We can name the moment the COVID-19 pandemic reached the center of the American consciousness: around 8:30 p.m., Central Standard Time, on Wednesday, March 11. In the span of a single hour, the president addressed the nation, the National Basketball Association suspended all its games, and Tom Hanks announced he had tested positive for the illness. Within 24 hours, every major sports league had followed suit, and the prospect of winning $72 in the office March Madness pool was officially stripped from workers across the country. Things, as they say, got real. Since then, they’ve only gotten worse.
In the shadow of the Cold War, C. S. Lewis was asked to address how humanity should live in an atomic age. Many of us have forgotten the astonishing fear that gripped the world then—some of us are not old enough to have known it. Yet the terrifying force of nuclear power made the idea of humanity’s extinction seem plausible in a new way. Or so people thought, at least. In his response to such sentiments, Lewis frames the atom bomb as a revelation, an apocalypse, that disclosed how fragile the world has always been. Look beyond the question of the bomb and we hear the scientists tell us that nothingness is where the universe is going to end anyway. The atomic bomb, Lewis writes, served to “forcibly remind us of the sort of world we are living in, and which, during the prosperous period before 1914, we were beginning to forget.” The imminent threat of extinction has woken us “from a petty dream,” he went on, “and now we can begin to talk about realities.”
A pandemic strikes at the heart of our illusory security in a way that even an atom bomb cannot. Regardless of how imminent it seemed at the time, the possibility of nuclear annihilation remained in the hands of others. Lewis could encourage his audience to allow the bomb to find us “doing sensible and human things” like praying, teaching, reading, and seeing our friends. But resistance to the fear of a pandemic must take an altogether different form, as it is precisely those ordinary acts through which a virus like COVID-19 spreads. While the threat of human extinction forces upon us the possibility that life simply might not matter at all, a virus prevents us from participating in life at all. We rightly speak of Seattle as a “ghost town,” because the signs and marks of life are no longer present within it. Moreover, death by atom bomb happens with a bang, not a whimper; we would know how it comes to us. But the death-dealing of a virus has a pernicious, insidious quality: We never quite know if we are being infected or not. A virus reshapes the whole texture of how we relate to one another, introducing a layer of fear and suspicion that other cataclysmic evils simply cannot do. For most of us, it will not even be the concrete and definite death to which we are headed that will animate our fear, but the vague and indefinite possibility that we shall lose the way of life we knew and shall contribute, unwittingly, to the death of our neighbor.
In that way, a pandemic makes us acutely conscious of just how fragile our life together really is. Matters were always this precarious, to be sure. And the communities that will be most affected by the coronavirus—the working classes, the aged, and the sickly—have no delusions about how vulnerable life can be. But for the rest of us, well, COVID-19 is God’s megaphone to a slumbering world.
What if the fear that we have now, though, is itself evidence that we have feared the wrong thing all along? Consider Augustine’s exposition of Psalm 85:11 (86 in most Bibles): “Lead me in your way, Lord, and I will walk in your truth; let my heart be so gladdened as to fear your name.” We shall someday have a gladness that is free from fear, Augustine contends—but the present insecurities of this world mean that our gladness is imperfect and that fear is necessary. “If we are completely secure,” he writes, we “exult in the wrong way.” The fear of the Lord disrupts that security, by reminding us of the passing nature of this temporal world. “Let us not expect security while we are on pilgrimage.”
The fear of the Lord perfects our natural fears, by reminding us that there is one who may touch what death cannot: our souls. The hope of the gospel sets us free from the anxious panic to preserve our own lives at any cost. It relativizes any concern for our own security or safety, and even that of our species. It is “part of our spiritual law,” Lewis writes, “never to put survival first: not even the survival of our own species.” We may follow the “law of love and temperance even when they seem to be suicidal.”
Yet by turning our eyes beyond this life, we are given it back: “Nothing is more likely to destroy a species or a nation,” Lewis continues, “than a determination to survive at all costs. … Those who want Heaven most have served Earth best.” The Lord's perfection of our fears does not mean their abolition, at least not in every case. COVID-19 is a palpable reminder of how deeply insecure our lives really are, of how vain our pretenses to control the world can be. Fear of the coronavirus is not the fear of the Lord. Yet it is a sign of such a fear, a shadow that has fallen across our path that reminds us to look upward as we walk. When we are baptized into Christ’s death, we are liberated for life—for its completion in the knowledge of God who loves the irreplaceable and fragile life he has given to each of us. Moreover, when we love our lives as Christ does, we shall be prepared to lose them as he did.
Cultivating the fear of the Lord in a pandemic age emboldens us to prudently lose our lives for our neighbors (John 15:13). While we must sacrifice our own comforts to keep our neighbor from unreasonable exposure, there may be some who also risk their own well-being for more immediate and urgent good works.
P.S. Among other opportunities that will doubtlessly present themselves in the days to come, there are now reports of blood shortages in hospitals—which imperils the lives of those who need it. Blood donation centers will do all they can to ensure the safety of donors, but the risk of contagion still heightens the moment we leave the house. Still, learning to love our lives as Christ does means being willing to risk them for his sake—and for the sake of those in need. As Christ gave his blood for us, perhaps in this time of pandemic we Christians are called to do the same for our neighbor—even if it means confronting, and overcoming, our fear of COVID-19.
Matthew Lee Anderson is a postdoctoral fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and the founder of Mere Orthodoxy. This post is adapted by the author from his newsletter, The Path Before Us.