Some years ago, I was on a high-speed Acela to New York one morning when, in Connecticut, a woman in her early 60s apparently fainted while waiting at the crossing barriers. Recently discharged from the hospital, she was the primary caregiver for her grandchildren, ages 4 and 2, and was now, with great caution and love, driving them to preschool. Gently, uncontrolled—inexplicable to those watching—the nose of her car bounced under the barriers and rolled onto the track—at the very moment when our train barreled through. The woman and her grandson died instantly; his tiny sister died several days later. After a long wait, a half-mile past the impact, our train still enmeshed with the mangled car, we, the shocked passengers, were eventually disgorged at the closest station to wait for a new train. When reporters began trawling the crowded platform, microphones in hand, I could not speak. Silence seemed the only respectful response to such a violent and deadly serendipity.
These days, in the global grief of the current pandemic and its economic and political fallout, I feel much as I did that morning on the platform: overtaken by silence. An inner sentinel calls me to attend with respect the widespread “shell shock” of emerging losses for which there are no adequate words. Such silence is for me a solidarity of spirit, a way, as it were, to weep with those who weep. And yet—precisely because this crisis also directly relates to my academic engagement in global health and the history of faith-based responses to illness and need, I wrestle within such silence with an equally complex sense of responsibility to find language that might shape (if only my own) choices and actions in the midst of a media firehose of verbiage. This essay is a partial response to these inner sensors. But perhaps it might encourage others wrestling with a similar struggle as we listen, hope, and begin to craft useful, tempered conversations with depth and integrity.
Before resuming my “itinerary” of the argument of That All Shall Be Saved, one additional point seems worth stressing. Though in the last installment the issue was raised of whether God intends or permits evil, the book’s argument has nothing to do with the traditional problems of rational theodicy. The question is not “Why does God permit evil if he is both omniscient and omnipotent?” or “Why is the possibility of evil necessary for creation?” or even “Is this the best of all possible worlds?” All of those are perfectly interesting queries in their proper place (or so I hear); but that place is not this book.
It is a good mereological rule that to try to understand the whole in terms of its parts and to try to understand the parts in light of the whole are two very different operations of reason (induction and deduction, to be precise). It is one thing to attempt to judge the relative goodness or badness of a discrete evil in relation to some final purposes we cannot see, but another thing altogether to judge the goodness or badness of a supposedly total narrative that pretends to describe the whole rationality of all its discrete events. The former judgment can never be more than conjectural; the latter is a matter of logic. There may logically be such a thing as an evil that is redeemed in the greater good toward which it leads; there is no such thing as an unredeemed evil that does not reduce any good end toward which it might lead to a mere relative value. In the former case, it is logically possible that evil may be non-necessary in the ultimate sense, but a real possibility in a provisional sense—though even then only as a privation that will ultimately be effaced from the “total picture.”
After Passover and Easter, in the midst of a pandemic none of us could have expected or prepared for, there is a remarkable woman who can give us vision and stability, who can help us to do good despite all the terror due to the Covid-19 virus. She speaks from another time of dread, the Holocaust.
You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend Your dwelling place inside us to the last. There are, it is true, some who, even at this late stage, are putting their vacuum cleaners and silver forks and spoons in safekeeping instead of guarding You, dear God. And there are those who want to put their bodies in safekeeping but who are nothing more now than a shelter for a thousand fears and bitter feelings. And they say, “I shan’t let them get me into their clutches.” But they forget that no one is in their clutches who is in Your arms. I am beginning to feel a little more peaceful, God, thanks to this conversation with You. I shall have many more conversations with You. You are sure to go through lean times with me now and then, when my faith weakens a little, but believe me, I shall always labor for You and remain faithful to You, and I shall never drive You from my presence. (12 July 1942)
Much has been written and posted on line lately about Holy Communion and how it is to be distributed/received vis-à-vis the COVID-19 crisis. In light of this, it is interesting that little attention has been paid to the relationship between faith and reason. The overriding reason for this omission is related to an understanding of the Eucharist and how it is distributed. As the body and blood of Christ, the Eucharist has repeatedly been held up as being immune from transmitting contagion. As a result, any discussion about whether the Eucharist and its distribution is susceptible to receiving and transmitting contagion is perceived as suspicious, heretical, and therefore a rebellion against the very core of Orthodox faith and life. Must the use of reason be discarded when it comes to matters of faith? Based on our history, it is clear that deeply embedded in the tradition of the Orthodox Church there is the emphasis on the necessary co-existence and interdependence of faith and reason. Together they provide the basis for a living piety expressed in true worship. The following is an attempt to show the interrelationship of faith and reason and how their separation moves Christianity towards myth and superstition.
“Faith is what gives fullness to our reasoning,” says St. Gregory of Nazianzus (Or. 29). However, for faith to fulfill our reasoning it must be living. It must be continuously put to the test by reason just as reason must recognize its own limitations when brought before the transcendent. Faith and reason maintain a necessary synergy that allows for the articulation of the encounter with the living God.