Like so many people over the past few months, I have been somewhat unnerved by the Coronavirus outbreak. Never in my lifetime have I experienced a phenomenon whose reach has been truly global, even as its effects are felt in the most intimate corners of daily existence. A lingering atmosphere of confusion brims with tales of the virus, abetted by rumour and exaggeration. Signs of its presence have been everywhere: in nations trying to wall themselves off to halt the spread of infection; in the pangs of hesitation one feels over the simplest of social interactions; or in the eerily empty streets of once bustling city centres. An unceasing stream of media reports have revealed the apparent power of the contagion to warp social reality – threatening to unravel those dense webs of habit and custom within which a safe, predictable life is made possible. That COVID-19 is a silent, spectral force only seems to add to the prevailing mood of unease.
Shattering human illusions
One thing that has struck me about this crisis is the way it has dramatically laid bare many of the illusions that beguile human beings, especially those of us who have been conditioned and shaped by the modern world. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our distorted relationship with nature.
Human beings have long sought to dominate the natural world, convinced that it would placidly submit to the hand of man. It’s a conceit to which people in the West are particularly vulnerable, something that has been true since at least the time of the Enlightenment and its immediate precursors. Whether one traces this turn to the early scientific work of Francis Bacon – who sought to expand the bounds of humanity’s imperial enslavement of nature – the Cartesian separation of the mental from the physical, or even the emerging mechanistic picture of creation (for machines can usually be manipulated at will), the Enlightenment has led inexorably to the conviction that human mastery over the natural realm is both possible and desirable.
The development of science was a key part of this attempt to exercise sovereignty. It was believed that through scientific discovery and technological progress, human beings would succeed in wresting nature’s secrets from her, enabling them to predict, channel, and control her course. Beneath this enterprise lay a thoroughly instrumental conception of nature, which held that the natural environment was valuable only insofar as it could be exploited by humanity in its relentless pursuit of advancement; as theologian Michael Northcott has eloquently observed, nature was seen merely as “malleable matter available for reconstitution in the service of human wants”. Any notion that it was a force of independent or intrinsic worth, to which human beings would sometimes have to defer, gradually receded.
Belief in the inevitability of technological progress and its unrivalled ability to tame nature has, of course, seeped into Western consciousness during the succeeding centuries. The expectation that human beings will ultimately succeed in pacifying ever-larger tracts of the natural environment is now an article of secular faith. Similarly, the idea that sufficient application of technical acumen to a particular problem will solve it is now a cherished part of the modern canon.
It is certainly true that scientific advancements have had remarkable success in allowing people to enjoy respite from nature’s onslaught. Nor can it be denied that harnessing natural forces has brought immeasurable gains to vast numbers of people. A mixture of stunned amazement and humble gratitude is often the most appropriate – indeed, the only – response. Of course, one may ask whether this alone justifies the Panglossian predictions made for human capacity. Just as relevant is the fact that as such progress emerged and took root, it inevitably changed the relationship between human beings and their environments. Humans consequently began to view themselves, not as integrated members of the natural order, but as something above and apart from it.
Trying to break out of nature’s orbit
To talk of human transcendence over nature is to highlight a second key presumption inherent in modernity. Its connection with human attempts to domesticate the natural order is one of mutual reinforcement: allegedly sitting above the system of nature in an ontologically exterior realm, humanity came to see itself as free to shape that system at will; meanwhile, the undeniable success of such efforts simply legitimised the expansion of human empire, reinforcing the exalted position they had arrogated for themselves. It is not inaccurate to say that the accomplishments of science both bred and buttressed a metaphysical and ethical position concerning the relationship between human beings and their environment. Whatever the logical defects of that move, it, too, is part of the philosophical foundation of the modern West.
Descartes’ views on the connection between the mental and the physical may help explain these shifts. The Cartesian divorce between the intellectual and material dimensions of human beings had its external analogue in the separation between humanity – the only earthly beings possessed of rationality, the sine qua non of the mental – and nature-at-large. As science writer Alex Blum has observed, Descartes’ metaphysical commitments unwittingly structured modern science so as to conceive of human being existing “outside” nature. The French philosopher himself talked of humans becoming “masters and possessors of nature”, a phrase which also reflects the highly instrumentalist character he attributed to it. Combined with the objectifying gaze of emerging scientific discourse, the transcendence of the human person over nature was now churning within the bowels of Western culture. With the establishment of this hierarchy, human beings – now metaphysically unshackled from the natural world – could act as its overlords, manipulating their environment “to suit [their] own ambitions”.
