Swine flu, Thimerasol& Apocalyptic Thoughts
This past week has provided me with a little bit of time to reflect on things, lying in bed waiting for my lungs to empty. I got Swine flu before the vaccines were here, which wouldn’t have mattered anyways, since there isn’t enough and I’m not medically indicated. My first epidemic! So I took up residence in the spare room and bathed in enough Lysol to peel my corneas. (For what it’s worth, being sick has only reinforced my view that “rip-N-dip” is the best way to do the Eucharist) One thing to note, though I hesitate to mention it, is that many flu vaccinations contain a slight organic mercury containing compound, thimerosal. And thimerosal, as you might recall, is at the center of a fierce argument about autism. Many parents are convinced that child vaccinations are the cause of autism though there is no scientific evidence for it. Sadly, as thimerosal has been removed from vaccinations, autism diagnoses have continued to increase.
I learned this lying on my side, reading the the lead story in Wired magazine this month, “An Epidemic of Fear.’ The article is critical of the anti-vaccination movement claiming it that puts children in the way of harmful diseases with no scientific evidence. The dynamics of the debate are intense, and my intent is not to rehash the story here: there really are important ethical questions about whether or not people should have the freedom to choose vaccinations or not. What was interesting to me as I read, phlegm gurgling, is how religious the anti-vaccination camp is about their objective. Without scientific rational, their arguments are based on intuition, emotion, and a deep suspicion of the powers that be. It's a archetypal story: gut instincts vs. hard data, humanity vs. science, and both sides have their opinions about the other's motivation. One is superstitious and not thinking clearly, while the other is deviously hiding a money trail...
I guess I feel a strange sense of connection with both sides, lying here sick. Everybody wants answers, everybody wants the suffering alleviated. I am tired of my little sick, too, even though it really can't compare in the least. But I feel more than just sick: feel knocked off my horse just as I was about to embark on some new, exciting ministry plans for me. But even my doctor can't help me now. (Though he did charge me...)
Thinking about medicine, I'm struck that as long as science describes suffering, but does not explain it, it actually might remain more faithful to a Christian vision of suffering and evil: it attaches no meaning to it, a vagary that cannot be explained. It cannot presume to explain my feeling, my story. Of course, that's not how I use it. I like the illusion of control, of explanation, -as if success and happiness in life were all attainable through a rigorous moral calculus. In this mode, the (pseudo)scientific community at times can only act like Job’s friends in the face of suffering: “it’s your fault,” “it’s part of something bigger, more profound.” As I lay here on my sick mat, I experience it as, “If you pay more attention to whom you shake hands with; if you wash your hands longer, in hotter water; if you get more sleep to be fully rested – then you can defeat your viral nemesis.” But that’s just not true. There’s stuff out there bigger than me.
What does this all tell us about ourselves? The scientific explanation is that people have a deep seated need for control we express through explanations of evil. This is undoubtedly the case. And it seems that out of our need for control through explanation, we have to make someone or something guilty so that our pain becomes intelligible. I'm quick to guess that, “it was that parent who let their sick kid come to school,” or “my fault for not protecting against the flu better. Next time we’ll wear gas masks in public places!” But there are great horrors inflicted on humanity that are not directly our fault, too. No one earns hurricanes and disease.
Trying to explain evil always makes a villain. Someone is always the bad guy when evil becomes a necessary character in our stories. I think the harder thing to do is admit the meaninglessness of evil, the absurdity of something that renders us so small and suggests we, too are meaningless fodder for the history of atoms. But surely I am ready to crap myself for a reason! Surely there is a profound cosmic meaning in my nausea? What if there isn't? What if evil, pain, sickness really is just the lack of life. To do this, I have to admit my need for a savior, and I wonder of the value of theodicies. I think I am beginning to make the turn from, “Why me?” to “Now what?” and I wonder if that's grace is really about. Still working on it.
To many, religion functions as a mechanism to control and organize the world, Christianity included. It's just another control mechanism, a different way to assign blame and take sides in order to make sense of the chaos. That's a fair assessment of religion as a human science, but it does not explain Christ himself. In Christ, evil is revealed as absurd, having no place. Our faith humanizes us, not in providing an explanation for all the "whys" of suffering, but because of the future redemption it points to. perhaps it's just the fever, but this is what I'm wondering:
Maybe the power of the Christian story is not that it tells us where all this chaos and suffering came from, but instead, where it is going. Perhaps this is what it means to understand history as apocalyptic: it makes us open to a future in which God acts. Can I say then, that the value of a religion lies not in its explanatory powers but its predictive ones?