“The Corona Virus, Modernity and God” by Peter Corney

THE CORONA VIRUS, MODERNITY AND GOD      by Peter Corney  (Palm Sunday 2020)

Our present crisis created by the Corona virus epidemic has triggered in my mind a memory of a phrase from the old Litany in the BCP, “from plague, pestilence and famine…and sudden death. Good Lord deliver us.”

When I was in theological college studying for the Anglican ministry in the early 60’s daily chapel was compulsory and every Wednesday we said the ancient  Litany with its memorable refrain and supplication – “Good Lord deliver us.” I can still hear it in my mind!

Written by Cranmer in the 16th C its language is Elizabethan. Its theological expression is cast in the understanding of the Reformation. It reflects what the reformers believed our attitude, our relationship, and our duty to God should be – one of complete dependence on the grace of God.

This moment of memory and reflection caused me to go to my bookshelf and take down the 1995 edition of “An Australian Prayer Book”, (that has now largely replaced the Book of Common Prayer  in Australian Anglican worship), and find its version of the Litany to compare with the very robust 1662 version. While the AAPB Litany keeps the idea of “saving us from sudden death” there is no longer any mention of “plague, pestilence and famine”. Generally, I think, it’s a much lamer version!

I may be drawing a long bow here but I began to wonder whether I should really be surprised, after all, the 1995 version is a document written in and shaped by ‘modernity’. The modern world of brilliant technology, advanced medicine, prosperity, vast financial resources, and in our progressive social democracies general Social Security, have given most of us a sense of entitled security. All of which has ameliorated much of the uncertainty, fragility and vulnerability of life as it was in the past, and we have got used to it!  And yet, now we suddenly find ourselves vulnerable, exposed, and not only to a rampant virus we can’t yet control. Also exposed is the unattractive side of our natures. We see the selfish hoarding of food and medical supplies, political point scoring among our party leaders when what we need is bipartisan co-operation (although co-operation is improving recently), carping and critical media attacking our political leaders as they struggle to respond to a rapidly evolving crisis.[i] We see people, so used to the unrestrained freedom of individual choice, ignoring or flouting the advice and instructions of government and medical advisors about their social behaviour and putting others at risk. I may be wrong about the modern Litany but the impact of modernity upon our view of life, our expec tations and our behaviour is clear and disturbing. No one wants to go back to surgery without anaesthesia , infection without antibiotics or measles and polio without vaccination’s, but there is much about the society we have created by the uncritical embracing of modernity that is troubling, negative and destructive to a holistic view of human flourishing .

Facing up to the following questions will be a good start. Why, in spite of our unprecedented prosperity, has modernity produced greater family dysfunction, marriage breakdown and greater numbers of children in state care? Why has our incidence of mental health problems risen so much and why have we provided so inadequately to meet the challenge it presents to our health system and society?  Why have our financial institutions and systems produced so much dishonesty, corruption and venal self-interest as revealed in our recent Royal Commission?  Why has the attendance and involvement of average Australians fallen away from Church -going, religious faith and attention to our spiritual needs and their value foundations that historically have shaped our culture? Why, until recently, have we become so insensitive to the destructive impact of our modern way of life on our environment?

We need to reflect deeply on these issues during this crisis and use it to consider what we each need to do to create a more caring, less selfish and more equitable community, one that intentionally supports people in whatever difficult state they find themselves. We need to particularly support marriage and family, children, a holistic education approach, and give attention to the depth and sources of our values. We are privileged to live in a working democracy, but only a commitment to the common good will sustain it and its ability to meet its constant challenges.

What do we mean by ‘Modernity?

Historically ‘Modernity’ is roughly that period of our history that runs from the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the 19th C to the present. It includes the evolution and growth of the Western free market financial system, modern communications, marketing and consumerism, and now the rapid growth of high technology, modern medicine, etc. It is marked socially by the move from the village to the city, rural to urban, from communal cultures to more impersonal large cities where our     ideas of authority and responsibility have evolved away from communal ones to more individual ones. Some social commentators would say that in the West we have now moved to ‘hyper individualism’ which is the mark of ‘post modernity’. The present preoccupation with identity politics would seem to reflect this.  [ii]

Modernity is also linked to ‘secularism’ and its effect on our sense of the sacred and the transcendent. Charles Taylors writing has shown comprehensively how this has developed historically, philosophically, theologically and socially in his “A Secular Age.”  [iii] The modern urban industrial world has gradually closed us off to nature, “the heavens” and the transcendent. This has been a gradual process, it’s as if we were at the Australian Tennis open and while absorbed in the game on the centre court, due to a prediction of rain, the roof of the stadium has been gradually closing to the heavens and we didn’t notice!

