Apr 20th 2020

The Theology of Pandemics

by Sam Ben-Meir

Sam Ben-Meir is professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy Collage in New York.



Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film The Seventh Seal is set in medieval Sweden, as the bubonic plague ravages the countryside. In one famous scene, a procession of zombie-like flagellants enters a village and interrupts a comic stage-show. The townspeople are present to hear the procession’s leader, a bombastic preacher who proclaims that death is coming for them all: they are full of sin – lustful and gluttonous – and the plague is God’s punishment for their wicked ways. That scene is not without historical merit: the flagellants were indeed a very real phenomenon, and with the plague, the movement grew and spread throughout Europe.

For most of us, public self-mutilation and penance is a particularly extreme and repulsive form of religious fanaticism. But in the West, we still have ways of lashing ourselves, and each other, in the face of plague, pestilence and the terror they sow; and pandemics still invariably prompt a religious explanation. During the AIDS epidemic, we were told that God was punishing homosexuals and illicit drug users. In 1992, 36 percent of Americans admitted that AIDS might be God’s punishment for sexual immorality.

The interesting question is: What is the temptation to view a catastrophe like the plague as divine punishment as opposed to a brute fact of nature? Surely at least one reason we are tempted to do so is because, if it is heavenly retribution, then the hardship still has some meaning; we still live in a world with an underlying moral structure. Indeed, to many, the idea that such a great calamity is nothing more than a brute act of nature is far more painful to contemplate than an account by which God cares enough about us to punish us.

In case you think the coronavirus is any different, it is not. On March 8, 2020, the Times of Israel reported that Rabbi Meir Mazuz “claimed the spread of the deadly coronavirus in Israel and around the world is divine retribution for gay pride parades.” By some ironic twist, the rabbi is basically in agreement with Rick Wiles, a Florida pastor who said the spread of coronavirus in synagogues is a punishment of the Jewish people. The Jerusalem Post quotes Wiles as saying, “It’s spreading in Israel through the synagogues. God is spreading it in your synagogues! You are under judgment because you oppose his son, Jesus Christ. That is why you have a plague in your synagogues. Repent and believe on the name of Jesus Christ, and the plague will stop.”

The temptation to view catastrophes as divine punishment is nothing to scoff or smirk at: it is entirely legitimate to want to construct a narrative out of what has occurred – to find a pattern, to derive some meaning that redeems the suffering, hardship and death. What is unfortunate is the tendency to point to some perceived wickedness of which others are purportedly guilty as the justification for God’s wrath. Both the rabbi and the pastor are the same: both talk like Job’s notorious companions, those so-called friends of the unfortunate and innocent Job, who insist that he must be guilty, that he must have sinned for God to assail him with such fury. Of course, at the end of the poem, God tells the companions that they were wrong: Job was right – his suffering was not punishment for any sin he had committed. Indeed, the Bible teaches that God often sees fit to test precisely those that are good and righteous. Sadly, the pastor and rabbi entirely disregard that biblical lesson.

If a pandemic is divine punishment, then in a sense we can be at peace – inasmuch as we have provided the scourge with a theodicy, that is, a justification of God’s ways to man. Whenever we are faced with human tragedy, we cannot but question how an omnibenevolent and omnipotent deity would permit so much suffering to occur. A plague sharpens the concerns that lie at the heart of the theological problem of evil – the problem of reconciling a loving God with the reality and ubiquity of human and animal suffering. Thankfully, most religious leaders are unwilling to cast the burden of guilt on any particular group of which they may disapprove. Instead, they take a page from Job and underscore the impenetrable mystery of suffering – taking their inspiration perhaps from God’s speech to Job from out of the whirlwind, where He begins with one of the famous queries of the Bible: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” And He continues with withering sarcasm, “Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!” In short, do not attempt to sound the depths of God’s inscrutable purpose.

For every pandemic there is a theology; by their nature, they call forth notions of guilt, sin and responsibility. It is almost as if we cannot but view them through theological categories. Each pandemic begins with a kind of “fall,” or original sin, which we attempt to retrace with our search for “patient zero,” the individual representing the source of the calamity, the one who kicked us out of paradise as it were. The writers of the 2011 film Contagion clearly had as much in mind when they decided that their story’s patient zero (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) should also be an adulteress.

A pandemic also highlights an inescapable function of all significant human action – namely, that our actions always outrun our intentions. Everything we do has consequences that we never anticipated, wanted or even imagined. We like to think that we are not responsible for everything our actions may cause – but the reality is that we cannot dodge or entirely relinquish our responsibility even for those things we never intended. Perhaps like nothing else, a pandemic reveals the burden of human action, our infinite liability; indeed, our indeclinable responsibility.

