The Role of God During the Black Death and COVID-19

The week is over. Our labours are done. Normally, my wife and I would head out to our favourite restaurant around the corner. We’ve known the Italian owner Marcello, who cooks; and Clare, who oversees the front of the house when she’s not running marathons, for years. It’s a home away from home, a sanctuary among friends, but not now.

People are dying. They always are, of course, but today, we have a name for the life-snatcher. He’s a biological Jack the Ripper who lurks unseen and strikes when he chooses—sometimes with little more than a caress, but at other times, with the efficiency of a practiced killer. We’ve called him COVID-19.

Jack plied his trade in the 1880s, around the Whitechapel district of London, England, where life was a struggle and short.  Journalists of the day assured him his notoriety (and might’ve even invented his name), because his exploits were devoured by the public.

In the greater order of things, his victims weren’t many—perhaps no more than five—but his penchant for removing their internal organs with surgical precision sent shivers of curiosity down countless spines. He was never caught, but he did help sell a lot of newspapers, and he still stalks the byways of our imaginations.

COVID-19 is a more potent killer than Jack, but he, too, is courting sensation. He’s akin to the Black Death that crept into Europe from Asia, along the Silk Road, during an earlier period of globalization. At his most voracious between 1347 and 1351, he devoured more than a third of Europe’s population. The shortage of labour that followed was very good for the labouring man, whose wages rose considerably.

But that came later. What happened at the time is starting to sound eerily familiar.

Climate change

"Hunters in the Snow" painting by Pieter Brugel the younger

Before the Black Death, Europe had suffered from a change in its climate. Around 1300, the seasons turned cold, and the world entered what has been dubbed the Little Ice Age.

In the face of bad weather, harvests failed, causing widespread starvation. So even before the plague struck, families (especially the poorest) were struggling.  And it wasn’t just humans the colder weather affected. Rodents fled the dried-out grasslands in Asia for the bounty of cities, helping to spread the disease that hibernated inside the fleas they carried.

Back then, starvation and disease were seen as punishments from God for man’s wayward behaviour. Flagellants walked into villages and towns, whipping themselves in atonement for human sin, and were applauded.

Today, we’re beginning to understand that we’re part of a self-balancing whole for which God is still a good metaphor. As we push ahead in one direction, there are consequences in another, although these can’t always be known.

God and evolution

So, what is this self-balancing whole and what is this God? Back in the mid-19th century, the great geologist Clarence King—who’s responsible for much of our knowledge about the land extending from the Cascade mountain range east of San Francisco, all the way across Utah to the grasslands of Nebraska—got involved in a debate about the nature of evolution.

Was it the steady process of natural selection outlined by Charles Darwin, or a process whereby useful genetic traits are passed to succeeding generations, as outlined by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck?

King was attracted to a third possibility: that organisms tended to change little, and only towards refinement (or towards complexity, as Lamarck put it), unless a violent disruption forced them to alter their course. Such unexpected events would open up new possibilities that some would manage to take advantage of, while others would not.

It’s easy to miss what’s important about these distinctions. Perhaps the most important thing is that stuff happens, and we can’t completely predict it or prevent it. The best we can do is not put all our eggs in one basket, so that when disaster strikes, there’s a chance that some eggs will survive.

In socio-economic terms, this means relying more on loose arrangements (rather than rigid hierarchies and building structures) that encourage people and groups to experiment, while recognizing that some will fail.

So, where does God fit into all of this? Societies hold together because people believe that the arrangements underpinning them (their laws, customs, incentives and hierarchies) are broadly for the best. Belief is the operative word here, because there are no wholly objective measures, in spite of what scientists would like us to think.

We have to constantly balance three things: our sense of collective well-being, our sense of personal freedom and our sense of fairness. But this can’t be just a personal matter. It has to be set within a shared moral context that reflects the unfolding whole of which consciousness tells us we are a part.

Religions grapple with this, and God is our deep-seated sense of it.

After COVID-19

People eating at restaurant

When COVID-19 has blown through, some of the things we’d grown accustomed to will be gone. Into this void, new arrangements will flow. Perhaps we’ll have grown a little tougher. Perhaps we’ll have grown a little closer to one another. And perhaps we’ll use this catastrophe to start rebuilding our lives so that they’re better than before.

I wonder how Clare and Marcello are doing. I miss them and I miss their restaurant.

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image 1: Pixabay; image 2: Wikimedia Commons

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