blackbirdonline journalFall 2020  Vol. 19 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Godforsaken: Of Death and Daffodils

Here in North Carolina, it was the kind of April day that inspires poets, with a rain-washed blue sky and everything in bloom—dogwood, azalea, redbud, wisteria and a dozen varieties of tiny anonymous flowers pushing up through the deep grass in my lawn. If you haven’t lived in the Carolinas, you couldn’t be expected to understand how beautiful April can be, with the light green of new leaves as backdrop for all that fleeting color.

Actually, it was an inauspicious day, historically, the same day John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln, the day when the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank in three hours, with a loss of 1500 lives. April 14, 2020, for all its perfection, was a tragically shadowed day as well. Several weeks into the national lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic, we were becoming accustomed to newswire photos of coffins stacked behind nursing homes and forlorn masked figures standing in long lines in the rain, waiting to be tested. On the one hand, new life abundant, on the other hand its stark and stunning opposite. It reminded me of another spring day a few years ago, and an image I’ve never been able to delete from my memory banks.

I was walking across the lawn of the Burwell School, a block from my house, when I spied a huge bed of daffodils in perfect bloom. I detoured for a closer look, but when I reached the flowers, I could see that they formed a bower for a large gray tomcat, stone dead. He had not been dead long, the poor cat, and retained his physical integrity. The flies and ants and the local flock of black vultures had not yet disturbed his final rest among the daffodils. I left him there. I’m not sure what else I should have done. This was years before I might have been carrying a cell phone with a camera. But the image, that intimate interface between life and death, has never left me.

The impression it made was deeply personal, no doubt. In the second bewildering month of a national nightmare, my indelible vision of death among the daffodils offered no obvious lesson for surviving social distancing and viral paranoia. Except perhaps, for those fortunate enough to own yards, the suggestion that you’re better off watching things grow in your yard than watching things die on your television. But the South’s gorgeous Silent Spring of 2020 begged to be experienced as a constant irony, the same irony T.S. Eliot is working in “The Waste Land” when he writes “April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land.” I’ll wager that April’s cruelty has been invoked repeatedly this year, by nearly every journalist who ever passed freshman English.

Yet cruel it remained, a daily experience of life and death almost inseparable, an unavoidable collision of incompatible emotions. How we dealt with it spoke volumes about who we were, at the deepest levels. I appreciated the friends who obsessively circulated graveyard humor about the pandemic, efforts to cheer me up that were largely futile. I was less tolerant of the ones who tried to make light of it, as if quarantine and social isolation were really a minor inconvenience, even a rare opportunity to finish a novel or plant a new garden. There’s a certain flavor of oblivious optimism that infuriates me. But the contrast in plague response that told me the most about myself originated with an article in the New York Times, an interview with a young woman who teaches at Duke University, where years ago I also taught a couple of courses.

Kate Bowler, a religious historian who was diagnosed with incurable cancer when she was 35, carries an authority I can’t approach when it comes to mortality. I liked the title of the book she wrote about her experience with illness and fear—Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved—and I was impressed by most of her answers to the reporter’s questions, especially her dismissal of the American mandate to “stay positive” through the worst of times. “It adds shame to suffering,” she said, for everyone who fails to see the silver lining. Excellent, I thought. “A pandemic is not a judgment,” she added, “and it will not discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving.”

I was on board with Dr. Bowler all the way until I reached this statement: “I think moments like this reveal to me God’s unbelievable love for us.” Tough love, my inner Nietzsche responded with a sneer, and I remembered that she teaches at Duke Divinity School. I am not on the same page with a theologian who finds evidence of love—or hate, or any sort of divine intention—in a viral pandemic.

Can’t we just leave God out of this, for once? Theodicy—the vindication of God, roughly speaking, the belief that all history’s agonies and blessings are a part of God’s plan—is the conundrum that probably kept me from attending divinity school, which was briefly a part of my plan. One of the most amiable purveyors of popular religion is the syndicated columnist Rabbi Marc Gellman, whose “God Squad” reflections are consistently sane and humane. But Rabbi Gellman is a hardcore theodician, and his column on the pandemic, well written and deeply felt, merely expanded the rhetorical gulf that separates me from God’s loyal defenders.

“Even the coronavirus is not evil,” Gellman wrote. “It is just a part of God’s plan for the governance of the world.” And even more sanguine, in the same vein, “The coronavirus may be a warning from God to help each other.”

At this point I’m shaking my head, even grinding my teeth. Must God always get a free pass? I never believed in a god whose deliberations, intentions or actions were even remotely comprehensible to human beings, and I think it’s obvious that the god of rewards and punishments was invented by ancient priests and theocrats to keep our unruly race in order. Yet the rationalization required for the popular belief in a fully omnipotent, eternally benevolent deity has always mystified and fascinated me. The logic of denial is all too clear. The British philosopher Richard Swinburne, one of God’s most eloquent modern apologists, writes, “Without a theodicy, evil counts against the existence of God.”

Exactly. But if this god is omnipotent, fully capable of answering desperate prayers and deflecting catastrophes like this pandemic, then is he not, in any human terms, unjust and morally compromised? And if he’s innocent because he’s helpless or limited in his power, then of course he’s not God with a capital letter as every monotheistic religion presents him. Logically there’s no middle road that doesn’t involve intricate, unconvincing theological gymnastics. God, in relation to human suffering, is either cruel or irrelevant. And irrelevant is equivalent to absent.

It’s not my intention to play Richard Dawkins, deflating orthodox religious faith just when some people may need it most. The other factor in these theological equations is the word “evil,” invariably employed to mean “harmful and destructive to human beings.” But that’s a very limited, anthropocentric definition of evil. Let’s agree that “God” is the creator and protector of the planet Earth and all the life it sustains, as most religions maintain. If that’s true, and the human race is, as most scientists would concede, the most violent, destructive and overwhelming life form ever to dominate the earth—a kind of viral pandemic ourselves—then it’s possible to reimagine the coronavirus as one of the tools God has chosen to defend his creation.

