Aberdeen, SD. The COVID-19 pandemic has produced challenges and struggles that few of us could have imagined even a handful of months ago. The isolation with which most of us live; the destruction of our economy; the anxiety regarding both our individual and collective physical health; and of course the physical suffering of those with the virus and those working long hours to care for them. Among the tests we face is a spiritual test. Deprived of religious community as normally practiced and with access to the sacraments severely limited, religious believers naturally question what to make of this pandemic crisis. Why would God allow such a thing to happen? Why is God allowing deprivation from religious community and sacramental unity?

One of the most pressing challenges, both spiritually and practically, is the balancing of the desire to preserve the life and health of our population with the harm caused by economic chaos sown by our public response to the viral outbreak. There is much debate over whether we have overreacted to the crisis, needlessly impoverishing the nation. While I ultimately disagree with those who think we have shut down our economy too hastily, their concerns must be taken seriously. Destruction of wealth brings its own consequences beyond the immediate lack of money. In the next handful of years there will be less money for education, for roads and bridges, for investment in new enterprises, for arts and cultural activities, and so on. This lack is more than a material impoverishment. A poorer nation is also a less healthy nation. To the extent we are able to maintain a public health infrastructure and preserve our social welfare state, it will likely be based on incurring mountains of debt. This is a hard ask for a nation already living well beyond its means. One must have at least some sympathy for those who question whether the public health benefits of near total economic shutdown are worth the mammoth costs.

This is true spiritually as well. R.R. Reno, editor of the journal First Things, published a controversial piece arguing that denying people sacraments and giving up much of what is good in life for the sake of avoiding death is to give in to “Satan’s rule” and the “dominion of death.” Reno has taken much heat for this controversial opinion, must pugnaciously from Damon Linker. Linker takes perhaps excessive joy in dunking on the pro-life Reno, charging Reno with a callousness toward life while suggesting that Reno’s views are indicative of “conservative Christianity in the United States.” Contrary to this latter accusation by Linker, conservative Christian Rod Dreher joins in the anti-Reno pile-on, positing that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is actually more pro-life than the ostensibly pro-life Reno due to Cuomo’s assertive leadership in the face of New York’s dire health situation. This despite the fact that just last year Cuomo positively celebrated his signing of an aggressively pro-abortion bill that could reasonably be characterized as legalizing infanticide under certain conditions. Cuomo ordered the Empire State Building and One World Trade Center lit in pink to honor his state’s support for late-term and even post-delivery killing of innocent life. In a separate post on Reno, Dreher cites Flannery O’Connor as saying “You can’t be any poorer than dead.” The obvious implication here is that whatever the costs of our societal shutdown, they can’t be any worse than death. (For a more sober response to Reno, with fresh Monty Python takes, see Jake Meador).

Dreher’s citation of O’Connor is ironic in that O’Connor’s lesson is almost the exact opposite of the one Dreher draws. The line Dreher cites is from a short story that O’Connor would later extend into her novel The Violent Bear It Away. This novel centers on the travails of a reluctant prophet, Francis Tarwater, charged by his dying great-uncle, Mason Tarwater, himself a fiery evangelist, with the task of baptizing Francis’s cousin, Bishop. Bishop is the mentally challenged son of Francis Tarwater’s materialist uncle, Rayber. Rayber is his own kind of evangelist, an evangelist for reason and materialism. Upon the death of Mason, Rayber takes in young Tarwater, eager to give his nephew a “proper” education to counteract the religious training of the elder Tarwater. Francis Tarwater is tortured by his sense of religious duty to baptize and save Bishop, a boy held in contempt by his father who sees the disabled Bishop as useless and a drag on society. Tarwater’s angst comes from the fact that he too holds Bishop in a kind of disdain, struggling to see the worth of a human life so clearly defective. Ultimately, Tarwater fulfills the desires of both his uncle and great-uncle in one act, drowning Bishop in a lake, both killing and baptizing Bishop at once. One cannot help but think of one of O’Connor’s finest narratives, “The River,” in which a young boy drowns in a river in a kind of baptism. The boy, alternately named Harry and Bevel in the story, is “saved” in his drowning, both from a fiendish predator who seeks to abuse him, but also from his parents who hold anything sacred in contempt, content to live a dissolute life of parties, booze, and conspicuous consumption. Their neglect of their son allows him to escape to the river that will end his life, with his parents in bed sleeping off hang-overs.