We have become ‘materialists’, not just in the sense of being seduced by consumerism, marketing  and the cheap and ready availability of goods and services all in multiple choice  – “ Which mobile phone in which colour with which apps with which payment plan would you like?”  We are now also ‘materialists’ in the sense of gradually coming to believe that reality is defined only by the material world of the physical. We no longer seriously believe in a ‘metaphysic’, that reality includes that which is bigger (Meta) and greater than the physical and material. This has been reinforced by a popular form of ‘scientific materialism’ whose tendency is to reductionism in its approach to knowledge and knowing. Its belief or doctrine is that the only ‘real’ things are the material and physical – energy, matter, atoms, particles, forces, etc., things we can measure.  It’s a bit like describing music as just fluctuating air pressure that the human ear is capable of detecting. It’s an accurate statement as far as it goes but there is so much more to say!

This greatly limits the field of the exploration of knowledge and wisdom and it has nothing to say about the questions that are of most importance to us and the meaning of our lives: – What is a satisfactory ethical basis for determining what is right and wrong? What is the nature of Justice, love, goodness, honour, beauty and truth? What is a virtuous life and why should it be pursued rather than a completely self- interested one? What is the nature of evil and how should we respond to it? How do we create a free society that is based on a view of the common good?

Also the loss of a strong historical perspective and knowledge from general education has also impoverished us intellectually. This is often joined by what C S Lewis called “chronological snobbery” where modernity’s pride in its achievements has treated as premodern superstitions the knowledge, wisdom and spirituality of the past and so discarded them.

These ideas in their popular form have closed much of the contemporary mind to the idea of the transcendent and the deeper reality of God, though not entirely as Taylor points out.[iv] It leaves our culture in a kind of existential vacuum of meaning and purpose and eventually produces for many a vague and perverse nihilism. Cultures abhor a spiritual and moral vacuum and so they seek to fill it with substitutes, this leads either to seeking constant superficial distraction or entering into denial or despair. All are evident today but we may see them challenged or exaggerated by the current crisis of the pandemic, particularly as our normal distractions are removed by isolation.

Some of us will be touched by loss and grief by this virus. We may lose loved ones, family, friends, and colleagues. In this present ‘fallen’ and imperfect world how to live involves also how to grieve. Loss in its various painful forms is one of our constant companions in life, and at a time like this it becomes a more familiar and threatening one. It may come in the form of a loss of Job and financial security or in its most painful form in the death of someone we love. The Christian faith tells us that the way for us to grieve and survive is only by first loving the one who will always be there and will never pass away. The answer is not to stop loving life and family and friends but to encompass life and our loved ones in our love for God and His love. Only in this way can our grieving be suffused with hope, the hope that is bought by Christ’s death and resurrection, which has transformed death and ushers in Gods coming Kingdom in which “God will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev 21:4.) In the words of Augustine it is a hope that is guaranteed by the one “who can restore what has been lost, bring to life what has died, repair what has been corrupted, and keep thereafter without end what has come to an end”.[v] Our love for the ones we love and their love for us is preserved and hidden with Christ in God.

We must also always recognise that grief and loss are complicated and often infused with anger at the world and God, even with ourselves. To reach the point of bringing this to God and reaching the hope described above can be a very slow and difficult journey for many of us, even if we have been Christians for many years.  Never the less it is in this hope that as Christians we live and grieve and die.

Peter Corney.


[i]   Although one very positive thing to emerge in the last few weeks has been the way the state Premiers have put aside party politics to create  what is now in effect the decision making body for the whole country chaired by the P.M. during this crisis.

[ii] The philosophical roots of Post Modernism take us back to the post WW2 emergence of the Existentialism of Sartre and Camus and the 60’s – 70’s social revolution. In fact a reading of Camus’ novel “The Plague” is worth doing while you’re in ‘lock down’!

On the sensitive issue of gender and identity politics it is important to note that where identity politics has taken on racism and discrimination it has helped to push modern society to be fairer and more just on many levels and so sits in the best tradition of Western liberalism. But at its extreme edges it can fall into the socially fragmenting tendency of Post Modernity’s hyper individualism. The democratic social project requires a ‘social contract’ where individuals accept their responsibility to the common good as well as their right to individual freedom. There are always tensions in this ‘contract’, they can only be managed constructively by consultation, listening and genuine community, but hyper individualism is often the enemy of these.

[iii] “A Secular Age” by Charles Taylor published by Harvard U.P 2007. See also the article by Taylor in the Hedgehog  Review Fall 2010  https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/does-religious-pluralism-require-secularism/articles/the-meaning-of-secularism. Also James K.A. Smith’s very helpful primer for Taylors rather large book!  James K.A.Smith “How (Not) to be secular –Reading Charles Taylor” pub. Eerdmans 2014.

[iv] Taylor points out we are, as he puts it, “Cross pressured” – conflicted about our experiences, the rumour of transcendence persists in our lives in all sorts of ways through music, art, literature, nature and relationships of love, and even in our encounters with evil that we cannot explain just by our rationalisations from sociology and psychology.

[v] At this time I have been reading James K.A. Smith’s very thoughtful journey with Augustine and his life, “On The Road With Saint Augustine –  A real world spirituality for restless hearts,” pub.Brazos Press 2019. I am indebted to Smith for these thoughts on loss and grief and for the quotations from his very helpful book. See p. 212-217.