Some theological thoughts on disease and resilience

We are still discussing viruses and disease, and will be for the coming weeks, I suspect. More than just the technicalities of this episode, existential questions come to the fore, and we seem less equipped to deal with those. Let’s have a look, shall we?

First off, the private and the public seem to be closing in on each other in these ‘pandemic days’. The ‘private’ has public consequences and the ‘public’ has private consequences.

Right off the bat, privately, I don’t feel ‘immune’ in any way to this virus, or any other disease for that matter. I’ve spent my fair share in hospitals when I was young, being a ‘pre-medicine asthmatic’. Such a fun time.

I still remember Lomudal, an antihistamine that had no benefit whatsoever, other than irritating the crap out of my bronchi.

Most of the time I refused to use it despite being admonished by doctors. (I was an obnoxious brat early on in life. The fact that my wife married me is a miracle I still cannot fathom!)

I’ve ‘worked through’ lots of doctor’s appointments, who tested me again and again without any medical solution in sight. Wheezing through these hospital days, doctors tried to encourage me: ‘You’ll be fine!’ (Well, they were right; it only took a couple of decades.)

Also, the technical approach of disease as a physiological state felt quite lonely; I remember being ‘handled’ by well-meaning medical personnel still feeling disconnected.

Jean-Claude Larchet’s remarks in his Theology of Illness rings a very loud bell with me (italics added):

“The development of medicine in a purely naturalist perspective served to objectify illness, making of it a reality considered in itself and for itself. Illness came to be construed as uniquely physiological and somehow independent of the afflicted person. Rather than treat the person, many physicians today treat illnesses or organs. This fact -complicated by diagnostic methods that are increasingly quantitative and abstract, together with therapeutic methods that are more and more technical- has had as its primary consequence the effect of considerably depersonalizing medical practice. This factor, of course, only increases the distress and isolation of the ill person. A second consequence has been to divest patients of their illness and their suffering, thereby limiting their means for dealing with them. By regarding sickness and suffering as autonomous realities of a purely physiological character -and consequently as susceptible to treatment that is purely technical, applied to the body alone- modern medicine does practically nothing to help patients assume them. Rather, it encourages patients to consider that both their state and their fate lie entirely in the hands of the physicians, that the only solution to their troubles is purely medical, and that the only way they can endure their suffering is to look passively to medicine for any hope of relief and healing.”

I must pop up in some academic papers somewhere as an anonymised youngster reduced to certain physiological stats. Never bothered to look.

So I am familiar with the ‘disease-state’ (pun intended), so much so that I am not looking forward to a potential personal episode of COVID-19, inflamed lungs and all that that entails.

And that’s where the fear comes in. Fear is perhaps more influential in our lives right now than the disease itself.

Yet, if one embraces classical theism and the concomitant worldview (which I do), the meaning (ontology) of illness surfaces, death is overturned by resurrection, and fear is challenged.

(I am very much aware of the fact that rejecting the Darwinian imperative, which I do here, requires a whole set of arguments all by itself. That is for another day. See at least these review series.)

Also, in the theistic worldview, the ‘private’ and the ‘public’ are closely intertwined. The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) make that absolutely clear. My private behaviour has public consequences.

In short, human life should be lived to the full by adhering to the greatest obligations -worshipping only The One, being truthful, honouring your parents- and avoiding the greatest injuries -murder, adultery, theft.

Now, famously, the Law is truncated into a very simple and easily memorised adagium (as spelt out in e.g. Matthew 22:36-40):

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

If I love my neighbour as myself, this is not a reference to some kind of feeling I might or might not have for that person. Feeling does not come into the equation at all.

Love can best be understood as the desire for the good of the other, as Thomas Aquinas so eloquently put into words (see further Eleonor Stump’s magnificent book Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering).

Love then is a commandment for realising the good for the other. What I do to myself in order to maintain my bodily health and my sanity, I should do also for my neighbour, the person that is near. Private becomes public in quite a personal way.