Coronavirus and the unseating of modern dogmas
The rapid emergence of COVID-19 over the past three months is a rebuke to such hubris. It is also a stern reminder that for all the confidence we place in human ingenuity, nature cannot finally be tamed. Whatever local forms of control human beings exert over their environments, they remain contingent or provisional – and, more to the point, far more vulnerable to collapse than we would care to admit. Many people in the global South are inured to nature’s caprice, of course; to the devastation it has wrought, whether through a decades-long drought or a deadly Ebola outbreak. It is citizens residing in the developed world – those who often enjoy the luxury of being able to avoid nature’s encroachments – who are now experiencing life in the shadow of something that continues to elude the most assiduous efforts to control it. That vulnerability, long concealed by a seemingly unending conveyor belt of technological marvels, is now being unmasked.
All the economic might and technical sophistication of the modern West has, in many places, failed to stave off the spread of the virus. In fact, it’s precisely those symbols of Western-inspired progress – international travel and trade, ageing societies, industrialisation, and high-density urban environments – that have amplified the threat, contributing to the spread and lethality of COVID-19. Far from conquering the natural world, people are now quite literally retreating in the face of nature’s advance: leaving their cities bereft and empty, and ensconcing themselves in their homes to evade the contagion’s grasp. And even where it has been successfully suppressed, victory has only been secured at the cost of economic ruin.
Yes, human beings have successfully shaped aspects of the natural world. Such will no doubt continue after the present crisis subsides. But the virus has jolted us into recognizing an obvious truth: that nature’s teeming complexity persistently outstrips our ability to fully comprehend – and therefore fully control – its many secrets.
The world of economic networks provides a useful analogy. Philosopher Edward Feser recently wrote about the late F.A. Hayek, arguing that the Anglo-Austrian economist believed that the “deep reason” socialism could not work in practice is that human planners simply cannot hold within their mental grip the “vast aggregate” of human needs and wants composing an economic system. Imagine, then, attempting to firmly grasp (much less dominate) the entire scheme of nature, including its near-limitless ensemble of organisms and ecological cycles. The natural world is a great, roiling cauldron, its various ingredients clashing – sometimes violently – in ways so diverse that they defy human calculation. Moreover, as anthropologist Nicholas Kawa has written (in relation to modern Amazonian farmers), our environments, far from being docile or compliant, frequently exhibit a “robust, defiant vitality” in the face of human efforts to conquer them. COVID-19 is only the latest manifestation of that defiance. What can this mean but that total sovereignty over the natural world will forever remain a vaporous dream – a “chasing after the wind” (to borrow from Ecclesiastes)?
This basic lack of control applies even to that part of nature we know best: our own bodies. Whilst there have been far deadlier pandemics in human history, the Coronavirus is probably the largest mass health event of the late-modern age – an era of rapidly ageing populations, advanced medicine, and the miracle-like defiance of death’s ravages. Although the world’s immiserated past and present have known that life is a delicate gift, modern folk are “culturally insulated…from the notion of death…”. The relentless, exhausting ubiquity of the present outbreak, uprooting and frustrating every dimension of the ordinary, or tearing at communities in highly developed nations, has forced us into a reckoning with our own mortality – the necessary sequel to our finitude and creatureliness. Human illusions have once again been exposed by the pathogen, particularly where they have taken root in cultures that simply expect inexorable progress. Rather than bending nature to the force of our collective will, we are invariably its subjects.
In similar fashion, the contagion shatters the belief that humanity occupies a position of transcendence over nature. That much should be apparent from what I have said about the virus and the human body, with our native fragility exposed in the most intimate fashion. COVID-19 forces us to recognize the sobering fact that human beings, for all their unique capabilities, remain denizens of the natural order. We are not so thoroughly different that we can claim some kind of ontological autonomy; the boundaries between humanity and the rest of the created world remain permeable. Whatever else it is, humanity is ineradicably physical, having been formed by the same material compounds that compose the environments we inhabit and the resources we consume. Not only do we depend on propitious circumstances within nature for our survival; we are also shaped by the natural world to a remarkable degree, even at the level of deep genetic change (as the field of epigenetics is rapidly discovering). Our corporeality means that we are conditioned by the natural world – whether for good or for ill – for we cannot exist as fully enfleshed human beings apart from that framework. As theologian Christopher Benson has rightly pointed out, our embodied state means that we cannot be completely “sealed off”, as it were, from the external world. We cannot avoid the truth that we are integrated members of precisely the same ecological system that produced COVID-19. All of us are bound to a system that not only sustains us, but also leaves us vulnerable to its predations.
Seeking guidance from a more ancient source
The pathogen has surely succeeded in undermining modern pretensions. But might it not also clear ground for new attitudes to take root – attitudes that are more consistent with reality as one finds it?
