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.