I could never have imagined that so much human knowledge could prove to be of so little use in such a short period of time.
Just think about the variety of things that have flashed across your news feed or TV screen in the last 21 days. It’s bad enough that the world is suffering from a plague of what one group of essayists call “armchair epidemiology.” What’s worse is that the globally recognized experts who know more about the current state of the pandemic than anyone else in the world also can’t seem to concur.
Flatten the curve. No, that won’t work. One scientific study shows that only 1% of coronavirus cases have no symptoms at all and that most patients develop symptoms within seven days. Other investigations seem to suggest that a large number of cases are asymptomatic and that a person can be contagious for up to five weeks without knowing it. Well, which is it? In a matter of minutes I can find one reputable source that predicts a multi-year health crisis and another reputable source that expects the world will be back up and running by early summer. I’d really like to know which one is right.
Polish Airlines is offering a few specially-coordinated charter flights to Chicago next week. Should I buy a ticket? And if I don’t leave now, will I be able to get a flight out of the country when it’s time to return to the United States in June? But if I do leave now, will I be able to get home safely to New York without getting quarantined along the way? And what might I catch in the airport or on the plane? And even if I never get sick, what might I unknowingly pass on to my family? And given the state of the epidemic in New York, isn’t Poland a safer place anyway?
I’m drowning in data and gasping for information, and I’m not the only one. New York governor Andrew Cuomo basically admitted during a press conference earlier this week that his total quarantine policy was a bad idea. Oops. What other time in history can you think of when knowledge changed so quickly that an elected official would make a total about-face in policy in a single week? And while many New Yorkers probably feel a mixture of frustration and vindication with Cuomo’s admission, would you have made a wiser decision at the time in his shoes? Would I? If you had the right information, you might have. But where can you find that information?
I’d like to know how many people on a given day in a given city with absolutely no symptoms would test positive for COVID-19. Wouldn’t you? Wouldn’t that help us get better estimates of the profile of the disease and make better policy decisions to contain its spread? But we can’t get that information right now. I’d also like to know how many people in the world have developed an immunity to COVID-19. I’d like to know whether immunity is even possible and, if so, how long it would last. Wouldn’t you?
I’d like to know why mortality is so high in Italy and so low in Germany. I’d like to know what mortality will look like in the U.S. in a few weeks. I’d like to know how my grandparents will fare through this ordeal. Wouldn’t you?
I’d like to have total confidence that doctors and governments around the world are quarantining the right people and that those people are actually staying in quarantine. I’d love to know that the epidemic really began when the data says it did. But can we be sure the data is complete and the quarantiners have been thorough? And then there’s those anecdotal conversations floating around in cyberspace, so tantalizing yet so unprovable, about how many people came down with a weird flu-like bug that their doctor struggled to diagnose before coronavirus was even on the radar outside China. “Elephant on the chest” is how they describe it. I know I had a strange cough that persisted through most of February. Several other people I know did too. Did you? But even if you did, what good does that knowledge do you now? You might have already caught the bug. You might be immune. You might be able safely to go back to work. But who knows?
We are coming up hard against the inadequacy of our information. The best epidemiologists in the world don’t have that data. They’d be God if they did. But for now, we’re stuck in an agonizing cycle of having to make wise decisions despite glaring insufficiencies in our sources of information.
Which is human life on a good day.
Making wise decisions in the face of insufficient information is what we’re supposed to do all the time. It’s what Aristotle described as phronesis: practical wisdom. Uncertainty is our lot in life. It’s part and parcel with who we are. The difference is that in the normalcy of our taken-for-granted routines, we assume that we operate on far bigger margins of certainty than we actually have. But you had no guarantee that you would be able to roll out of bed this morning. Nobody promised you access to quality healthcare or security in your job or the freedom to travel internationally or any of the other things that all of us blithely took for granted–until now.
Even now, in a gesture of hope, millions of people around the world, including me, are pining away for a time when things will go back to some semblance of normal, when we’ll be able to hang out with our friends once more or finally go on that vacation we’ve been planning for months. And we’re proving that we haven’t learned the lesson yet. Nobody promised you the world will go back to your idea of “normal.” Nobody promised you your friends will still be there to hang out with. Nobody promised you that traveling the world will still be an option in a year or two.
Again, that’s not because of the coronavirus. That’s human life on a good day.
Not a lot of comfort, is it? So what have you been promised?