When I have taught “The River” in class, I ask my students whether it is a happy ending or a sad ending. How one characterizes the story will say much about one’s spiritual outlook. If one holds physical life as the most important thing, the story has a sad ending. But if the reader believes there is something higher than mere life, then the fate of Harry/Bevel is a happy fate. The same is true of Bishop. Harry/Bevel and Bishop, both newly baptized, die in a state of grace. What could be more joyful than that? The poverty O’Connor speaks of in the phrase “You can’t be any poorer than dead” is a spiritual poverty. The death she speaks of is not a physical death, but a spiritual death. Harry/Bevel and Bishop are both physically dead at the end of the respective stories, but they are spiritually alive like never before. Meanwhile, Harry’s/Bevel’s parents and Rayber are still alive, but could we really call what they have “living”? They are spiritually lifeless. Tarwater himself, the agent of Bishop’s death, is converted by this experience (and perhaps one subsequent experience). He rejects the education of his secular uncle and accepts the spiritual discipline of his evangelist great-uncle. After running from his calling throughout the novel and listening to the literal Voice of temptation, he takes on the vocation of a prophet/preacher.

Reno is absolutely correct. There are worse things than death. Rejecting a transcendent view of reality makes this life the most precious thing imaginable. If there is nothing to live for beyond this world, then it makes sense that maximizing material comfort and reducing suffering should be the central concern of life and thus public policy. It is just this mentality that Linker indicates drives his pro-choice sensibility. Linker, like the celebrities “shouting” their abortions, thinks that the death of some, in this case actively killing them in abortion, is worth it due to the material benefit derived by individuals and society as a whole. Actresses Michelle Williams, Busy Phillips, and Jameela Jamil have all recently defended their abortions on the ground that they would not have had successful careers, meaning money and fame, without the death of their unborn children. Reno is not the only one making a harsh cost-benefit analysis, but at least he has in mind spiritual benefits, not bodily benefits. If this life is all there is, then both the consumer culture and the abortion culture make much more sense. A culture premised on “I want” as its central moral claim will find itself justifying all sorts of horrors in the name of material desires. Reno is worried that we have become too sentimental, looking at death as the ultimate evil. This is again echoed in O’Connor, found in her famous admonition that tenderness, devoid of the source of tenderness, namely Jesus Christ, leads to the gas chamber. We can justify all sorts of horrors, even the death of millions, in the name of seeking comfort. At least Reno’s justification of some death is in the name of higher goods than a fat paycheck and a hit television series.

Reno asks, “Everything for the sake of physical life? What about justice, beauty, and honor?” All of us who honor war heroes and martyrs of various causes recognize the weight of this appeal. There are some things worth dying for. By definition that means that avoiding death at all costs is a grave error. One shortcoming of liberalism, with its focus on self-preservation and commodious living, is that it struggles to make sense of heroism. How do we account for the heroic efforts of health care workers, some of whom have come out of retirement to risk illness and death for the good of all? Their very actions instruct us that there are more important things than mere life. The best liberalism can do is a utilitarian calculation that some might have to suffer or even die in order for the rest to prosper. It is the same mentality that looks upon the destructive side of economic “creative destruction” with resignation because some must suffer (by losing their jobs, for example) for the rest to profit. This does not appear to be Reno’s calculation. He is calling us to a kind of heroism in the face of death, as misplaced as that call might be in the circumstance. We are now denied various avenues to the experience of God, both via the formal sacraments and sacramentals (such as the beauty of art museums or public music). At what point does this condition become untenable?

