Disasters like the current global pandemic invite us to ask two questions about the relation between our faith and our disaster. First, what, as a matter of historical fact, happens to faith when disaster hits? And second, what is the logical or theological relation between disasters and the tenets of our faith, especially the dogma of divine providence? How does a disaster fit into God’s plan?
The answer to the first question is as clear as the answer to the second is mysterious. Studies tend to show that while some people doubt and reject their faith during times of disasters such as plagues, pandemics and economic depressions, most people become more religious rather than less. Just last week a study from the University of Copenhagen, looking at data from 75 countries, found that Google searches for “prayer” have rocketed over the past month.
In fact, the richer and more comfortable a person or a nation is, the less religious it usually becomes; the more poverty or danger, the more religion. Contrast the poorest continent today with the richest. Religion in Africa is booming, not only in quantity but in quality. It is dynamic and passionate. Miracles are common. The seminaries are bursting at the seams.
Africa is the continent that used to receive most of our missionaries. I’m old enough to remember the patronising term “darkest Africa”. Now Africa sends missionaries to us – to what deserves to be called “darkest Europe” and “darkest America”. The heirs of “the Enlightenment” are now losing 10 church members for every new one they gain.
Perhaps we can suspect that the flourishing of faith during disasters is often only “foxhole religion”. (I believe the saying is from World War I: “There are no atheists in foxholes.”) So what? God stoops to conquer. Among my agnostic students, Pascal’s “wager” is by far the most popular argument for belief. It amounts to “Why turn down a free eternal fire insurance policy?” It is not certain that the motive for faith in a crisis is high and holy. What is certain is that it works. And what is even more certain is that prosperity and comfort always weaken religious faith. No surprises here: whatever muscles are not exercised get flabby, and nothing exercises either the spiritual or the physical muscles more effectively than live combat.
Religion’s most successful enemies are its successes. It’s obvious: just contrast the Church of the catacombs with the Church of the Borgia popes. Which of the Apostles was the richest? Judas Iscariot, the first Catholic bishop to accept a government grant. (His successors are getting considerably more than 30 pieces of silver today, and not throwing it back.)
Does this mean that we can interpret the timeless truth of divine providence by the empirical facts of our historic times? No. It means the reverse: that we can interpret these empirical facts by our divinely revealed principles. Our God is the God of surprises. As He reminded St Catherine, and as He has to continually remind us, who have spiritual Attention Deficit Disorder, He is God and we are not. He always outguesses us, we never outguess Him.
What light, then, does the dogma (and it is a dogma, not an opinion or a theory) of divine providence cast on Covid-19? Is the virus a divine punishment for our sins? Is it a harbinger of the apocalypse? Is it evidence that Satan is being unleashed? We do not know any of that. What we do know is something much more astonishing: that the divine wisdom and power behind God’s providential ordering of all the events in the universe, from the Big Bang to the fall of every sparrow and every hair from our heads, and therefore also including this pandemic, is love. And love means “the will to the good of the beloved”, the beloved who is us; and therefore, as St Paul writes, “All things work together for good to those who love God.” (Romans 8:28)
This is the hardest verse in the Bible to believe. It seems impossible that all things work together for good – but then, how can we be certain? God is writing the script, we are only characters. God gave his answer to the “problem of evil” when he spoke to Job. To translate loosely: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth in the heavens? When I wrote the play you are in, when the morning stars sang together? I did not notice you among the angels, advising me.”
But all things working together for good, from haemorrhoids to holocausts? Yes. It’s all or nothing. “All things” means all things, unless the courts have revoked the law of non-contradiction. That includes horrible disasters, and it includes the many things – the 99 per cent of things – that we do not see working for good. It includes even our own past sins, but only through the golden gate of repentance.
If this astonishing dogma is not true, then God is either nonexistent, stupid, weak, or wicked. But if He is real, all-wise, all-powerful, and all-loving, then that verse logically follows. The reason God has permitted Covid-19, and two world wars, and countless other disasters, both natural and man-made is that He loves us. He is working out a far more great and glorious destiny, through these sufferings, than we could either desire or imagine; something His prophet described this way: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered into the heart of man, the things God has prepared for those who love Him.”
But how can that happen? We cannot answer that question. But we can wait in faith and trust. Is this naïve? Wishful thinking? No, it’s sanity. It’s reality. We’re really not God, and He really is. Perhaps we should read Job one more time.