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Friday, March 6, 2020

The Corona Virus, Global Warming, And Religious Armageddon–Not To Worry, The Sky Is Not Falling

Toilet paper is flying off the shelves in localities which have yet to see a case of the Corona virus.  Bridge parties, flights to visit grandchildren, sporting events, and political protests have been postponed.  Handwashing has become a Lady Macbeth affair, handshaking has been discouraged, and the French President has gone so far as to suggest that la bise, the traditional French kiss practiced by everyone, be put on hold. The world is on alert.  This may be the big one.

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Religious fundamentalists are not surprised, for they have predicted that the Second Coming would occur within our lifetime.  Jesus will return to earth and dismayed by what he sees, will consume all in a fiery apocalypse, choosing only a select few to join him in heaven.  The Second Coming will be divine repayment for iniquity, lack of faith, ignorance; and, despite two millennia of advice and warning to love and obey him, rejection of his word. 

Revelation, the last book of the New Testament describes in horrible detail, the bloody end of the world.  Seven angels will be sent by God to destroy the world  - the sea will become the blood of a dead man, a fiery sun will scorch men alive, the world will be plunged into unholy darkness and men will gnaw their tongues in agony, and the great rivers and lakes will be dried up.

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It may not happen exactly that way, fundamentalists say, but the world will indeed end soon. God’s vengeance - his destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Flood, and the total destruction of the Jews’ Egyptian oppressors – will be nothing compared to this final act of horrific destruction. The beautiful, wondrous world He created turned out to be a bad mistake after all, a divine fantasy, an error of judgment, and has to go.

The world was never anything but a pit of vipers, a stinking hole of depravity; and heaven will be a pleasure after such torment and suffering.  Bring it on, fundamentalists say, the sooner we reach the promised land, the better; and the sooner those who have polluted and defiled the world, distorted every feature of God’s Creation, and corrupted the earth from top to bottom, are incinerated and consigned to an eternity of blight, pain, and horror, the better.

Secularists have caught on to this metaphor.  The world will end in a fiery, apocalyptic blaze not because of God’s displeasure but because of Man’s ignorance and soulless greed.   We deserve to be burned up on a planet we have deforested, without the water evaporated by global warming’s heat, suffocating in the polluted air of smoke and fiery ash.

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Given our extreme religious convictions and the borrowed apocalyptic vision of climate evangelists it is no surprise that the coming of the Corona virus has given us existential angst.  Perhaps the end of the world will not come at the hands of seven angels, but by God’s own impatient ones.  The Bible is filled with apocalyptic warnings.  In Matthew 24: 5-8, Christ says, of the impending end of all things, that “For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you dare not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.” 

Plagues and pestilence, sent by God to warn the Egyptians and to hasten Pharaoh's release of the Jews will return.  The same scourges visited upon Job to challenge his faithlessness are similar signs of the the Second Coming are nigh; yet because of the virulent faithlessness and corruption of mankind, God has become impatient, and destruction will come much earlier than anticipated.  In Hindu terms, Shiva has already begun his cosmic dance, initiating the cycle of destruction and recreation.

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Of course most people dismiss these apocalyptic visions as nonsense.  For them the popular soap opera ‘As The World Turns’ is the right metaphor – nothing much happens that has not happened before, lives come and go, life is melodrama; history is cyclical; nothing really to worry about. 

Yet hysteria is infectious, and even the most convinced nihilists start buying extra toilet paper.  ‘This could be the big one’; or ‘Better be safe than sorry’, and ‘You never know’ may be cheap and low-brow, but there is some truth to them; and before you know it, panic.  What was once a simple challenge – after all, the world has suffered and survived the Holocaust, Stalinist purges, two World Wars, the Spanish influenza, AIDS, and the Depression without much ado – is turning mad.

“Context, my dear, context” Wittgenstein was supposed to have said to his granddaughter, worried about her future. The old nihilist was trying to get across his ‘Don’t worry, be happy’ As The World Turns philosophy, but she wasn’t listening.  The world was too precarious and dangerous a place to be philosophical, she said.  Today’s young people no more listen to reason than did Wittgenstein’s granddaughter.

Two percent – the overall estimated fatality rate from the Corona virus – is nothing given life’s other perils.  When demographics are factored in to the estimates – older people with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues are those who die from it – the rate is far lower than common influenza.  A young person may get it, but will not die from it; and at worst will spend a week in bed.  Perhaps most importantly, as for all viruses, most infections will be asymptomatic.
Is this worth bringing world economies to a halt, crashing stock markets, and sending normal citizens into a tizzy?

In the days before religious and secular fundamentalism, more temperate, saner, and more profoundly spiritual sentiments ruled.  While we were responsible for our own limited personal destinies, our fate was in God’s hands.  The world is as He created it, as he desired it, and everything is within his purview.  Early American Protestantism expressed this theology best.  Divine election was a cause for celebration, not concern.  Individual enterprise did not go unnoticed; and while subjection to God’s will was foremost, He did not overlook Man’s will.  It was As The World Turns with a theological premise.

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In the early days of the new Republic, morbidity and mortality rates were high and life expectancy low.  One expected to die at an early age from childbirth, infection, war, or accident.  Life under such conditions is valued differently than today when longevity has encouraged timidity, anxiety, and fear.

Tolstoy in War and Peace described the Battle of Borodino in detail, especially the fearlessness of Russian soldiers in the midst of Napoleon’s onslaught.  There was a happy camaraderie among the men, Tolstoy wrote, a patriotism, a disregard for death, and a disregard for death.  What Tolstoy did not mention was that in an age where life expectancy was barely thirty-give,  a heroic death on the battlefield was indeed preferable from dying of sepsis from the puncture of a field thorn.

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It is impossible to perform a historical turn-around.  We are stuck with our apocalyptic notions, our fear of dying, and our absolute conviction that we can stem the tide.  Corona virus hysteria is a done deal – a predictable, expected, and obvious overreaction to an event which would have been ignored a century or more earlier.

Most worrisome is the fearsomeness, the scared retreat, and the panic.  Where is the ‘face it, get it, get over it, and get on with it’ of saner times? We are a generation of frightened, skittish, jumpy rabbits, afraid of our own shadows.  We yell and scream about global warming, Donald Trump, and the evils of capitalism, but go down the rabbit hole at the first sign of trouble.

It is not too late to use some common sense, to forget Revelation and read John, to rethink courage, and to stop worrying.  The sky is not falling.

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