“Take care of your body as if you were going to live forever; and take care of your soul as if you were going to die tomorrow” – St Augustine.
Coming out from national lockdown has come to feel a bit like being trapped in that Escher lithograph. Restrictions are introduced, rescinded, reintroduced, relaxed, and then intensified, in a bewildering exercise in psychological vandalism, implemented by an allegedly conservative government. We walk up the stairs only to find ourselves at the bottom of the same staircase.
In the course of just a few months our Prime Minister – the self-proclaimed “architect of Brexit” – has managed to replace the traditions of English common law with something more like the Napoleonic code; he has cancelled the presumption of liberty and replaced it with lists of specific permissions.
He could not have done it without our help, though. Your typical Brit, enthralled by the ludicrous idea that death is the worst thing that can happen to him, has been depressingly energetic in his surrender of liberty in favour of “safety”. As if being “safe” is something we uniformly aspire to.
The Christian churches have facilitated this capitulation. Rather than proclaim the good news that death has been conquered, by an act of supreme and divine sacrifice, the bishops are slavishly following the secular edicts of Public Health England. In my local Catholic church, the Holy Water has been replaced by hand sanitizer, and the sign of peace has been excised from the rhythm of the liturgy. Just in case. Just in case of what?
Does it matter? Is not the church more than its buildings? Do we not attend church so that we can go out and be the church? If He were (physically) with us today, would Our Lord even bother to turn up to the Mass? (Probably, but it would be in character for Him to initiate some sort of procedural subversion).
The answer is that it matters very much. This government – whatever its motives (evil can be the product of good intentions) – has attempted to atomise its citizenry. It has launched various assaults on those activities and habits of association which make the human being also a person. And it has inflicted on us all manner of spiritual harms, on the assumption that because those harms will never show up on a Whitty-Vallance slide, it will be able to get away with it.
It matters also because the clergy is failing in both its doctrinal and (therefore) pastoral obligations. The pandemic contains within it an evangelical opportunity. We need to discuss death and the Christian churches should be at least attempting to shape the terms of reference of that debate. That, surely, is their Mission? If it is not, then what is the point of them?
Those churches of course have a duty of care for the physical health of parishioners: there are spiritual and physical works of mercy. Christianity rejects the Platonic claim that there is a clear-cut distinction between body and soul. The human person, from the perspective of Christian metaphysics, is a commingling of the two. The resurrection was, after all, a bodily one. There is a Christian obligation to nurse the sick and to prevent the spread of a virus, because God decided to take material form and therefore matter is divine. The human body is not some prison which the soul escapes on death; rather, as Aristotle said, “the soul is the form of the body”.
But that cannot be the complete picture.
The soul requires as much nourishment as the body, and obviously the nutrition is different in kind. Yet we are being denied it, as a culture develops according to which the survival of the body is all that counts, no matter how old you are, how sick you are, what relationships you are entangled in.
The Christian view of death is that it is a temporary interruption on a journey to eternal life, and that the version of that life requires bodily continuity. This might not be easy to swallow, but it is the orthodoxy. And it is what our church leaders are mandated to proclaim.
That seems to be beyond our current faith leaders for whom all contingent catastrophes -climate change, AIDS, Covid-19- function as excuses to turn away from the eternal and instead to genuflect in the direction of the temporal.
Our current set of “spiritual leaders” have decided that, pace St Paul, it is more important to conform with the secular world than to challenge it. They have rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and left God out of the reckoning.