I was due to read Heidegger’s “Being and Time.” As an Episcopal priest, it is my job to have some sense of what we are up against. And lately I have been thinking a lot about what we face.
In order to sharpen my thinking, I picked up this thick book of existential philosophy, which was published shortly after World War I. The book is about what life feels like between birth and death. In my view, existentialism pairs well with theology, which sometimes gets distracted by ideals and the after-life.
Normally, I would not start a book like “Being and Time” right now because I would be too busy preparing Holy Week and Easter homilies. This year is unusual, though. The cathedral where I work is closed to the public due to the governor’s statewide stay-at-home order. Our Holy Week and Easter Day services are not canceled, but they are online and therefore abbreviated. So, I have a little more time to read.
In one sense, it is not unusual for natural phenomena to shift the church’s calendar. In the west, Easter falls every year on the first Sunday after the full moon on or after the spring equinox. Of course, a full moon and the coronavirus are not comparable.
Although I have not yet finished the book, I have read enough to know that the title says it all. Being and time are inseparable. Human beings cannot have one without the other. In other words, let’s not kid ourselves: we are not angels, floating above time. Angels, for example, do not contract COVID-19. People do. And bats, if that origin story is actually true.
The physical suffering from COVID-19 and the related economic fallout are horrible, not to mention the psychological side effects that will emerge much more slowly. And who knows how long all of this will last?
Nevertheless, for those who are able, this season provides time to learn something new or to remember something forgotten. Like others, I cannot wait for the pandemic to end. Even as I find some comfort in online Easter services and biblical stories, I long to be with people in real time and in real places.
Heidegger warns us, however, not to turn this longing or any longing into fantasy. Even when a vaccine for COVID-19 is discovered and, I hope, made available for all, we will still find ourselves in time and therefore tossed about by winds that we cannot control and can only occasionally harness. We are mortals, not angels — an ancient distinction.
Thankfully, mortals do have dreams. My old bishop used to say that we are “pilgrims of a dream.” People of faith are pilgrims, and so are people “whose faith is known to God alone” (in the words of a prayer I love). Right now, however, we pilgrims are perhaps more aware of the times than the dreams. And very aware that we do not know what we do not know.
The end of COVID-19 will not change this unknowing, which is the biggest reason why we need to be kind, seek justice, and keep one another company, in this and every season.
I must add that I do not believe God sent the coronavirus to teach us this lesson. There are preachers and religious people who peddle this idea, of course. The current version that I notice on social media links the coronavirus to 2 Chronicles 7:13-14: “Whenever I hold back the rain or send locusts to eat up the crops or send an epidemic on my people, if they pray to me and repent and turn away from the evil they have been doing, then I will hear them in heaven, forgive their sins, and make their land prosperous again.”
So, this idea of divine rewards and punishments has been around a long time, but a few proof texts from the Bible do not mean that it is true. It is bad theology. And bad philosophy, which is why I am reading Heidegger. I believe God is a mystery, not a moralist.
Richard Lawson is the dean of Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver. His essays have appeared in the Anglican Theological Review and the Sewanee Theological Review.