I should make myself clear. I ultimately think Reno is wrong. Very wrong. Not in principle, but in application. He is correct that in this time of trial we must be careful not to make an idol out of physical life, for there is another life that is much more precious. Thus, despite its overreach, I think Reno’s essay is a useful heuristic device inviting us to ask these important questions. I think Reno’s critics have been too hard on him. Linker is certainly unfair in characterizing Reno as “shrugging” at death. We should all be asking precisely what it is that we are willing to give up in the name of survival. At what point are we asked to give up too much? What goods do we hold so sacred that it would be worth dying to preserve them?

Where Reno is wrong is in his prudential determination that we should not forgo church and other gatherings for a time. While the data is uncertain, it seems that severe caution in the face of this virus is the right policy. The disease seems readily transmittable and dreadful in its symptoms, even for those who do not die. All indications are that, absent serious preventative actions, the virus will produce intolerable anguish via death and suffering. One need simply read the accounts of those who have survived a COVID-19 infection to gain a sober understanding of the consequences of a lackadaisical approach to the disease. Social distancing and isolation are not products of a sentimental fear of death, but of a just concern for the common good. Reno’s essay may arise from the fact that we in the United States have yet to see the widespread agony experienced in such places as Italy or the city of Wuhan, the virus’s source. For now, one can see why some might think we have succumbed to irrational fear. But Reno’s New York may be heading to Italian levels of despair. We will see if Reno’s tune changes with the evidence. Courage in the face of death is easy when death is abstract. We can learn from another one of O’Connor’s finest characters, the self-righteous young girl in “A Temple of the Holy Ghost,” who is sure she could be a martyr “if they killed her quick.” That’s martyrdom on the cheap. Regardless, even based on what we currently know, Reno seems to be advocating not courage but foolishness. We might think back to sacrifices in times of war, both in lives of soldiers and sailors, but also those on the home front, denied their loved ones and many material goods through rationing. So too must we sacrifice much to forestall a public health catastrophe. Therein lies actual heroism.

Let us not, however, in our haste to condemn Reno for his imprudent practical advice, ignore the truth of the underlying point. Surely there is a point at which we reach the state of “too much.” Religious believers hold that there is more to existence than this material life. Perhaps like the grandmother at the end of O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” we, seeing death all about us, should take into account that which we hold dear and be open to conversion. Like O’Connor in her own physical suffering, perhaps, with one eye squinted, we can take it all as a blessing.

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  1. Thank you Dr. Schaff on your balanced approach between the two opinions. I was just reading yesterday what Martin Luther had to say during the bubonic plague, offering his thoughts in a letter titled “Whether One May Flee From a Deadly Plague” on how best to practically and spiritually overcome:

    You ought to think this way: “Very well, by God’s decree, the enemy has sent us poison and deadly offal. Therefore, I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine, and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance infect and pollute others, and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me, however, I shall not avoid place or person, but will go freely.”

    The full letter may be found at Academia.edu.

    As a worldview instructor I am constantly reminding my students of the and/both proposition, as opposed to the either/or. We can embrace life and death, counting both of them sacred. Christ is Lord in every realm.

  2. Jon,

    This is an excellent and sympathetic analysis of Reno’s desperately wrong-headed essay; I really enjoyed learning from it. Your final comparison of social distancing with the sort of material deprivation and rationing which takes place during wartime is very apt.