Amongst all the inescapably odd ceremonies which are described in the Old Testament, one of the oddest is the Feast of Booths. Here is how the Lord describes it to Moses: “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the LORD. . . . All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Leviticus 23:34, 42-43 ESV). Older translations call it the Feast of Tabernacles. Basically, it’s liturgical camping. Throughout their generations, the Israelites were commanded to spend one week each year in tents, in order to remind themselves of the years spent wandering in the wilderness.
Now what adds to the strangeness of the Feast of Booths is that the only place I know of in the Old Testament where it is specifically described as being celebrated is in Nehemiah 8–after the Davidic monarchy, after the exile, after the return to Jerusalem. As Ezra and Nehemiah instructed the returning exiles in the law of God, “they found it written in the Law that the LORD had commanded by Moses that the people of Israel should dwell in booths during the feast of the seventh month.” We get the impression of surprise and embarrassment, even on the part of Ezra, whose job it was to know these things. In fact, Nehemiah seems to indicate that Israel had never actually kept this feast since they first arrived in the Promised Land: “for from the days of Jeshua the son of Nun to that day the people of Israel had not done so” (Nehemiah 8:14, 17). If that’s what he’s really saying, then Israel had forgotten to commemorate their status as aliens and strangers as soon as they reached a stable dwelling place. Oops. Should have been doing that.
And this is exactly what the Lord had warned them about.
Take care . . . lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end.Deuteronomy 8:11-16
The danger of having a dwelling place was forgetting the wilderness. And the danger of material blessings now is an inability to cope with reminders of the times when we really, honestly, must wander through the desert.
Recall for a moment the condition of the Israelites in the wilderness. They wandered for forty years. They faced mutliple plagues. They were attacked by rival nations. Kings hired sorcerers to curse them. They wandered through the desert in times of thirst and hunger. At times they wondered where their next meal would come from. When they did receive food, they attempted to hoard it. Silly Israelites! Who would hoard things in the face of uncertainty?
Actually, this turned out to be a lesson for the Israelites. The Lord tells them that he gave them manna to humble and test them. The Israelites who tried to save some manna for the next day found that it had spoiled overnight. Think of that, bread from heaven with a shelf life of less than 24 hours! Yet the manna spoiled not because God had planned too little, but because the Israelites had tried to plan too much. The important thing about manna was the fact that it could not be planned ahead; the Israelites were to gather it “morning by morning” (Exodus 16:21). They had missed the point. They were grasping for certainty where the Lord sought to teach them wise living in the face of uncertainty.
What were the Israelites promised in the wilderness? Two things are relevant here. First, they were promised the Promised Land in the future. Second, they were promised the present presence of God. The Lord, the God of heaven and earth, promised to go with his people through the wilderness.
“My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest,” says the Lord to Moses.
“If you will not go with me, do not bring us up from here,” Moses replies (Exodus 33:14-15).
Moses got what the Israelites still struggled to grasp: If the covenant-keeping God of heaven and earth will not go with you through the wilderness, then no amount of earthly treasure or security can compensate for that lack. And if he does go with you, then no amount of affliction can separate you from the joy and abundance that his presence provides.
Good thing we can look back on the wilderness wanderings of Israel from the comfort of the New Testament Promised Land, right? Except that the author of Hebrews places us right back in the desert alongside them (Hebrews 4). Oops. We, too, are confronted with the choice of the manna–hardheartedness or softheartedness, hoarding haste or humble hope, faithless certitude or faithful uncertainty.
The point isn’t to defend a proud sort of agnosticism or a blind naivete that throws caution to the wind as we navigate difficult circumstances–I don’t know what’ll happen and I don’t care. It is, however, an admission that there is an ethical responsibility involved in confronting uncertainty, and that there is a Place and a Person in whom the anxious turmoil of that uncertainty can be laid to rest.
In short, what we discover as we skitter this way across the surface of redemptive history is nothing other than the promise of Emmanuel–God with us. “If you will not go with me, do not bring us up from here.” The incarnation of Jesus Christ is a promise of our heavenly home. But, as the author of Hebrews emphasizes, it is also a promise of his present help as we navigate through a world that sometimes feels an awful lot like the wilderness of old. The promise that sustains us through days like this is the promise that we aren’t in the Promised Land yet, and that Emmanuel will go with us each step of the way–a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night–until we arrive.
“How the Lord loves all the righteous!” exclaims the Reformed Presbyterian Psalter in Psalm 146: “He protects the stranger’s stay.” Or, in the words of the old hymn, “Morning by morning new mercies I see.”