Medieval Europe was an agrarian society, but farming technology was a far cry from what we have today. By comparison, it was relatively primitive and completely dependent on weather and the seasons. There was no control over the weather, minimal control over the soil, and thus little control over whether or not the farmer’s endeavors would succeed. Farmers in medieval Europe were subject to powers and forces beyond their control. And they lived with it.
Today things are different. With the advent of advanced agricultural technology, this given authority of the environment has become increasingly weakened. The development of irrigation means that water can be moved or stored and then used when necessary. Increasing knowledge of soil science, fertilizers, and pesticides means that the land can be manipulated to yield more and better crops. More controversially, the recent development of genetics has allowed for the production of foods that are immune to certain conditions or parasites.
You might say, “So what? These innovations are good for society!” Whether they are good or bad isn’t the issue I want us to think about. What I want you to consider is this: technological innovation has radically shaped how we think about the world and our place in it. It used to be the world was an objectively authoritative place we needed to conform to. Today, the world is much more a place containing raw materials that we can do with as we please by our own power to our own purposes.
Humanity in the developed world now lives under an illusion: reality is something we can manipulate according to our own wills and desires not something we need to conform ourselves to or passively accept.
But is this objectively true? Even on the face of it, the illusion is erroneous. If it were true, there would never be another hurricane, earthquake, or pandemic wreaking havoc on civilization.
The Scriptures remind us human beings are dependently created (Gen. 1:26-27); existentially contingent (Acts 17:25); have limited time (Ps. 139:16; cf. Gen. 6:3); are deeply flawed (Rom. 3:9-18), and if you really want to dig into the extraordinary limits of humankind, read the book of Job. The world is not our canvass and we are not self-determining creatures.
So what happens when humanity’s illusion collides with objective truth? What happens when the illusory ability to shape reality according to our wills and desires collides with the objective truth that human civilization is deeply limited and there are some things we won’t be able to shape according to our desires?
Examples of this “collision” are everywhere to be found, but it’s currently felt most acutely in our current “COVID Worldview” of “do something.” Remember the illusion: humanity’s technological innovations have convinced us reality is something we can manipulate according to own wills and desires. In the history of humanity, our actions have never succeeded in mitigating a respiratory virus much less making it go away completely. But we have continued to insist on “do something” because our illusion leads us to believe there is something we can do that will genuinely shape the raw materials of our COVID-saturated world to our benefit. The illusion is powerful and ultimately fruitless for it jolts us into taking actions that will have little or no real world impact. When “do something” because “we can shape reality to suit our desires” is the dominant cultural illusion, leaders are put in the precarious spot of doing something whether or not it will work.
This is where biblical wisdom is needed. The book of Ecclesiastes is incredibly important. Wisdom does not teach us how to master the world. In fact, the wisdom found in this book has a surprising view: not everything can be fixed; not everything is a problem to be solved. Some things must be tolerated, suffered, and endured. Biblical wisdom teaches us to do this with steadiness and calm.
What if the medieval farmer is to the weather and seasons as the 21st century developed world is to an airborne, 0.1 micron virus? Like the medieval farmer who learned to submit to forces beyond his control, we are in need of learning to submit to forces beyond ours. I’m not saying we shouldn’t work to eradicate this pathogen. I am saying, what if God’s reminding us of our place in this world and his? What if he’s reminding us we are finite, deeply flawed, limited, fragile, and utterly dependent while he is quite the opposite? What if God is begging us to trust him in life and death? What if God is showing us sometimes there is no “do something” to fix a crisis?
Of course the “do something” illusion can be seen in numerous other contexts, but the reality will be the same. The only person for whom “do something” is never an illusion is God.