Jean-Claude Larcher on the origin, nature and meaning of the current pandemic (2)
Interview with the famous French theologian, patrologist, philosopher and writer Jean-Claude Larcher; one of the remarkable modern Orthodox theologians, doctor of philosophy and theology, professor of philosophy, researcher of the patriarchal heritage. He is the author of many books in which he explores the problems of health, disease and healing in the light of the Orthodox spiritual tradition (continued).
According to the Orthodox view developed by the Fathers on the basis of the Bible, ancestral sin (which in the Western tradition is called original sin) had three physical consequences: transience (whose most acute form is suffering), decay (whose main form is disease). ) and the death resulting from the latter. The sin of Adam and Eve consisted in separation from God, which resulted in the loss of grace, providing them with impermanence, incorruptibility, and immortality.
Since Adam and Eve are prototypes of mankind, they have therefore passed on to their heirs their human nature, damaged by the destructive consequences of their sin; the disorder which has affected human nature has also affected all of nature, since man, separated from God, has lost his position as king of creation and has deprived beings of the grace which he has imparted to them as mediator. While in the beginning creation was entirely good, as God had created it (according to what Genesis tells us), then evil entered it, as in man, an evil that is not only moral but also physical. , and manifests itself through a disorder that violates the original order of creation and through processes of destruction of what God has established.
God’s providence has prevented, as Vladimir Loski notes, the creation from being completely destroyed, but nature has become a battlefield, where good and evil are constantly in conflict. Living organisms are constantly struggling to eliminate microbes, bacteria, viruses, or genetic changes (due to aging or environmental factors) that try to destroy them until, weakened by age, their immune defenses decline, they are finally defeated and die.
Bacteria or viruses can affect only animal species for thousands of years or be preserved by them without affecting them, and then suddenly transmitted to humans. This is exactly what has happened to the different types of viruses that have caused epidemics in recent decades.
You point out the guilt of the ancestors in this process. Do the sins of their heirs, our own sins, play any role in this process? The prayers of the Great Euchology (official book of prayers of the Church) for periods of epidemics, but also the words of some bishops, priests or monks point out the sins of all and see in what is happening a kind of punishment for them, and call to repentance…
According to the Orthodox understanding (which differs in this respect from the Catholic understanding of original sin), the very error of Adam and Eve is personal and is not passed on to their heirs; only its consequences are transmitted. However, their successors from the beginning to the present day have sinned, as the Apostle Paul says in Romans 5, in a manner similar to Adam’s, they became imitators of him and confirmed his sin and its consequences through their own sins.
Therefore, there is a collective responsibility in the evils that affect the fallen world that justifies the indication of sin and the call to repentance. However, this is generally applied to explain the origin and persistence of diseases and other evils, and not in a personal capacity to explain that they occur to a particular person or a particular group of people.
If some illnesses are associated with personal mistakes or passions (for example, illnesses associated with overeating or alcoholic beverages, or sexually transmitted diseases), others come regardless of the spiritual qualities of the people affected. Sick children are not guilty of any sin; saints are not invulnerable to disease and often have more disease than other people with confused moral behavior. Sometimes epidemics cut down entire monasteries; for example, the plague epidemic after the Passover of 346 struck the monasteries of Thebes and killed a third of the “desert fathers” who lived there, including the father of the cinematic monasticism, St. Pachomius, the heir he named, and about one hundred monks in each of the great monasteries of the district.
During the great plague epidemics of the past, Christian observers were forced to find that the disease affected people at random in terms of their moral or spiritual qualities. The question of the relation of sickness to some sin of man, or to some sin of his parents, was asked of Christ, who answered his disciples concerning the blind man: “Neither he nor his parents sinned.”
Sickness, therefore, has an original, principled, and collective relation to sin, but in a very small proportion of cases this relation is actual and personal. Therefore, I think that the issue of sin and repentance can be addressed in prayers and sermons, but it must be done discreetly. People suffering from a disease do not need to add guilt to their suffering, but need to be supported, comforted and treated with compassion, and to be helped to accept their illness and suffering spiritually so that they can spiritually to turn in their favor.
