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Faith Matters: Faith in feverish times

  • The Rev. Ted Thornton sits on his Northfield home’s front porch. Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Episcopal Priest (ret.)
Published: 3/27/2020 3:52:21 PM
Modified: 3/27/2020 3:52:08 PM

The philosopher and atheist Albert Camus is famous for proclaiming the absurdity of existence. We’re born, he says, with minds that demand to know the meaning of our existence; yet we inhabit a world where meaning is beyond our reach. Add to this the fact that someday we will die (perhaps in an epidemic) and it sure can feel absurd.

So, what, if anything, do Christians have in common with someone like Camus? One of Camus’ most popular novels is “The Plague” (in French, “La Peste”), about an epidemic that strikes a city and causes many to die. The hero of the story is Dr. Bernard Rieux who, while others flee, courageously stays behind to treat the sick even though he knows his efforts won’t save anyone. His only motive is to do what he can to ease the suffering of the sick. He’s governed by no moral or religious principles, only his sense of duty as a doctor.

Like the Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang, the whistleblower who warned authorities in vain about the new coronavirus, who was rebuked and who later himself succumbed to the illness, Dr. Rieux is ignored by his city’s ruling elite. The rulers deny the problem until it’s too late to arrest it.

Eerily similar to what we’ve been seeing, Camus’ novel features price-gouging profiteers eager to capitalize on public panic and a clergyman who tries (unsuccessfully) to convince Rieux the plague is God’s will. But, there are also helpers who, like Dr. Rieux, risk their lives to help the sick like the heroic doctors and nurses who, with barely a thought for themselves, poured into Africa in 2014 to fight the outbreak of Ebola there.

Camus’ “plague” is a metaphor for the political decay, the rise of fascism, and the retreat of social and civil order that overtook Europe in the 1930s. Yet, any plague — actual or metaphorical — puts a choice before us, one that Christians should immediately recognize: we can either be selfish and solitary, or we can choose to live in solidarity with others, serving especially those who suffer. I’ve been heartened by the outpouring of offers to help here in my hometown of Northfield. Pandemics do compel us to consider our responsibility to those around us. The miracle, as real as any Jesus wrought, is that in the face of dangerous perils, people are moved to risk reaching out to help others.

These days, I’m reminded of a common thread that exists between Christian responses to suffering and Camus’ atheistic conviction that life is absurd, a theme that appears in the Bible prominently in the Book of Job. Job’s cries for reasons why he suffers and the lame responses of his friends (“All suffering is deserved”) are met at the end of this lengthy book in chapters 38 to 41 when God finally speaks, not with answers, just questions: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” etc.. I used to ask my students to count the number of question marks in God’s reply to Job beginning in chapter 38 (I think there are 40).

The lesson is that the reasons we suffer are inscrutable. We’ll never know why. We can only trust that, while we live inside nature, eating and being eaten even by viruses (“the food web,” as the late philosopher Philip Hallie used to put it), our trust and solace rests in God both in and beyond physical life.

In the face of this unknown, our response should be to act with compassion and self-sacrifice: rebelling against suffering by serving others and affirming their existence. Every act of love — Christian or otherwise — is an act of rebellion, a refusal to allow our place in the natural order (“the food web”) to move us to surrender to the power of nihilism and despair. We take our stand with those who suffer, knowing full well that there will be other “plagues” yet, too, other opportunities to bless and in turn be blessed.

Ted Thornton is an Episcopal priest and a retired teacher of history, religious studies, and Arabic. He worships and sings in the choir at Northfield’s Trinitarian Congregational Church (UCC).

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