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Rev. Dr. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc portrait

The Bo(u)lder Questionby the Rev. Dr. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc

The Bo(u)lder Question

is a regular feature of DePauw Magazine, which is published three times a year.

For more than a year, the COVID-19 virus has ravaged the world, killing more than 2 million people; sickening millions more; overwhelming health care workers and systems; putting people out of work; and separating us from our loved ones. We asked Knudsen Langdoc, university chaplain and associate dean:

What do you say to those who wonder why God would inflict COVID-19 on the world?

I don’t think God inflicted the virus. As a Christian theologian, I see Jesus – fully human and fully divine – healing sickness, not causing it. So the initial question makes an assumption I do not affirm. I am especially suspect of theological explanations or justifications that attempt to offer solace through a sort of “everything happens for a reason” rationale. As if, despite the fact that we might not understand it, for some reason God needed millions of people to die in order to achieve a “larger” purpose. Are we more compassionate than God? More dangerous still seem the attempts to actually name the specific reasons – to offer a moral of the story or to say the lessons we have learned are, in fact, God’s intention: more time with family, a re-evaluation of priorities, slowing down, learning to live with less, or even the ways the pandemic may have opened space for significant national and global conversations, or how stay-at-home orders benefit air and water quality. While all of these are good, and I’d go so far as to name them gifts, I do not think a good giver offers gifts by way of destruction. God desires the flourishing of all creation. Yes, God can make beauty out of chaos, but God doesn’t inflict a virus so that you might finally slow down and put together more jigsaw puzzles this winter. 

Of course, this still doesn’t answer why the pandemic. While I don’t think God caused the virus, I do think God grants creation free will. Such freedom is not limited to human beings, which means genetic material has the ability to change, or mutate. But I admit this doesn’t seem a very satisfactory answer. I wonder if that’s because what often lies beneath both the question why and the moral-of-the-story responses is not so much the search for causality, but for meaning. If we can’t make sense of tragedy, can we make meaning in the midst of it?

The work of meaning-making, or finding purpose, or – said bluntly – hoping this past year has not been a total waste seems better supported by questions that begin with how, when, what, where and who than those that ask why. How can we be present to ourselves and others when so much has been restricted? Where do we see abundance while living with less? When do we adjust our perspectives, priorities and plans? What language do we need to process this experience and where can we find it? Who are we becoming, and to whom do we bear a responsibility to show up, even when it’s so very hard? These sorts of questions invite us to wonder about our own agency and the ways we exercise our free will in the midst of uncertainty and pain.

A friend of mine often says: “If it can’t be happy, make it beautiful.” Surely no explanation for the virus could make the pandemic happy. But perhaps the ways we engage these other questions allow us not to justify, explain or dismiss the pain, but to create beauty and make meaning in the midst of it.

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