If repentance makes sense, it is a reversal and change of state of mind (meaning of the Greek word metanoia). The disease raises a number of questions that no one can escape: Why? Why I? Why now? For how long? What will happen to me? Every disease is a confrontation with the inevitable, which is even more acute and deep, because it is not abstract and unfounded, but fits into an ontological experience.
This confrontation with the inevitable is very often critical. Because the disease always raises more or less the question of the grounds, environment and forms of our existence, of the achieved balance, of our values and our attitude towards others, but also of our own life, as death is now looming more clearly. before (such is the case in particular with this epidemic, which unpredictably and quickly affects people, mostly adults, but also younger, without always having severe pathologies). For every person, the disease is an opportunity to experience their ontological vulnerability and dependence and to turn to God, as the One Who can help to overcome it, if not physically (because in response to prayer miraculous healings occur), then spiritually , and allows it to be given a meaning that is constructive for man and without which we have nothing left but to surrender to destruction.
However, we often find, even in the prayers of the Great Euchology or in other prayers (such as canons and akathists), as well as in the statements of priests who have recently multiplied on the Internet, the idea that this epidemic was sent by God (or His archangels and angels) to awaken people, to bring them to repentance and to turn them, into a world that has become completely materialistic and has forgotten God…
As I have just said, I agree that this trial (like any other trial in life) is an occasion to ask important questions, to realize and return to God and to a more spiritual life.
I talked about this in relation to individuals. But it is obvious – and many press articles point it out – that this epidemic raises again the question of the foundations, organization and way of materialistic and consumerist life of our modern societies and the false sense of security they have derived from scientific and technological progress; it also shows the illusions of transhumanism, because, as experts now say, new viruses will continue to appear and epidemics will not only persist but increase in the future, often leaving people helpless (think that no vaccine has yet been discovered). , nor a cure for the common cold, which affects a large part of the population each year and is caused by a virus from the coronavirus family).
But with all due respect to the prayers and priests you are alluding to, I am shocked by the way they perceive God and His action toward people. This is a way of perception that worked in the Old Testament, but which the New Testament changed. In the Old Testament, it was the case that the righteous prospered because they were rewarded by God, while sinners were justly punished with all kinds of calamities. The New Testament put an end to this “logic,” and its mode of vision is the prototype of Job. The words of the clergy you mention are similar to those of Job’s friends and correspond to the syllogism: “You are afflicted with all kinds of misfortunes, therefore God has punished you, and if He has punished you, it is because you are a sinner.” Job does not accept. the thought that God could have punished him.
The New Testament reveals to us a God of love, a compassionate and compassionate God who intends to save people through love, not punishment. The idea that God has spread this virus to the world or caused His angels or archangels to spread it (which can indeed be read in some texts) seems almost blasphemous to me, even if we refer to some kind of divine pedagogy using evil in order to obtain good and in a strange way turn evil into good.
God is Father to us, and we are His children. Which father among us would have the idea to infect his children with a virus for a supposed pedagogical purpose? Conversely, which father does not suffer when he sees that his children are getting sick, suffering, and at risk of dying?
Some theologians attribute the causes of God’s sickness, suffering, and death because they fear, like the Manicheans, that if they do not ascribe to God, one may think that there is something outside of God, which is the principle of good, that is. that there is a principle of evil which competes with Him and which therefore limits omnipotence, which is one of His most essential attributes. But if everything comes from God, we must also accept that He is the cause not only of epidemics, but also of wars, genocides, concentration camps, that He gave power to Hitler, Stalin or Pol-Pot to make them. used as tools for His supposed justice and to edify the nations…
In fact, according to the fathers, disasters have only one source – sin, and sin itself is caused by abuse, which man has committed with his ability to self-determination. They are also the result of the action of the devil and demons (angels who also fell by abuse of self-determination), whose power, due to the sin of the first man, has succeeded in settling in the world: after man has ceased to be “king of creation.” Satan has succeeded in becoming “the prince of this world.”
In what is happening now, we must point to the action of the devil, not that of God, and secondly the mistake of the one who in China consumed or touched an animal that carried the virus (similar is the case with all past epidemics. ) and passed on the consequences of his error to all mankind, just as Adam passed on to all mankind the consequences of his sin.
What you just said raises a few questions. First, some say that God created all microbes, all viruses, and that death itself was included in creation from the beginning, and that, as Genesis says, everything God created is good.
