Easter Sunday, 2020. David Kramer next to statue of the Virgin Mary in the Our Lady Grotto at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton [Photo: a passerby] See An eerie quiet at McQuaid Jesuit High School in Brighton
By George Cassidy Payne. George has theology degrees from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School and Emory University and is a SUNY Humanities adjunct professor of philosophy.
Pew Research recently asked Americans (March 19-24) about their prayer behavior during the Coronavirus outbreak, and found that “over half of all Americans, 55%, say they have prayed for an end to the spread of the coronavirus, and among some groups that percentage is significantly higher. This includes about eight in 10 evangelical Protestants and black Protestants and about two-thirds of Catholics.”
Most Americans Say Coronavirus Outbreak Has Impacted Their Lives
Nearly nine-in-ten U.S. adults say their life has changed at least a little as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak…
A different poll by Gallop showed that 19% of Americans interviewed between March 28 and April 1 said their faith or spirituality has gotten better as a result of the crisis, while 3% say it has gotten worse, for a net of +16 percentage points.
Surveys like these are interesting, but they do not interest me as much as the theological assumptions which undergird them. As a student of theology, what matters more to me than people’s individual beliefs in the efficacy of prayer and the psychological benefits of religion in general, is whether an almighty and all-good God can be compatible with something as insidious and destructive as the coronavirus.
In theological circles, the question has a technical term known as Theodicy, (from Greek theos, “god”; dikē, “justice”), which is the explanation of why a perfectly good, almighty, and all-knowing God permits evil.
The more one examines theodicies, it becomes clear that there are numerous options available and the simple question about whether God is responsible for an evil phenomenon such as the coronavirus is a question that presupposes far more than it should.
For starters, God may have created the virus and maintains absolute control over its spread. This could be a temporary situation for reasons beyond our comprehension. After all, our finite understanding is not capable of understanding the actions of a God who acts beyond the human inventions of good and evil.
It could be the case that God created the virus and allows it to exist forever. Again, as mortals with a limited capacity for knowledge, we would have no way of knowing whether this is good or bad from a divine perspective.
Another possibility is that God may not have created the virus but yet somehow it came to be and now manages to operate beyond God’s control, if only temporarily. This is similar to those who contend that human freedom produces choices that God did not author yet eventually will judge in the future.
Far direr for most theists — especially in the west — is the option that God did not create the virus but it exists beyond God’s control forever. This is a spectator God who is hardly worthy of worship.
It could be the case that there is no God or evil. That is always an option that must be duly considered. If that is true, the Coronavirus is, as the epidemiologists explain, a natural phenomenon with completely natural explanations. Blaming God is akin to blaming the tooth fairy or Santa Claus.
It could be that God exists but the virus does not, an argument that may placate a Christian Scientist, but not a family member of the deceased in New York City or Seattle.
Perhaps God does not create phenomena such as infectious diseases, but since they exist — and may have always existed — God has absolute control over it. A position that sounds tenable on the surface but also implies that God wanted 100,000 people to die, in many cases quite fearful and painful deaths.
It could be that God does not create but accepts viruses and does not care how they affect us. Many of our forefathers and foremothers were of this persuasion. This is a position commonly referred to as deism, the belief that God is an all-powerful cosmic force, but one divested of human affairs. Why viruses exist has nothing to do with humanity, even if their presence causes human suffering. That is our problem, not God’s.
Then there is the mad scientist God. This is a reckless and chaotic God who may have created the virus and has no way of stopping it. Why this was done is anyone’s guess.
Needless to say, there are plenty of nontheistic explanations available as well.
It could be that God does not exist but the virus does, if only temporarily.
It could be that there is no God, but evil exists on its own and forever. Or that there has never been a time in the history of our planet and solar system when viruses did not exist, or that evil is everlasting; or that God is flat out evil. A coronavirus is explained quite neatly by an all-powerful, all-knowing, all malevolent dictator God.
Perhaps, as Freud taught, the reality of evil produces a psychological obsession with God.
What if there is an all-powerful God of goodness and an equally powerful God of evil, an ancient idea once known as Manicheanism? Or one good God and more than one evil god?
See, this is the challenge of blaming God for a pandemic. It is far more complex than most people care to consider. Before one has the right to assign blame or praise to God, they must declare which theodicy they are using to make their argument and why their position is justified more than all of the rest. It so often comes down to faith. But faith is just another feeling that we have when we think we are right. As Krishnamurti once said, “Religion is the frozen thought of men out of which they build temples.”
In “Easter Sunday in Rochester: What pastors plan to preach as coronavirus overshadows all” (Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 4/12/20), five pastors in Monroe County discuss what they plan to speak about this week:
See Russ Douthat’s column in today’s The New York Times: “The Pandemic and the Will of God: The purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but the search for meaning is obligatory.”
Perhaps God just chose to break his own promise after the flood never to inflict disaster upon his people again.
Bringing God into it simply compounds the problem — God has apparently allowed unimaginable evil to flourish since the beginning of time, which suggests that He doesn’t care to intervene in the affairs of mankind.