humanist argument that seeks to justify the fundamental good of humans despite some evil human acts. History bears witness to the fact that instead of God, humankind is the perpetrator of misdeeds through evil intention and self-glorification.
Second, most popularly, the classic approach of the atheist is, “If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, why does God allow widespread catastrophes like COVID-19 to happen? Therefore, God must not exist. “Much so with Modernism and Postmodernism, an overwhelming feeling of the absence of God has been the impetus for the belief that God does not exist, which, by its very definition, is a form of religion itself. Conversely, such logic has been the occasion for the most primal and basic trust of faith in transcendence beyond this empirical world of senses alone.
How, then, can one trust in a good God in the midst of suffering and death? Professor Elie Wiesel, a survivor of the Nazi Holocaust and a Nobel Laureate, when asked about God vis-à-vis his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp responded, “It seemed impossible to conceive of Auschwitz with God as to conceive of Auschwitz without God.” He reverses from the absence of God in the world to the pathos of God. Simply because God is, humanity can face enormous suffering, pain, and death. Professor Wiesel went on to say, “I rarely speak of God. To God, yes. I protest against Him. I shout at Him. But open discourse about the qualities of God, about the problems that God imposes, theodicy, no. And yet He is there, in silence, in filigree.”
To be sure, humanity cannot glorify pain, suffering, and death ~ but our world avoids pain, suffering, and death nonetheless, which is a sign of our emptiness. A common occurrence in today’s world is that we have become incapable of suffering because we have pushed aside suffering from our consciousness. As a result, hope for the future grows dimmer in our consciousness and our capacity to suffer and mourn is emptied from our being. We essentially give up from being active participants in history because we run away from suffering.
In this light, St. Paul’s letter to the Romans needs to be highlighted with clarity: “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us” (Romans 5: 2-5).
Paul is not an irrational man. He does not begin from subjective idealism, but rather from an objective realism, when he says that the love of God is poured into our hearts. The readiness to empathize others’ suffering and the power to face suffering with hope comes from the strength to love which is given to us by the Holy Spirit. For Paul, the source for such a love, which goes beyond human limits, is not found in metaphysics but rather is experienced in the One who suffered and died at the Cross. Paul found love at the Cross, which came to meet him.
Humanity’s ability to love has its foundation in the experience of being loved. In the theology of Paul it is called the love of God at the Cross of Christ. Divine love is a creative love for the outcasts, the fallen woman and man, the sorrowful and the painful, the hopeless. This creative love is from the work of God, and when humanity experiences such love, it lifts them to new heights. If today’s woman and man should “accept and value” themselves as motivational speakers suggest, then we surely need this love to be able to face the suffering, pain, and death that we will inevitably face.
In 2 Corinthians 4: 8-10, Paul testifies: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” The world may scorn at Paul’s theology has being weak. Regardless, the followers of Christ find strength in the seemingly “powerless Cross of Christ” and learn the power of hope.
Today, COVID-19 is ravaging the world. Our future seems swallowed up in our present suffering. A world without hope is a humanity that has become cold and numb to sorrow and pain. It is not ridiculous, however, to accept suffering in the world filled with apathy and trauma. It is not ridiculous to love others as our own. It is not ridiculous to trust in God in a world of uncertainty.
Paul’s love of God at the Cross of Jesus Christ does not protect us from all suffering as much as it protects us in all suffering. The God of love did not spare His own Son but died for us. Therefore, how can God fail to give us everything? (Romans 8: 32). This is Paul’s reason that nothing can endanger the Christian, since nothing can separate her from this love of God manifested in Jesus Christ. For Paul, theodicy is not merely theological theory but a much-lived and sustainable way of life. Indeed, we are all called to this hope!
The writer is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Constructive Theology, Oriental Theological Seminary