Indeed, this is a thought we find in some modern Catholic theologians (for example, Teilhard de Chardin and his disciple Gustave Martelet), which was accepted by some Orthodox theologians (for example, John Ziziulas. phone for the Serbian website Sabornik in March 2020 and entitled “Without the Eucharist the Church is no longer a Church”] and most recently by Archimandrite Kiril Govorun). They have a naturalistic view, which partly coincides with that of modern science. Our Orthodox faith is different: the Fathers are unanimous in their assertion that it was not God who created death, but it is a consequence of sin, in the same way as sickness and suffering, which did not belong to the original heavenly state and which will be removed in the future heavenly state in the kingdom of heaven.
The question of whether disease, suffering, and death are evils has a double answer in itself.
First, physically, these are undoubtedly evils, because they represent, as I said before, disorder and disturbances that have entered into the good functioning of the living organisms created by God. Even from a naturalistic point of view, it is health and life that are linked to the normal state, and disease, disability and death are abnormal. Sickness, as I said above, is a form of decay, a process of destruction, destruction and negation, and suffering is the accompanying element that testifies that something in our body is “wrong.” In fact, the devilish nature of diseases is very clear in some of them: for example, autoimmune diseases, in which the organs use the body’s resources to self-destruct (a kind of suicide); cancer, which due to some genetic change begins to produce absurd tumors (not playing any meaningful role in the body), which aim only at their own growth to the detriment of other organs, which vampirize and little by little destroy, using against the applied therapies all resources accumulated by a living being for millions of years to evolve and protect; today’s virus, which, like others in the same family, infiltrates the cells of the lungs and, secondarily, other vital organs, enters them (as an enemy in the country), colonizes them, interferes with their functioning or severely disrupts them, to the point of causing death.
Spiritually, sickness, suffering, and death remain evils because of their original origin (sin), but they can be approached and experienced spiritually in a constructive way and thus become goods, but only spiritual goods. In connection with sickness and suffering or impending death, man, as I have already said, can turn to God, draw near to Him, and build various virtues (that is, constant predispositions, or in other words, states that identify him with God and unite him with Him). St. Gregory of Nazianzus says that through the disease many people have become saints.
If Christ died for us, it is to overcome death and allow us to be resurrected at the end of time, as He Himself did. But His passions and His agony on the cross have another meaning that is not emphasized enough: by suffering and dying, He has destroyed the power of suffering and death; He has given us, if we unite with Him and thus receive the grace that He has acquired for us, not to be afraid of suffering any more, but to improve ourselves spiritually through it; and not to fear death any more, but to place our hope in eternal life, so that we may say with the Apostle Paul in the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians: “Where is your sting, death? Where is your victory, hell?
Your words raise another question: why does God, if He is good and omnipotent, not remove sickness and suffering in this world, and why do they still exist after Christ overcame them for all mankind, which He has received in His Person?
This is a strong objection from atheists, which often raises doubts among believers.
The answer of the fathers is that God created man free and respected his self-determination, coming to the consequences of it. As sin persists in the world, its consequences continue to affect human nature and the entire cosmos.
Christ abolished the necessity of sin, put an end to the tyranny of the devil, made death harmless, but He did not eliminate sin, nor the action of demons, nor physical death, nor the consequences of sin in general, so as not to force or denies the free wills that are the cause of it. Physically, the fallen world remains subject to its own logic.
This is also why the disease affects each other differently, and this is extremely shocking during an epidemic: according to everyone’s own individual physical structure, it cuts some and spares others, affects some slightly and severely affects others, so that some die and others survive, kill teenagers and save people into old age.
Only at the end of time will all things be restored and a “new heaven and a new earth” appear, where the order and harmony of nature, destroyed by sin, will be restored to a nature elevated to a higher mode of existence. , where the goods acquired by Christ in His redemptive and nature-loving work will be communicated to all who are united to Him.
The person who lives in Christ in the Church, where the fullness of grace is located, receives the “pledges of the Spirit”, gets to know spiritually the first fruits of future goods. In this spiritual plane, sin, the devil, death, and decay no longer have power over him and cannot affect him; he is spiritually free from them. But even if immortality and immortality are thus granted to him, they will become a reality for his body only after the Resurrection and Judgment, just as the deification of his whole being will find its full realization in this supreme moment (cf. 1 Cor. 15: 28).