The Christian Scriptures and the wisdom they have inspired lay out the rudiments of an alternative approach to the natural world. For one thing, the Bible provides clear witness to nature’s untameable power. Whether one envisions the present natural world as an Augustinian corruption from a paradisal state, or as an unfinished project still wrestling with discordant elements, the fact remains that it is replete with titanic forces that frequently issue in destruction. Even a brief glance, say, at the psalms reveals word after poetic word concerning creation’s ferocity. The sea, for example, was often used as a particularly arresting image for the looming chaos that threatened God’s people (e.g., Pss 29:3-10; 69:14-15; 77:16; 104:6-9). Such was its raw, inscrutable, untamed power that it functioned as the perfect embodiment for cosmic evil. Only Yahweh himself, Israel’s covenant God, was able to tame those unruly forces, shutting up the sea and subduing the mythical beasts of Leviathan and Behemoth (Ps 104:7-9; Job 41). These elements resonated as well as they did because people intuitively understood that the natural world is a fearsome, independent power, often exceeding – and even overwhelming – humanity’s capacity to control it.
The book of Job, with its extended meditation on suffering, offers particular insights in this regard. By the end of his confrontation with God, Job himself arrives at a fresh understanding of the limits of his own vision. He recognizes anew his small and restricted place within the grand production of nature: a world that exhibits both comforting regularities and the rude shock of unexpected destruction (Job 42:3b). His sober conclusion comes after the divine speeches, in which the Creator humbles the protagonist with a battery of rhetorical questions about the nature of creation (Job 38-40). Such questions serve to underscore the relative powerlessness of human beings in the face of creation’s apparently unbounded character. The unavoidable implication is, of course, that only the sovereign Creator is capable of bringing to heel the natural world.
The appearance of COVID-19 should provoke us towards a similar change: a re-orientation of our relationship to the natural world, which reflects the sobriety of scriptural tradition. To be sure, the ancients were at the mercy of natural forces in a way that isn’t quite true for many of us today. But with the virus having undercut the modern aspiration of control over nature and her ways, the time is ripe for re-acquaintance with the biblical picture of a dynamic, sometimes unbridled creation – at once fit for human habitation and a place of lurking, unseen risk. Reflecting on the Joban experience, physicist (and practising Christian) Tim Reddish has observed that Scripture often conceives of the boundary between chaos and order in the natural world as an “unpredictable”, porous one: chaos has of course been assigned its place by a sovereign God, who corrals and even uses it. But chaos has not been eradicated.
Seen through the lens of a biblical theology of creation, the Coronavirus provides an object lesson in humility before the sometimes-dangerous freedom of nature, especially for modern people accustomed to its apparent domestication. Re-appropriating a biblical view of the natural world as something that continues to exhibit such independence may also lay the psychological and spiritual groundwork for a new preparedness, a new resilience, in the face ecological calamity. Those who can humbly acknowledge the enduring reality of an untamed creation – consistent with the truth of our own finitude and limitations – will be better equipped to withstand the maelstrom, even when it threatens to thoroughly strip everything away. This isn’t to counsel fatalism or passivity in the midst of disaster; human beings ought to do what they can to mitigate nature’s destructive power, and alleviate suffering wherever they find it. But if clinging to the narrative of complete human sovereignty over nature can lead to existential crisis when it revolts, perhaps the opposite attitude will – paradoxically – anchor us during such travails. In fact, the equanimity won through adoption of a biblical perspective undergirds precisely the kind of existential and moral strength needed if a person is to extend herself in love to others during times of disaster.
Scripture also challenges the idea that humanity somehow sits outside the natural order, bestriding it as an overlord. Of course, this claim is bound to raise some eyebrows: ever since Lynn White, Jr. argued in 1967 that the Judeo-Christian view of the natural world was at the root of the present ecological crisis, many people have assumed as much without question. It’s true that the Bible’s foundational creation stories posit both humanity’s uniqueness and its role over the rest of creation, acting as God’s steward and vice-regent to “subdue the earth” (Gen 1:28; cf. Psalm 8). At least two points, however, must be borne in mind. First, the early chapters of Genesis envision, not the despoliation of nature as a result of human arrogance, but the natural world being harnessed and shaped so that it might flourish all the more. Second, we must also contend with the fact that to tend the earth is, according to Scripture, part of what it means to be made in God’s image (cf. Gen 2:15). Loving husbandry of the natural world is a reflection of God’s own creative character. Christians, moreover, remain convinced that this key vocation is refracted through the person of Jesus, who provides for us the supreme expression of the imago dei. His own life offers the true model for the relationship between human beings and the natural world, for it reveals the posture of humble service – not ruthless exploitation – lying at the heart of authentic humanity (e.g., John 13:1-17).
