Does Coronavirus Spell the End of the Modern World?

COMMENTARY: The pandemic is teaching us a valuable lesson: We are not in charge here. But will we listen?

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The coronavirus pandemic presents us with an extraordinarily new situation, one for which none of us was prepared.  Questions, uncertainties and fears haunt us. Why did this happen? How can we stop it? When and where will it all end?

To find a single situation like the one in which we find ourselves today, we may have to go back a century or more — perhaps to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic or even to the Black Death during medieval times. Each of those diseases was estimated to have killed 50 million people worldwide. Because the world population was much smaller in the 14th century than it is today, the Black Death killed 60% of the people in Europe.  

Science, with all its emphasis on progress, has helped us to control nature in ways that would have been unimaginable to our ancestors even two centuries ago. In all spheres of our lives — economic, commercial, medical, global relations, etc. — we have reached amazing peaks of power. And yet, as a wise priest in Nazareth observed on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, in a few days, “everything changed,” and “all our perceptions changed dramatically. ... We felt powerful; now we feel powerless. We [trusted in] ourselves; now we cannot trust anything. ... In the past we were under the dominion of ourselves, our human power. Now we are under the dominion of fear,” and we feel powerless. 

The coronavirus is teaching us a valuable lesson: We are not in charge here. But will we listen?

The modern mind has imagined that mankind alone (without God) is on the brink of harnessing all the power in the universe. Some scientists even believe they’re about to unlock the secrets of immortality. And now this one little virus, so tiny it cannot even be seen by the naked human eye, has caused our ordinary lives to come to a halt and our illusions of self-created power to come tumbling down.     

Putting their finger on the answer to this desperate situation, two professors from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently wrote, “For now, the best weapon we have against this pandemic is the truth.” 

And where are we to find this weapon of truth that will set our nation and the world free? Is it hiding somewhere in the health statistics? Is it secreted away in a new test a high-tech scientific lab is working to invent? 

Some politicians will think this weapon of truth can be found in money. If we just send every working U.S. citizen a $1,200 check, everything will soon be fine. Eggs, butter and toilet paper will be back on the grocery shelves, restaurants and bars will open, ballgames will be played again, and we can all put this behind us and return to our comfortable old routines.

And yet, after we’ve witnessed how easily and quickly our lives can be turned inside out and upside down, can we ever really go back to those routines we’ve come to think of as “normal”? Or have we finally reached what Romano Guardini in 1956 called “the end of the modern world” — a world in which men and women imagine we’re so superpowerful and in charge of everything that we no longer need to place our hopes and trust in God?          

Only in Christ, who said he is the truth (the truth is not a thing but a Person), will we find the answers we’re seeking to all our questions, concerns and fears. Only by giving up superficial notions of our own power and trusting deeply in him will we find the interior freedom to accept the reality of this historic moment, to ask him what it means in our lives and to wait patiently in prayer until he provides the answers.

Every day we’re called to detach ourselves from all the self-centered falsehoods that typically control our lives, to throw out what doesn’t work and to embrace new beginnings. We’re called to turn away from relying on our own power, to recognize our human weakness and to turn back to God.

This Lent, we’re being given an amazing opportunity to see more clearly that what the modern world calls “power” and “freedom” (often implicitly defined as the ability to fulfill all our plans, have all the pleasures we desire and buy all the stuff we want to buy) is an illusion that can quickly come crashing down around us like a house of cards. In this moment in history, we’re being given the opportunity to recognize that God is in charge here (we’re not), and there’s only one way to regain our foothold in this topsy-turvy world — through radically new ways of thinking that come only from a spiritual conversion of heart.

Sue Ellen Browder writes from Lander, Wyoming.