In this expectation, Christianity shows that it is concerned with alleviating the suffering of men and curing diseases, and has always encouraged the means used to do so…
Love of neighbor, along with love of God, is the basic virtue preached by Christianity.
Love of neighbor includes compassion, the will to help him in everything, to be comforted, supported, relieved of suffering, to be cured of his illnesses and to preserve his health.
The miracles performed by Christ and the apostles served as an example. That is why Christianity, since its inception, has recognized the usefulness of medicine, has not hesitated to accept the “profane” medicine practiced in the society in which it was born and raised, and has even laid the foundation for the establishment of hospitals. For centuries, in the East and in the West, until a relatively recent era, nurses were nuns (in Germany they still call nurses “Schwester”, nurses!). In the current epidemic, all researchers, doctors, paramedics, ambulance drivers, but also all technicians and maintenance staff are giving us a testimony of devotion and self-sacrificing spirit, threatening our own health and lives, which is fully in line with Christian values. All Churches bless them, and we must strongly support them with our prayers.
Since you said that in some way fallen nature follows its own logic, can our prayers have an impact on this epidemic and slow it down or interrupt it?
It is our duty to ask God to stop this epidemic. But for that to happen, all people would have to turn to Him and pray for it. Otherwise, out of respect for their free will, He will not impose His omnipotence on those who do not want to acknowledge Him and ask for His help. This is why God’s action did not manifest itself to stop the great epidemics of the past. On the other hand, God responded to the request of small and interconnected groups and miraculously stopped localized epidemics.
Also, at all times, cracks have opened in the logic of the fallen world for the benefit of individuals through the intervention of God, the Mother of God, or the saints. But as a rule, miracles are exceptions to the general custom. Christ Himself did not perform collective, but always individual healings, and it must be emphasized that this has always been associated with some spiritual purpose and with a simultaneous spiritual impact (forgiveness of sins) associated with the life and destiny of a person.
It is an occasion to recall that just as illness can be spiritually reversed in our favor, so preserved or restored health is useless if we do not use it well spiritually. One of the questions that today’s epidemic poses to us is also this: what have we done with our health so far and what will we do with it if we survive?
As for the miraculous healings performed by Christ, we see that sometimes they were given at the request of the healed people, and sometimes at the request of their loved ones. This reminds us that it is important to pray for ourselves to receive protection and healing, but also for our loved ones and, more broadly, for all people, as do all the saints who pray for the whole world. because in their own person they feel in solidarity with everyone.
In recent weeks, various prayers have appeared on Orthodox websites. What prayers would you recommend in particular?
Every prayer is good because it brings us closer to God and to our neighbor. We can turn to Christ, to the Mother of God and to all the saints, because, as St. Paisius of Mount Athos told me during one of my meetings with him:
Every saint can cure all diseases, and saints are not jealous of each other.
Nevertheless, I remain a little skeptical of some forms of piety that are close to superstition but inevitable in such circumstances: for example, the Holy Crown was taken out of oblivion; in the near future there will no doubt be joined by the Holy Virus (Bishop of Vienna in the 4th century).
For my part, I love and use several times a day the prayer composed by Patriarch Daniel of Romania, which is at once short, simple and complete. I changed its text very slightly:
Lord, our God, Who is rich in mercies and through Your wise caring guidance, You direct our lives, hear our prayer, accept our repentance for our sins, stop this epidemic.
You, Who are the Healer of our souls and bodies, grant healing to the sick, raise them quickly from the bed of suffering, so that they may glorify You, Merciful Savior.
Protect the healthy from any disease.
Protect us, your unworthy slaves, together with our relatives and friends.
Bless, strengthen and protect, Lord, with Your grace all who care for the sick in their homes or in hospitals with humane and sacrificial love.
Keep every sickness and suffering away from Your people and teach us to value life and health as Your gifts.
Grant us, God, Your peace and fill our hearts with unwavering faith in Your protection, with hope in Your help and with love for You and your neighbor.
For, Yours is our mercy and our salvation, O our God, and to You we give glory, to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and always and forever. Amen.