NEWS FROM THE CENTER FRIDAY DIGEST March 25, 2022 - No Higher Authority? The Epicentral Question of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Two years ago, I quoted Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary for President Bill Clinton, who said,
The true battle (of the 21st Century) will be between the modern society and the anti-modernists; between those who believe in the primacy of the individual and those who believe that human beings owe their allegiance and identity to a higher authority; between those who give priority to life in this world and those who believe that human life is a mere preparation for existence beyond life; between those who believe in science, reason, and logic and those who believe that truth is revealed through Scripture and religious dogma; Terrorism will disrupt and destroy lives. But it is not the greatest danger that we face.
 Ramesh Ponnuru, “Robert Reich’s Religion Problem,” National Review Online, July 6, 2004
It still amazes me how brash, condescending, and dismissive his statement is. I could argue that belief in God is actually the source of his individual liberties. This is because the Western concept of the individual grew out of the notion of two public sovereigns, the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor (which grew out of the biblical distinction between the things of God and the things of Caesar; see Matt. 22:17-21). I could also argue that modern science grew out of a biblical worldview that sanctified the investigation of the dirt-level of life, rather than eschew it like the elites of so many pagan cultures before us did. After all, if God created human beings, that establishes an inherent dignity to the physical, human level of life. And if God then visited humans at that level (a foundational Christian teaching), then of course the “elites” of our culture shouldn’t mind putting their hands in the dirt as well!
What discoveries we started to make when we were willing to sanctify the research that used to be thought of as “beneath” us. I counter Reich’s caricature of the uselessness of those who see life as “eternal” by pointing out the nihilistic focus that his worldview has unleashed on our culture and on our world. If life is eternal, then what you do now matters. If life is merely one thing after another until you die, then nothing ultimately matters. So, which of these two views gives purpose and meaning to each day? Bring on the conversation, because belief in one, true higher authority brings civility, humanness, peace, and even salvation in the midst of this sinful, broken world. Other false “higher” authorities, when unleashed, bring tyranny.
My reason for citing this quote today pertains less to that enduring discussion than to the way many are facing the challenges of COVID-19. Amidst the data emanating from our health experts and politicians, real fears are not being vanquished; they are intensifying. With every solution, people are facing the possibility of their own mortality and demanding that such things be overcome. They are instinctively seeking answers from a higher authority. At this moment in time, people are also struggling with the notion of who to trust and turn to amidst all of the fear, uncertainty, and even despair. And too many are being counseled not to look to God, but to science, technology, political efforts, and earthly power alone. Yikes! I chuckle a bit when I see politicians puff their chest out and say, “God didn’t do this; we did!” Governor Cuomo, who I think is doing a fine job overall, seems to forget that even if he locks people down, the human body with its God-given immune system, along with the medical knowledge of God-given anti-bodies and potential vaccines that lay in wait for us to discover, are the things that can really heal and protect us.
If the COVID-19 virus has taught us anything, it has taught us how fragile life is even now. It has also taught us that there are things bigger than our best efforts, things beyond our capabilities to master. All of our technology and power, as well as our very own lives, can suddenly be overwhelmed by something as small as this virus. As we face tomorrow, the Bible instructs us to number our days (Ps. 90:12). Why? Because our life is not our own. It is a gift from God. This “faith in God” perspective doesn’t run from reality. It faces it with the courage, perseverance, and the perspective necessary to put our knowledge to work for the good of others without fear. Science, technology, individualism, “survival of the fittest,” and all the modern “shibboleths” of so-called “higher authorities” can never produce this “faith in God” perspective on life, even amidst the bigger-than-life terrors of this world.
Think about it this way: What view of life would motivate you to stay behind and care for others when pandemics and plagues hit? What would inspire such care when there was nothing in it for you? What would cause you to suffer along with someone when you knew you’d be exposing yourself to life-threatening risks as well? What would cause you to do all of these, rather than to look down on others who couldn’t? Martin Luther, a giant religious leader in history, wrote about this kind of faith life during the devastating plague of 1527. His letter was entitled, “Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.” Luther wrote compassionately about this, saying it was not “inherently” wrong to flee the plague, as long people ensured that someone of “greater faith” was there to care for their loved ones. He then said that those with “greater faith” to stay behind should not condemn those who could not bear the plague and fled. (Of course, he stayed). He wrote,
Yes, no one should dare leave his neighbor unless there are others who will take care of the sick in their stead and nurse them. In such cases we must respect the word of Christ, “I was sick and you did not visit me …” [Matt. 25:41–46]. According to this passage we are bound to each other in such a way that no one may forsake the other in his distress but is obliged to assist and help him as he himself would like to be helped.
Faith in God binds us to each other in a way that no other belief can. In The Hill, a political magazine in Washington D.C., Erwin M. Hawley also hails Luther’s “faith life” perspective in facing this COVID-19 pandemic. Such faith bears suffering with another because God bears with us in suffering too. What a way to live! This perspective value the lives of others as precious, even when sick or dying, because God values us as His created and redeemed people. What a way to face the fear of COVID-19! Does faith in God, trust in God, and belief in God as the ultimate “higher authority” change the way we live for each other? Yes, and for the better! In fact, I say there is no other “higher authority” that will do, especially in these days of COVID-19.
The Rev. Dr. Gregory Seltz is the executive director of the Lutheran Center for Religious Liberty.
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