In any case, whilst Scripture envisions human beings as acting on God’s behalf to bring order to that which he has fashioned, it is under no illusions concerning the place his image-bearers occupy within the natural order. Man may have the breath of life flowing through him, but he is also of the dust of the earth (Gen 2:7). We straddle the ontological “border” between the material and immaterial, but that does not change the fact that we are composed of the same physical “stuff” as the rest of creation. Indeed, humans share a certain kinship with the natural world, given our common “earthiness”. Scripture resolutely recognizes this: it acknowledges that humans remain denizens of creation, participating fully in an ecological order that sustains them (cf. Ps 103:14). As the legendary OT scholar Walter Brueggemann writes, Genesis 2:7 conceives of “the human person [as] fundamentally and elementally material in origin and composition, genuinely an ‘earth-creature’, subject to all the realities and limitations of materiality”. Or, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once reflected on the same text, “the essential point of human existence is its bond with mother earth, its being as body” (emphasis mine).
The book of Genesis sees humanity as a member of nature’s ensemble of creatures, sharing in the same qualities as non-human animals – and, of course, the same vulnerabilities to disease and death. In fact, it depicts the relationship between human beings and the rest of creation in almost covenantal terms, with a tight causal nexus existing between God’s image-bearers and the natural world. Humanity cannot escape the vagaries of that world, at least not entirely, and certainly not on this side of redemption. Theologian Terence Fretheim suggests that the cosmos is “communal” in nature; “its basic relatedness” means that “every creature will be touched by the movement of every other”. And in this present, discordant reality, those interactions include the lethal effects of a global pandemic, as a microscopic pathogen spreads decay and disorder simply by acting according to its nature. COVID-19, for all the misery it has wrought, has also exposed something important about our relationship with nature. Christian tradition brings that relationship into sharper focus – encouraging renewed respect for the natural boundaries that have been placed around us, as well as our own obligations as participating members of the natural world’s web of life.
Several writers and commentators have termed the Coronavirus “apocalyptic”. In deploying this term, they do not mean to suggest that the end of world is at hand, or that we are soon destined for a cosmic conflagration. Rather, it has been used in its original sense, to refer to an “unveiling” or “revelation”. And so the contagion has proved, exposing many uncomfortable realities that lay just beneath the surface, and overturning previously settled narratives. The ones I have surveyed here are perhaps some of the most deeply-rooted in the modern psyche, having the benefit of centuries to consolidate themselves within Western culture. Nevertheless, a catastrophe like COVID-19, with its capacity to leave people reeling existentially, is enough to call them into question. But the dislocation many have experienced may ultimately bring some good in its wake – auguring a transformed, more wholesome, relationship between humanity and the rest of the nature, and encouraging a far more proportionate understanding of the place human beings occupy within the “robust…vitality” of the ecological system.
Moreover, the Christian tradition offers the resources needed to sustain a more humble, self-effacing engagement with the rest of the natural world, which even now acts as a check on the (illusory) idea of borderless human power. Indeed, that tradition happily acknowledges the persistent fact of humanity’s limitations – its conditioned existence, in other words – living in a pre-established order that does not always bend easily to our whims.
Christians, of course, are compelled to go further. The advent of COVID-19 may also stimulate a re-appropriation of the great fact underlying our true place within the natural world: the reality of divine sovereignty over creation. This has the effect of underscoring our own dependency as beings constituted by finite matter, who only exist as a consequence of God’s gracious sustenance. Far from being the unconditioned masters of nature, we rely, not simply on the panoply of the created order, but upon the One who sustains it. As the Apostle declared, “in him [i.e., God] we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). From a Christian perspective, the pathogen’s advent is a challenge to re-affirm, not the unrestrained attempts of human beings to exploit a passively-waiting environment, but the boundless God’s ruling hand over something that pulsates with his life and power. By deflating the modern ego, COVID-19 has, perhaps, created space for a return to a theologically-centred view of the natural world, in which human beings abide by the natural limits set for them.
Such a journey is both humbling and comforting. It is humbling for two, complementary reasons: first, it requires humans to accept their places within (and not above) a finely-balanced ecological network; but, second, it summons people to de-centre themselves, to abandon the anthropocentric proclivities of the modern age, and to focus on the Creator instead. But in that re-orientation lie the seeds of true comfort, for it encourages trust in Him whose providential control persists, even during the tumult of a global pandemic. Whether one turns to Genesis 1 to read of the Creator assigning places to the sun and the moon (which were worshiped as deities by many ancients), or Psalm 104, which extols God’s dominion over the things he has made, Scripture is unswaying in its declaration of his kingship. Whereas the story of human sovereignty over nature now lies in tatters, Christianity offers an alternative account: of the wise, loving, and ultimately redemptive power exhibited by the One who alone can rightfully claim this world for himself.