That’s my opinion, at least.
I know corona-mania is making people think about things that may not normally be at the forefront of their mind, but I’m not sure I buy this Wall Street Journal piece, “A Coronavirus Great Awakening“:
Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival? As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there is reason to think so.
Three-quarters of a century has dimmed the memory of that gruesome conflict and its terrible consequences: tens of millions killed, great cities bombed to rubble, Europe and Asia stricken by hunger and poverty. Those who survived the war had to grapple with the kinds of profound questions that only arise in the aftermath of calamity. Gazing at the ruins from his window at Cambridge University, British historian Herbert Butterfield chose to make sense of it by turning to the Hebrew Bible.
“The power of the Old Testament teaching on history—perhaps the point at which the ancient Jews were most original, breaking away from the religious thought of the other peoples around them—lay precisely in the region of truths which sprang from a reflection on catastrophe and cataclysm,” Butterfield wrote in “Christianity and History” (1949). “It is almost impossible properly to appreciate the higher developments in the historical reflection of the Old Testament except in another age which has experienced (or has found itself confronted with) colossal cataclysm.”
Americans, chastened by the horrors of war, turned to faith in search of truth and meaning. In the late 1940s, Gallup surveys showed more than three-quarters of Americans were members of a house of worship, compared with about half today. Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Some would later call this a Third Great Awakening.
Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic.
I agree that corona-mania is uncharted territory for many born post-World War II. . . but comparing the coronavirus to World War II is a bit much. I’m taking it pretty seriously, but even I can see that this isn’t as deadly as global warfare.
Maybe it’s not as deadly because so many people in so many nations are taking such serious precautions, but still: the comparison is a bit much.
And further–I don’t see the economic downturn reaching Great Depression depths just now. Maybe it will eventually–God forbid!–but it really isn’t there now.
The experience is new and disorienting. Life had been deceptively easy until now. Our ancestors’ lives, by contrast, were guaranteed to be short and painful. The lucky ones survived birth. The luckier ones made it past childhood. Only in the past 200 years has humanity truly taken off. We now float through an anomalous world of air conditioning, 911 call centers, acetaminophen and pocket-size computers containing nearly the sum of human knowledge. We reduced nature to “the shackled form of a conquered monster,” as Joseph Conrad once put it, and took control of our fate. God became irrelevant.
Who will save us now that the monster has broken free?
“Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realising the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us,” Butterfield wrote. “We of the twentieth century have been particularly spoiled; for the men of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and all our ancestors down to the seventeenth century betray in their philosophy and their outlook a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”
This is fair, to be sure. In fact, I agree with it. We have had it so easy these past 60 or so years. Ridiculously easy. In fact, this material abundance is a complete and utter historical anomaly.
However, tons of us have been aware of how anomalous this is, and how fragile, for years. This is really only highly disorienting to total head-in-the-sand bugmen. The rest of us, with any kind of sense of history, knew that a crisis of this proportion would happen eventually.
The past four years have been some of the most contentious and embarrassing in American history. Squabbling over trivialities has left the public frantic and divided, oblivious to the transcendent. But the pandemic has humbled the country and opened millions of eyes to this risky universe once more.
“Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny,” Butterfield wrote. Sometimes “it is only by a cataclysm,” he continued, “that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”
For societies founded on the biblical tradition, cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. As the coronavirus pandemic subjects U.S. hospitals to a fearsome test, Americans can find solace in the same place that Butterfield did. Great struggle can produce great clarity.
“The ancient Hebrews, by virtue of inner resources and unparalleled leadership, turned their tragedy, turned their very helplessness, into one of the half-dozen creative moments in world history,” Butterfield wrote. “It would seem that one of the clearest and most concrete of the facts of history is the fact that men of spiritual resources may not only redeem catastrophe, but turn it into a grand creative moment.”
Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?
It’s interesting that this article focuses on the “Hebrew” Bible, aka the Old Testament to us Christians. In fact, this article mentions the ancient Hebrews a lot, and even the ancient Greeks, but doesn’t mention Jesus Christ once. Very telling and likely not coincidental.
Also: humanity has only “taken off” the past 200 years? No, humanity was doing amazing things the past 4,000. If you mean humanity has gotten really secular the last 200 years, I’ll agree with you . . . yes, lifespans and material possessions have increased since then, but that discounts all other achievements in a pretty offhand way.
They’re expecting, what, a great awakening based on the Torah and the Torah alone? None of America’s spiritual awakenings have been anything but Christian.
Anyway, it’s not just a sense of history that helps many of us whether storms like this, but a religious grounding as well. It’s a bit circular, I know, to say that–“Only those of us already turned toward God will be able to turn to God to get through crises”–but coronavirus doesn’t seem to have impacted life other than being really inconvenient for most for me to see it leading to mass repentance.
I wish it would lead to mass repentance, but things really aren’t that bad yet. America was arguably “founded on the Biblical tradition”–something I don’t personally agree with; I find it founded more on Masonic and Gnostic tradition; but accepting this for the sake of argument . . . America is by and large biblically illiterate. It’d take something really bad or hard for the United States of America in the 21st century to turn to the Lord.
And honestly, as much as I think national repentance would do us good . . . I’d much rather not have to have a massive global catastrophe to get us there.
I’d love for this to spark another Great Awakening. I’d love to be wrong, but I don’t see this virus being the catalyst.
But you never know. And yes, I know I’m hedging my bets, but I’m an optimistic cynic. That’s what I do.