During the COVID-19 Pandemic, many in the Berea College community submitted their unique perspectives on the situation to President Roelofs to share with campus. The following is the next in a series appearing here at Berea Beloved.
Spiritual Perspectives on Disease and Suffering
By Dr. Jeff B. Pool Chairperson, Department of Religion, Eli Lilly Chair in Religion and Culture, and Professor of Religion
Various religions and other spiritualities offer numerous explanations for the realities of illness, pain, suffering, and death, as well as ways in which to respond to those realities. Because traditions in all religious and spiritual communities contain many diverse and sometimes even conflicting layers, some layers of traditions offer greater wisdom for life and its challenges than other layers. Some representatives of theistic traditions have described viruses as “evil” and illnesses as “judgments” from God on specific groups of people for their “sins,” which then have produced corresponding judgments on those groups of people as the sources of the problems for which God purportedly has inflicted illness, suffering, and death on humanity at large. Other representatives of the same theistic traditions, however, have interpreted such human health-crises differently: understanding viruses, as well as other natural threats to human life, as part of the larger world that God has created; describing illnesses and diseases as the natural interactive conflicts among creatures that endeavor in their own ways to survive and to propagate themselves (a tragic reality, understood as the conflict among various goods, rather than “evil” in opposition to the anthropocentrically-defined “supreme good” of human life); and, as a result, encouraging sharply different forms of human responses to such challenges to human life.
At their best, the diverse traditions of religious communities and other spiritual traditions regard such multi-dimensional health-crises for human life as genuine opportunities for both personal and social transformation. For numerous spiritualities, such critical situations guide and encourage people both to discern that which they can control in order to work toward change and to release their attachments to that which they cannot control in order to consent to that which they cannot change. Various layers of Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, and many other spiritual traditions teach that such challenges to life offer possibilities for deepening human character, for either instilling or reinforcing important human virtues: gratitude for all that each person has received, understanding life itself as gift; trust in the meaningfulness of life, despite the challenges that inevitably arise; equanimity and peacefulness in the midst of turmoil and chaos; humility; compassion for all creatures; an attitude of non-judgment toward other people; a passion for social justice and reciprocity in a profoundly interdependent world; generosity toward and hospitality for people in dire circumstances; and even joy in the experiences of both severe suffering and grief over losses that result from that suffering.
Many of the same religions and other spiritual traditions also develop practices through which to develop human character: meditative techniques, physical exercises, contemplation, and prayer, among many other methods. For example, in the current global crisis, people might view very differently even the supposedly restrictive measures that various levels of society have prudently imposed on or recommended to communities and individuals in order to address this health-crisis. Rather than construing such measures (“social-distancing,” sequestering, even meticulous “hand-washing”) as limitations on human freedoms or “rights,” people might understand the practice of such measures as practical exercises, even as rituals or prayers, to develop the virtues that will shape their character and that will enable them to contribute to changing the world as they now experience it.