Crisis—with one referent or another, the word is much in use today. Professors in the humanities lament a crisis of enrollment in their areas of study as more and more students declare business as their major. There is a crisis of leadership. CEOs take the short view of profit over the long view of economic justice; university administrators are forever on the lookout for their next highly paid appointment, along the way compromising the courage of intellectual vision; federal leadership dismantles governmental areas—funding for scientific and medical research, for example—necessary to longterm national health. Crisis is the magnitude of student debt, the invasion of the robots, and the rising seas. And now these crises are pushed into the background as a new crisis—a global pandemic caused by the Covid-19 virus—takes over lives across the planet. Prudence and smart government policy keep people in their homes. The bodies of the dead pile up. Essential workers—medical professionals, the drivers of trucks carrying groceries, bus drivers, and postal employees, among others—are put at daily risk of their lives.
When human vulnerabilities and mortality are exposed, the question of what it means to live returns to the forefront of conversations. Persons we love are intubated and isolated in hospital wards; we have lost the comfort of our friends’ company; and sheer existence is rendered more onerous than ever by unemployment and debt. At these sites of human passio, or suffering, questions of human living become urgent again, and unavoidable.
Theologians have for millennia asked questions about how humans ought to live. The Greek thinker Plato recommended theology to the leaders of Athens: theologians must ensure, Plato believed, that myth represents the gods as unchanging and just. Such well-behaved gods—not the capricious figures who cavorted with nymphs and changed into animals—guide right living in the polis. But the dangerous excessiveness of the old gods persisted, troubling any notion that the purpose of theology is mere reassurance. The gods remained strange and human existence absurd.
Theologians have built up a rich repertoire of questions in the face of this absurdity. The assertion “God is good” is countered with, “Why so much suffering in the world?” Wonder at star-filled heavens provokes unsettling lines of inquiry. What? How? Misery and joy, humility and greed, the desire to connect and the wish to die, entwine in human experience. The biblical book of Psalms is exemplary in this regard. Martin Luther, the German Reformer called the Psalms his “little Bible” because it spoke to the full range of human experiences as no other book in the Bible. The human, Luther maintained, is caught between desperation and presumption. What is life worth? Is there meaning to this absurd selection of who gets the virus and recovers, who succumbs to it? How can it be that a political mess-up results in the suffering and death of thousands more?
Theologians look for clues, suggestions, possible lines of inquiry. They study stories from the past. Luther wrote the treatise “On Whether One Should Flee the Deadly Plague” as the bubonic plague, sweeping across Europe, reached his hometown of Wittenberg in early August 1527. He had experienced the stress of relocation and the grief of friends who had died. And he asked the question of the point of human life in the face of death. If God’s will is for life, then why does God permit death? The question of human living ultimately drew Luther, as it has other theologians, to the one who is at life’s extremities.
The questions of death and God stretch beyond human logic, exceeding the ambitions of human reason to know with finality, once and for all, to make assured distinctions among kinds of experience. One cannot make sense of death; one cannot comprehend the divine will. To think that it is theology’s role to make sense of. . .is mistaken. Death and God stand within life, but outside the human impulse to know with assurance. Why are some humans dying now terribly in the plague, while others pass away peacefully after a natural decline? Theologians continue to press the unknowns at the heart of human experience. What happens after death? Is there something rather than nothing? Is there an idiosyncratic logic that can be discerned so that appropriate sacrifices, desperate wagers, might be made: “please spare my son and kill me instead”?
Theologians ask about what makes a person, a nurse, a health care worker, willing to risk inevitable infection, to alleviate human suffering, while others boast about their capacity to triumph over suffering by not wearing protective masks or following simple rules of social distancing. Why do some use a Christian symbol in order to obfuscate the reality identified by the scientists while others use it to connect with people in their distress? Theologians are interested in the many ways humans live, as individuals and in their own villages. As individuals, humans are also members of the same race; as connected in communities they are also interconnected with each other around the globe. Epidemiologists model these interconnections. Illness travels on circuits of friendship and commensality. Theologians, too, are interested in these realities of connection, in the transmission of disease and in the human connections that add meaning and beauty to living. They are fascinated by the circuits of illness, both physical and spiritual, and the ways in which healing takes place in physical and metaphysical connection. Connections are viral.
Human living—resistance in the face of the inevitable, and orientation to love in the face of annihilation. Theologians look to those places of resilience. They wonder at glimpses of dignity amid the decrepitude. Human living is a daily struggle to make ends meet; a blank stare into an unlit tunnel; the horror at what is unspeakable yet real. Theologians identify those places of brokenness. They acknowledge that brokenness is braided together with undiscernible meaning. Theology is the habit of asking, not the practice of resolution. The theologian’s questions indicate a reality that has not yet been spoken into existence, but that is there. The void in which human living exists is not a nothingness, but is held. Theology speaks of accompaniment.
The hidden reality that is present to brokenness, that holds meaningless and numbing struggle, cannot be seized as possession or claimed as a capital gain. It exists and gives its name so that despair cannot have the final word. The point here is not that theology is irrational or antirational. Obviously, theologians think within particular discursive frames, within inheritances of thought, and they use the same tools of reason as others in any given world that seek to know. But theologians seek out the limits of thought; they abide with the antimonies of human experience. They look to what exceeds, for good and evil, the limits imposed by any given world of thought and experience, and from this position, to challenge what is taken for granted, to identify that which exceeds the bounds of ordinary immorality to become true evil, and ordinary goodness to become glory. Human living in theological terms yields then to another perspective from which new things may be seen, new question posed.