What then of illnesses and when we are struck by them? Is there any meaning to be discerned? The theistic worldview is sometimes held accountable for a supposedly deterministic relationship between sin -roughly my wrongdoing against another person and/or God- and disease.

Before I tackle this misunderstanding, curiously, the deterministic worldview is easily found in non-theistic worldviews. The best-seller book The Secret (2006) for example, espouses the law of attraction with eerie deterministic fervour:

“The responsibility of maintaining a healthy and age-resistant body is entirely within our hands. Our physical health and outward age are simply a manifestation of our inner thoughts and beliefs, whether they are conscious or unconsciously thought, which gives us complete power over whether we choose to accept premature aging or illness into our bodies or not.

Such a deterministic perspective is unacceptable and frankly doesn’t make much sense. (And there are many other examples of this kind available, which I won’t bother you with.)

If all my life events are directly related to my conscious dealings with myself and the world, then my life is a failure on many levels. (See the beginning of this blogpost; see also my previous blogpost.)

Contrastingly, the Biblical perspective is far more realistic and down to earth. There is no a priori connection between an illness I might have and my actions. There can be, to be sure, but there is no automatic relationship between the two.

(The fact that China’s leadership tried to cover up the outbreak of COVID-19 is an example where actions have consequences.)

The book of Job in the Hebrew Bible is perhaps the best and oldest example where the perceived link between misfortune and disease ánd a person’s actions is overtly repudiated (Job 2:1-3; italics added):

“Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. And the Lord said to Satan, “From where have you come?” Satan answered the Lord and said, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.””

Or consider the episode of the blind man in the New Testament story in John 9:1-3. To His disciples’ question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”, Jesus replies unambiguously: “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

The latter point -the works of God being displayed- is provocative and gives apparent meaning to the disease-state of the person in question, namely the glory of restoring a person to full bodily and spiritual health as a sign of the immanence of the Kingdom of God.

Thát obviously does not sit well considering our modern (a-religious) sensibilities. Disease just is, and we treat and cure (partly or wholly), or we treat and fail. The focus is to prolong life; nothing more, nothing less.

Not to be misinterpreted here, curing a person from a disease or reducing/eliminating symptoms is fantastic and hugely aided by modern science and technology. I should know!

However, looking back on my own life as a youngster not being able to improve upon my health at all for years, I was forced to be patient. I had no choice and no medication.

My childhood’s (and parents’) prayers for relief or, better still, instant healing, never led to anything other than just slowly and surely getting to grips with my illness and my fear of it. And thát grew into resilience and faith. A painful process (which is never quite finished).

In short: something unreservedly bad -being more or less continuously ill for quite a few years- generated something good -resilience and faith (as in trust). Or as Stump puts it questionwise:

“Does God’s allowing the evil a human being suffers enable her to flourish, or enable her to have the desires of her heart; and is her suffering the best available means, in the circumstances, to achieve those ends?”

I understand that this formulation might arouse incredulity or, worse, indignation. The very form of the question might be regarded as an insult to human suffering. Just raising such a question seems disrespectful, as most human suffering is usually viewed as entirely pointless.

But if pointlessness of suffering stands central in catching a disease such as COVID-19, then we relegate those who suffer and die from it to the scrapheap of human history. If there is no point to any of this, then we have to let our loved ones go for no reason whatsoever.

Firstly then, ‘making sense’ of disease and suffering (evil for short), as far as we can comprehend at least a fraction of it, cannot be achieved without the deeply loving presence of Someone immeasurable superior yet intimately close to us.

Secondly, death as the deeply feared supposed ultimate end to our existence is transcended by the One who conquered death. This we celebrate in church at Easter every single year.

Finally, we should and can choose faith over fear.

As said, the fear of the virus outstrips the actual spread and lethality. And even if that proves to be wrong in retrospect, trusting God above anything else and ‘not being afraid’ is again and again underscored in both Old and New Testament (Mark 4:35-41):

“That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.” Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat. There were also other boats with him. A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped. Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion. The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?” He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!” Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. He said to his disciples, “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?””


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