Finding God—and yourself—in a pandemic. Is there divine meaning?
The fact that the coronavirus pandemic falls during Passover, Easter, and Ramadan will lead millions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to ask why God allows such things to happen. While answers to such questions vary, the majority seem to rest on the notion that God is mysterious and beyond our understanding, and that we have to trust that an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-good God knows what He is doing, and there is goodness and meaning in the death of so many and the suffering of so many more.
Given that I don’t believe in an all-powerful, all-loving, and all-good God, I don’t ask this question, and, not surprisingly, I don’t find answers to this question all that valuable. For me God is YHVH (Exodus 3:14): the Happening of all happening, even pandemics. There is no divine purpose to a pandemic and no divine meaning to be found in it. It is simply another inevitable expression of a world rooted in tohu wa-bohu (chaos and instability; Genesis 1:2). Rather than find some way to excuse God from the evil of COVID-19, I suggest we learn from Job and “accept good and evil from God” (Job 9:3).
I am especially troubled by those believers who see our current pandemic as punishment for wrong belief and wicked behavior. What they often call wrong belief and wicked behavior, I see as a spiritual maturation and social justice.
And then there are those who see in COVID-19 and other natural disasters as proof that no divine commander-in-chief exists at all—and who are astonished by and dismissive of millions of people who cling to Passover, Easter, and Ramadan when it is instead so very clear that the God who ordains these holy days is a figment of their imagination.
While I too reject the idea of a heavenly commander-in-chief, I am not an advocate of abandoning Passover, Easter, and Ramadan. On the contrary, I think these holy days transcend the theology that accompanies them and offer us a model for communal liberation, personal transformation, and societal reformation.
In the Passover story, the Hebrews are liberated from physical slavery only to find themselves still caught in psychological slavery. They would rather return to Egyptian captivity than take up the challenge of living and dying in the wilderness (Exodus 14:11-12; Numbers 14:2), the world as it is, where ease and disease coexist in dynamic and often creative tension. As a species, as political movements across globe make clear, we humans prefer authoritarianism (both political and religious) to freedom and the obligations freedom places upon us.
The Easter story retells the Exodus from the point of view the individual. The crucifixion of Jesus and the resurrection of the Christ (which I understand as the shattering of the self and the realization of the Self) liberates us from psychological slavery by transforming us spiritually and awakening us to the truth that each of us and God is one (John 10:30). What Jesus said of himself, he hoped each of us could say of ourselves when we dared take up our own cross and follow him to through the death of self to the resurrection of Self (Matthew 16:24).
During Ramadan, we fast from the traits that continue to feed the self and enslave us as both individuals and as a people that we might awaken the Self and remember Allah/God in, with, and as all reality, and with this insight reform self and society in light of compassion, humility, and justice.
The meaning of Passover, Easter, and Ramadan is far greater than the fact of COVID-19 and far deeper than the theological efforts to defend a God we should have long ago outgrown.
Want more? Read about finding spiritual comfort in the face of COVID-19 chaos.