There is a theology accompanying every plague because there is a very human need to make sense of such colossal suffering. That theology may take the form of a conspiracy theory, but it is a theology all the same. One example is the persistent speculation that the coronavirus originated in some kind of bio-weapons laboratory in Wuhan, China. This explanation, regardless of its lack of evidentiary merit, is a temptation because it offers us a story, which is but a secularized version of the fall. The essential features are there: to say that human beings deliberately created the virus is to say that this pandemic is the result of human transgression; that human hubris introduced this uncontrollable element that upset the order of things.

The current pandemic has left fear and death, loneliness and stagnation in its wake. We must start asking ourselves what it has all been for. Eventually this great tide of suffering will ebb, life will resume, the economy will reopen and pick up steam, and the coronavirus will slowly fade from our immediate view – at that point, when we think of all those many tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands who died, alone, what will we be able to point to as their legacy? What did they die for? Undoubtedly many will say only that their deaths were unfortunate – all we can do to honor their sacrifice is return to life as it was, prosper and grow the economy at two percent annually. If we allow that to happen, then we will have failed, completely and utterly.

If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world.



Sam Ben-Meir is a professor of philosophy and world religions at Mercy College in New York City.

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More Essays

May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”
Apr 1st 2020
Ambrogio Lorenzetti, Effects of Good Government fresco, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena.
Mar 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "The coronavirus crisis has forced us to look at our behaviour in a way that we’re not used to. We are being asked to act in the collective good rather than our individual preservation and interest. Even for those of us with the best of intentions, this is not so easy."
Mar 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "In March 2020, my sister Nancy and I did something that, as scholars, we had never done before: we wrote about ourselves, comparing our own experiences receiving cancer care on either side of the Atlantic. As we recently reported in the BMJ, much of our experience is similar. As twins, we both have the same form of cancer. Both of us received excellent treatment in well-established university teaching hospitals. Both of us are now in remission. But there is a glaring difference. Nancy lives in the US, covered under a good private healthcare scheme. I live in the UK, covered by the NHS."
Mar 21st 2020
EXTRACT: "In philosophy, individualism is closely linked with the concept of freedom. As soon as restrictive measures were imposed in Italy, many people felt that their freedom was threatened and started to assert their individuality in various ways. Some disagreed with the necessity of cancelling group gatherings and organised unofficial ones themselves. Others continued to go out and live as they always did. We often assume that freedom is to do as we choose, and that is contrasted with being told what to do. As long as I am doing what the government tells me, I am not free. I am going out, not because I want to, but because that shows I am free. But there is another route to freedom..........."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Repeated stress is a major trigger for persistent inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to a range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. The brain is normally protected from circulating molecules by a blood-brain barrier. But under repeated stress, this barrier becomes leaky and circulating inflammatory proteins can get into the brain. The brain’s hippocampus is a critical brain region for learning and memory, and is particularly vulnerable to such insults. Studies in humans have shown that inflammation can adversely affect brain systems linked to motivation and mental agility. There is also evidence of chronic stress effects on hormones in the brain, including cortisol and corticotropin releasing factor (CRF). High, prolonged levels of cortisol have been associated with mood disorders as well as shrinkage of the hippocampus. It can also cause many physical problems, including irregular menstrual cycles."
Mar 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s important to do things that make you happy or content as you are doing them – and doing them for yourself. Research has found that picking recovery activities you find personally satisfying and meaningful is more likely to help you feel recovered by the next morning."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACTS: "A recent study of nearly 3,000 physicists found that a scientist’s most highly cited publication had an equal probability of being published at any point within the sequence of papers the scientist published.........Creativity is not the prerogative of the young, but can occur at any stage in the life cycle...........there is not a single kind of creativity, but that in virtually every intellectual discipline there are two different types of creativity, each associated with a distinct pattern of discovery over the life cycle. The bold leaps of fearless and iconoclastic young conceptual innovators are one important form of creativity. Archetypal conceptual innovators include Einstein, Picasso.......very different type of creativity, in which important new discoveries emerge gradually and incrementally from the extended explorations of older experimental innovators.......The single year from with Paul Cézanne’s work is most frequently illustrated in textbooks of art history is 1906 – the last year of his life, when he was 67."
Feb 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "As our global population is projected to live longer than ever before, it’s important that we find ways of helping people live healthier for longer. Exercise and diet are often cited as the best ways of maintaining good health well into our twilight years. But recently, research has also started to look at the role our gut – specifically our microbiome – plays in how we age."
Feb 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "In an increasingly polarised political landscape, we see differing political views challenged, not through debate and discussion, but through tribal behaviour. We often consider the groups that we belong to as worthy of empathy, respect and tolerance – but not others. What’s more, recent research has identified that we reward our leaders for being naysayers – negating, refuting or criticising others – rather than empowering them."