In recent months, I have frequently heard people say that we are living in unprecedented times, but this is simply not true. In reality, the ancient preacher was right to say that, “what has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9). History is replete with plagues and pandemics, together with all the difficulties that accompany them—physical suffering, grief, economic fallout, social and political disarray, questions of whether and how to conduct schooling, and all the rest.
As we endure the current plague, therefore, we are not alone in our suffering. By sharing in the sufferings of our ancestors, we have an invitation to fellowship with them and learn from them. The humanities are the means by which we may do so.
The humanities are in the business of networking. They introduce people of one time and place to those of another so that individuals from divergent generations and cultures can have a discussion. This is why we sometimes speak of studying the humanities as entering “The Great Conversation.” The Conversation is, at its best, most nourishing when it revolves around perennial questions that pertain to life and death—questions like, “what are people for? What makes for a good life and a good death? What is beauty? Why do pandemics and other tragedies befall us? Does suffering have any purpose? How does God relate to suffering and sufferers?”
It seems to me that these questions are, or at least ought to be, just as pressing today as the questions that science can answer.
When Covenant School began making arrangements for our transition to online education last spring, Dr. Hefner and I decided to scrap everything we had planned to do in my classes during the fourth quarter and to focus instead on contemplating great texts that document human responses to plagues, sickness, and death. We invited students to reflect upon Thucydides account of the plague of Athens, Cyprian’s “Treatise on the Mortality,” Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Martin Luther’s letter in response to whether one may flee a deadly plague, C.H. Spurgeon’s sermon on an outbreak of cholera in 1866, and Albert Camus’ The Plague. From just this handful of texts, my students and I were able to evaluate a variety of responses to suffering and death. In the process, we were forced to contemplate our own mortality, to reflect upon the orderliness of our fears and the substance of our hopes, and to envision how we will respond when (not if) suffering and death come to us—whether through COVID or something else.
Implicit in our decision to study past responses to plagues, sickness, and death is a conviction that our ancestors, even from their graves, can quicken us for the challenges we face. Their wisdom is our inheritance; they have bequeathed it to us for our enrichment and fortification. A corollary of this conviction is that we moderns are frail and finite. We do not have all the answers, and we need help. We do not know whether churches should gather, whether the economy should be fully open, whether schooling should be done in person, whether sports teams should compete. More to it, COVID is making many of us more mindful of our mortality than we have ever been. We are hungry for guidance, for hope, for meaning—for truth and wisdom that endure longer than our own ephemeral existence in this world.
We will not find these things in test tubes or laboratories. We will not discover them in cells or charts. (Though, to be sure, there is much truth and beauty to be found in these places.) Only human beings can give us answers to these quintessentially human questions. If you respond that the best answers to these questions actually come from God, I agree completely. But I would immediately add that even God’s answers are mediated by human scribes and teachers.
The loudest voices right now are exhorting us to “listen to the science” and claiming that ”science will get us out of this pandemic.” I do not at all dispute the vital role that science plays in the effort to eradicate COVID-19, but as we listen to the science and wait for a vaccine, we would do well to listen also to our ancestors. For if science is what will get us out of the pandemic, it is the humanities that will help us live and suffer well while we endure it.