What if homo sapiens is not God’s cherished work in progress, as the Bible and the theologians would have it, but a terrible mistake that He recognizes and is scrambling to correct? It’s an unpleasant thought, but hardly an irrational one. If it’s necessary to believe in an engaged, hands-on God, a Green God striving to defuse the human population bomb is more appealing than a careless God dispensing pardons to his left and death sentences to his right, like the dealer in some deadly game of cards.

I’ve never been convinced that God is either with us or against us. If I’m in need of metaphysical counsel, I tend to turn not to Richard Swinburne but to an earlier British philosopher, the formidable skeptic Bertrand Russell. Russell, whose sixty-odd published works include “Why I Am Not a Christian,” turned up his nose at debates over God’s true intentions or the eternal struggle between good and evil. Asked whether he found the universe benevolent or malignant, he suggested that it was cosmically indifferent, at least to the fate of humanity.

The controversy that always surrounded Russell, a self-described pacifist, socialist, and agnostic, hasn’t hurt his enduring reputation as one of the wisest men of the 20th century. The Internet, which Russell (1872-1970) mercifully never lived to see, is spiced with so many selections and quotations from the philosopher’s work that you can move from link to link and spend several days without exhausting your curiosity. No one who makes the effort has ever regretted it. Russell’s contemporary Virginia Woolf once wrote of him in her diary, envyingly, “I should like the run of his headpiece.” Fifty years after his death, any glimpse into that prized headpiece remains rewarding, not just because Russell writes so well—he won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950—but because, in a world of multiplying absurdities, he relentlessly makes sense.

And it’s not inappropriate—unless you’re seeking comfort—to turn to the great Victorian dissenter in times of grief and disaster like the 2020 pandemic. In spite of the advantages of wealth and aristocracy, his long life was marked by a host of sorrows, beginning with the deaths of his parents and his sister when he was a small child. The orphaned genius survived Hitler, Stalin, the Spanish flu pandemic, two monstrous world wars and the bombing and near-conquest of Britain; he served five months in Brixton prison for his opposition to World War I. He had a miserable first marriage and many domestic upheavals, and his only son was schizophrenic.

He wrote in his autobiography that he was a severely depressed teenager, considering suicide until he was rescued by a passion for mathematics. “The secret of happiness,” Russell wrote in what must have been a dark moment, “is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.” He meant the human world, of course, not the natural world that humans have so recklessly exploited. Through it all he refused to accept the comforts of religion, which he had rejected in his adolescence. What he prescribed instead was disarmingly simple: Courage.

“There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths,” Russell wrote. And on another occasion added, “If we must die, let us die sober, not drunk with pleasant lies.”

It’s one thing to embrace Russell’s stoicism intellectually, quite another to face the imminent possibility of your own death with philosophical calm. In the age of science, individuals still capable of imagining the Lord as their kindly shepherd, as in the 23rd Psalm, are no doubt the lucky ones. For the rest of us, the Valley of the Shadow of Death is a lonely hike. In April 2020 the Valley lay before us, disguised by the splendor of spring.

“Stiff upper lip,” the ancient code of Britain’s military aristocracy, may seem like a simplistic response to such a calamity. And “Man up!” is sexist. But it was nearly a century ago that Russell wrote “Why I Am Not a Christian,” dismantling twenty centuries of Christian theology with all the merciless logic at his command. Like the fierce skeptic and agnostic H.L. Mencken, who thought his mocking dispatches from the Scopes “Monkey Trial” in 1925 had fatally wounded America’s fundamentalists, Bertrand Russell would be appalled to find that primitive creationists and Bible literalists still thrive in the United States. And further discouraged to find an essay headlined “The Pandemic and the Will of God” in an April 2020 edition of the New York Times.

Unlike most “conservative” religious commentary, the essay by the Catholic conservative Ross Douthat is neither smugly condescending nor hypocritical. But Douthat can’t free himself from the old curse of theodicy. “The purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but the search for meaning is obligatory,” he writes. His believer’s purpose is to explore the possible “meanings” of what is essentially an unfortunate clash between two biological entities, a clash no more momentous, cosmically, than when a snake swallows a frog or a weed poisons a cow. He has forfeited every agnostic reader when he concludes—eloquently—“that meaningless suffering is the goal of the devil, and bringing meaning out of suffering is the saving work of God.”

I don’t begrudge anyone his “faith,” that word, that concept despised by both Russell and Mencken. But faiths beset with gods and devils make frightened children of us all. The Judeo-Christian metaphors of father-and-son, lord-and-servant, shepherd-and-sheep no longer satisfy the transcendental requirements of most educated adults, and the religion they support has been losing ground rapidly in every developed nation. Except of course the United States. The least convincing metaphor in Christianity’s repertoire is teacher-and-pupil, the idea that each disaster is divine pedagogy in disguise. If the coronavirus kills you, it’s a random misfortune, not a divine judgment or a lesson from on high for your survivors. If it spares you, it’s no confirmation of God’s love or mercy or special favor. If it bankrupts you or locks you down until your mind snaps, that’s not a test of your faith.

That gray cat in the daffodils was not singled out for his wickedness; the month of April with its deceitful beauty was not chosen to torment the afflicted. Russell would insist that there is no “meaning” in our suffering except what we’re able to extract on our own, through hard study, once we’ve freed ourselves from fear and tired dogma. He believed that there’s no dignity in our deaths unless we meet them with confidence in our own perceptions and judgments, our own private awareness of the infinite. It’s true that he was guilty of the sin of intellectual pride.  

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