A World in Search of an Ending
We make sense of difficult or unstable situations by finding a fitting ending. But there seems to be no end in sight with the COVID-19 crisis. What can we do?
Like most wise critics, Frank Kermode spells out his sizeable ambitions in modest terms: “It is not expected of critics as it is of poets that they should help us to make sense of our lives; they are bound only to attempt the lesser feat of making sense of the ways we try to make sense of our lives.” According to Kermode, one of our abiding means of sense-making consists in finding a fitting ending that furnishes us with a stable set of coordinates by which to locate the beginning, middle, and end of the human journey. Hence his title, The Sense of an Ending.
The sense of an ending, however, is often precisely what is lacking during protracted periods of crisis. This has certainly been the case as we confront the latest global pandemic. Despite our wealth of technology and scientific insight, we simply don’t have all the answers. Perhaps most importantly, we don’t yet know how or when all of this will end. As of this writing, the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t have a clear expiration date, and this is a key aspect of our deep confusion. Witness the nervous tic of apocalyptic forecasts and end-of-the-world memes. We’ve arrived at a historic juncture where films like Contagion, 28 Days Later, and Shaun of the Dead now function as prophetic texts. We simply don’t know what to make of something without a defined ending.
Adding to the confusion is the wide disparity in our experiences. While under-resourced healthcare workers battle a rising tide of infections, many of us pace around our homes binge-watching shows and trying not to obsess over the news. Others find themselves suddenly without a stable job. Then there are the people trudging to the frontlines of service industry work, risking infection with each route they drive, each item they scan, and each package they deliver. Yes, we’re all in this together, but this is not a uniform territory and your own social standing plays a major role in your response. While I’m grateful to the many celebrities using their platforms to tell us to stay home, we need to recognize that many people simply don’t have that luxury. Whether it’s lack of housing, work, or supplies keeping folks on the move, a public health crisis is not an equal opportunity offender.
Our most essential sources of solidarity are humbler than our glamorous social media dispatches—namely, relationality (we need each other), sinfulness, and mortality. No matter how outstanding our resources, we are not self-sufficient. When this calamity finally abates, it will not be because we “defeated,” “conquered,” or “vanquished” an “invisible enemy.” Such thinking falls prey to the same illusion of control that continually clouds our judgment. Rather, one more crisis will make way for another. COVID-19 does have an expiration date. But it won’t be the last pandemic. Our tragic well of wars, plagues, and famines hasn’t run dry. This is Albert Camus’ sober conclusion in The Plague, a novel whose hero sees all vaccines as temporary fixes at best, profound sources of false consolation at worst. Left to its own devices, our vale of tears will remain a vale of tears. The world is looking for more than an ending to our current global pandemic.
Unlike the cyclical dynamics on display in Greek epics like Homer’s Odyssey, Kermode points to Scripture as offering an inherently open-ended picture of history. Since Christ’s triumphant return represents the consummation of the ages, this event casts a redemptive shadow over all earthly struggles, no matter how abject or destitute. Far from turning a blind eye to the magnitude of suffering that infests our world, Christ’s promise to “wipe away every tear” performs the double feat of simultaneously dignifying human pain while denying it ultimacy.
When we’re suffering under the illusion of human self-sufficiency, the Christian vision of the end of human history often seems ominous. “Lord, please wait until I’ve died quietly in my sleep before you return.” Recognizing the spiritual immaturity of such prayers does little to quell their emotional power. However, when we gain a clearer perspective of what life in a fallen world actually looks like; when it becomes impossible to hide in our myriad distractions; when our convenient lifestyles are disrupted, we gain a picture that’s truly apocalyptic in the sense that it reveals our world from the standpoint of eternity.
If we restrict our gaze to “life under the sun,” Camus is right: We fight a ceaseless battle against the forces of destruction, with no ultimate victory in sight. Viewed from the vantage point of heaven, we see what Paul the apostle vividly calls “creation groaning”—the innate longing for wholeness that punctuates our world. Far from an invitation to despair, the view of a fallen world offers the only full-blooded hope available. Numbered in the inventory of our world’s countless atrocities is a Roman cross on which hung our Lord and Savior. Christ’s subsequent resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God the Father don’t swallow the torment he endured on the cross; they transfigure it. Seemingly tranquil times frequently find us staring vacantly into the sky and hoping for a gentle lifespan in which God promises minimal interference outside of church. We would do well to heed the words of the angels to Christ’s disciples after the ascension: “Why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Don’t miss the fact that the phrase “same way as you saw him go” is putting heavy stress on the fact that this will be a bodily return.
Though angels aren’t necessarily calling to us, we can at least allow the headlines to break our reverie and recognize that our Lord’s return carries with it the promise not of another temporary policy, peace treaty, or vaccine, but of a full restoration that’s as glorious as it is permanent.
In this sense, Christianity offers the most unsentimental “happily ever after” of all time. Regarding our suffering, no cosmic erasure takes place. Only real tears can be wiped away after all, and only the Savior who endured our scorching gamut of sin and suffering is qualified to wipe those tears from our faces. It’s to him that we must now look. His is the only ending that makes lasting sense.
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