    I also think you’re too hard on Linker (for the record, he’s an old friend), though I agree with you that his take on the essay misses, I believe, its central theme. Damon has a “pro-choice sensibility” in pretty much the exact same way large majorities of the American people have a pro-choice sensibility: that is, absent incontrovertible empirical evidence the contrary–like an obvious viability outside the womb–they mostly think individuals deserve the freedom to figure for themselves what they’re going to do, absent the controlling judgment of interfering others. He basically associates this same sort of secular, individualist calculation with Reno’s frightening fatalism (“Life is unfair….Children sometimes die”). Whereas you see Reno as proposing a rejection of such utilitarian calculation in the name of Christian heroism. I think that’s closer to what’s going on, but still not quite there. I think one needs to recognize the sovereigntist aspect of the essay. In essence, Reno is saying that WE don’t get to kill, as through abortion, because we’re not God, but if God wills that a bus plow into a bunch of children crossing the street–or, more relevantly, because the market failed to provide adequate medical resources to the people who desperately need them in the face of a virus–well then, that’s different.

    In other words, I don’t think, for all Reno’s invocation of “honor,” he’s actually calling for Christians to be noble and tough and refuse to be cowed by some mere virus. I think he’s saying that any attempt to collectively provide welfare in the face of tragedy is an attempt to make ourselves into gods. Christians have their sovereign, and it isn’t social distancing guidelines! Worship not the false idol of public health!

    One last thing: Rod Dreher is far from the only small-o orthodox Christian thinker to speak firmly against Reno’s wrong-headedness; check out Alan Jacobs’s smart condemnations Reno’s foolishness here and here and here.

    • “Damon has a “pro-choice sensibility” in pretty much the exact same way large majorities of the American people have a pro-choice sensibility: that is … they mostly think individuals deserve the freedom to figure for themselves what they’re going to do, absent the controlling judgment of interfering others.”

      This is unequivocally a pro-choice viewpoint. It advocates the taking of human life based on its size and level of development. It wouldn’t matter if 100% of Americans agreed with with it, it would still be flagrantly contradictory to the Word of God and the dignity of the human person made in His image.

      • I am not certain I agree with your claim, Ray, that allowing a woman the freedom to make difficult choices for herself about the zygote which implanted itself in her uterine wall less than 72 hours prior is “flagrantly contradictory to the Word of God,” but of course you are correct: Damon is pro-choice, in the same way large majorities of the American people are (at least weakly and wishy-washily) pro-choice, and for the same reasons–a foundational liberal individualism which gives absolute priority to personal choice. My point wasn’t to argue about Damon’s–or, for that matter, Reno’s–employ of abortion as a counter-point to an argument over how one should respond to the coronavirus pandemic; rather, it was to show that Damon reads Reno as someone ultimately similar to him–as someone who thinks that the fundamental issue here is how we as individuals choose to respond, whether nobly and “ruggedly” or fearfully and weakly, to an external threat to our personal preferences. I believe that Damon’s reading of Reno is a fair one, and leads properly to a rejection of Reno’s claims (as Jon’s reading does as well); I just don’t think it grasps Reno’s claims as well as would an analysis that actually takes the reverse approach, and sees Reno as calling for a submission by Christians to God’s will (which…I guess maybe also includes the “natural” functions of the marketplace and its impacts upon public health, perhaps?) rather than attempting to fight the virus by accepting responsibility for and seeking social coordination on behalf of limiting the damage it will bring.

  3. Russell, thanks for the response. I find myself in violent agreement. I had read the first Jacob’s reaction to Reno, but not the others. The last is especially good. I would like to pick a bone with what constitutes “incontrovertible empirical evidence” regarding human life in utero, but let’s leave that discussion for another day.

  4. Dunno, I think Reno’s getting a bad rap. I’ve been following his writing on this, and I think that people are willfully misreading him. Sure, he’s being purposely contrarian, but that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong. Plus, anything Linker writes that has to do with First Things can be safely ignored. There’s some pretty bad blood in that history.


    • Thanks for sharing that, BMJ. “Perhaps Meador and Schaff (and many others) are correct about what Christian prudence requires. I thought otherwise one and two weeks ago, and still think my reasons sound. But events have overtaken my judgments, and now the time for persuading bishops and public authorities of a different course of action has largely passed.” Good for Reno for being willing to rethink in the face of changing events.

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