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One lesson of the pandemic? Humility

It turns out that humans are not in control of the universe

Moviegoers social distance at a theater in Bangkok, Thailand. Associated Press/Photo by Sakchai Lalit

One lesson of the pandemic? Humility

Do you even remember a world without COVID? Whatever else it is, the Covid-19 pandemic has been an invitation for humility—the humility to know that we are only part of nature, not its masters, and the humility to remember that whatever choices we make are constrained by the choices of countless others—above all the fateful choice of Adam all those eons ago.

As our long pandemic begins its latest (and hopefully last) long melancholy ebb, leaving in its wake shattered lives, shattered friendships, and divided churches, there is a grave risk that it will leave us having failed to learn the most important lesson it should teach us: that we live in a world of tragedy.

The modern mind is accustomed to mastery: mastery over our material world and all the forces of nature, which we have, we are apt to think, long since bent to our will—for good and for ill. We live in climate-controlled houses and drive in climate-controlled cars; we even, it seems, live on a globe whose climate we are inadvertently controlling.

Every now and again, a natural disaster provides a rude awakening, toppling whatever technological marvels we have constructed to control nature and reminding us that we inhabit a cosmos of powers far greater than our own. Increasingly, however, when faced with such catastrophes, instead of bowing in humility we cast about for someone to blame—betraying our basic arrogance, which presupposes that whatever happens in this world must be the product of human causes.

When Covid-19 first hit in the late winter of 2020, it crashed upon us with the vehemence of a tsunami, reminding us how small we still were, and that, for all our extraordinary medical advances, we still inhabit fragile bodies that can be snuffed out by an invisible virus. So what did we do?

Many of us—particularly on the left—did what modern man does best: we went into management mode. Here was another problem for modern science and modern government to solve—just step aside, listen to the experts, and we would bring it all under control. Others—particularly on the right—instead went into denial, refusing to admit that our comfortable late-modern world could truly be disrupted by such a grave threat. “It’s a huge problem; but we can handle it” or “we can’t handle it; but it must not be a big deal”—those seemed to be the alternatives. But what about Option C: a true calamity that could defy our ingenuity? No one seemed eager to admit that option.

In saying this, I do not mean to countenance fatalism, or to justify the attitude that shrugged its shoulders and said, “Why even try to save lives?” Our choices still matter, but often, there are no good choices. For the outnumbered general on a battlefield, wise decisions are essential, but there may be no decision that does not involve painful sacrifice. The same is true in more mundane matters—for the husband, father, and pastor left with too little time and too many crises to honor all his commitments.

As Americans, we like to think that we can have it all—a message too often reinforced by misguided Christian inspirational speakers who teach that it is only sinful desires that are at war with one another. But so are good desires—we live in a finite and fallen world, in which the goods we seek to protect cannot always all be saved.

The fact is, we are not in charge. All of us, rather, are at the mercy of the awesome forces of nature, which God wields in judgment to remind us of how small we humans are, despite our spaceships and electron microscopes. In a fallen world, we must have the humility to cut one another a little slack, remembering that even faithfulness is often beset with futility, and that not all human problems will have human solutions.

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

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