It was the end of January, 2020. From a West-European perspective, Covid-19 was mostly an Asian problem with the focus on China, where the virus first emerged. At first, the Netherlands did not respond. The National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM) reported that we had nothing to fear. Until Covid-19 appeared in the Netherlands as well… and the rest is history.

What is remarkable is that the multiple years of discussion about Covid-19 and Covid measures have shown that we can observe two types of reactions. The first attempts to shift the blame of Covid-19 onto a group of scapegoats: the Chinese, Asian people, people from Brabant, ‘Bible Belters’, the unvaccinated, and so on. The other response is rather turned inward: ‘we’ could learn something from this crisis: more attention for spirituality, criticism on the rat race, focussing on what is really important in life, such as friends or family.

Theodicy

Of course, the Netherlands are no longer a Christian country in the strictest sense of the word, but an observant theologian can spot traces of the theological theodicy discussion. The theodicy attempts to find an answer to the age-old question: Si Deus, Unde Malum? ‘If there is a God, where does the bad come from?’ A difficult question, since Christians would like to uphold God’s omnipotence and virtue, but they can also see that regularly, the world can be a big mess. 

To answer that theodicy question, we know of roughly two options: an Irenaic (after Irenaeus of Lyon) and an Augustinian (after Augustine of Hippo). Irenaean theodices attempt to relativate the world’s suffering. God permits evil, so that humanity might learn from it, such as trust in God, repentance of one’s sins. The Augustinian theodices mostly try to excuse God himself: it is not God who chooses suffering, but the human with free will is to blame.

In the Dutch (and worldwide) response to the pandemic we see these same two theodicy-hermeneutics pop up. As a postmodern Irenaeus we attempt to lessen the suffering under the pretense of spiritual engagement and psychological cool-down. And as a postmodern Augustine we search for a group of people who we can blame, since they abused their free will in order to spread the virus.

Failure

However, similar to how the two theodicy solutions are doomed to fail, so are our modern hermeneutics. Ultimately, both Irenaeus and Augustine could not find the answer to the existence of evil and a good and almighty God. You try to comfort a daughter who just lost her mother to Covid by telling her to take this as an opportunity to spiritually recharge. And pointing to a group of scapegoats has also never been successful.

The history of the theodicy teaches us that suffering is not something that we can massage or rationalize away. It is here. Always. And it obstructs us. Let us accept that, rather than sweet talking it, or pointing the finger.

Source: The Religion Factor

Are you interested in the full article by Frank Bosman and Archibald van Wieringen, in Dutch? It is available open access in the journal Religie & Samenleving (Religion & Society): Bosman, F. & Wieringen, A. van (2021). Corona, Theodicee en Job. Religie & Samenleving. 16 (2) 115-134.