Still Homo Sapiens
As the current pandemic progresses, one of the things which is becoming more and more unavoidable is the reality of death. Each day the death toll rises, both in our own country and globally. While most of these deaths are hidden – sadly sometimes even to family unable visit those quarantined in hospital – the growing presence of temporary morgues (in ice rinks, aircraft hangars, and refrigerated vans) is making the reality more visible.
With each daily reminder, I’ve found myself thinking about what this reality can teach us about ourselves. In his book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari puts forward the thesis that with the dawn of the twenty first century humanity is entering a new stage in its existence: having largely dealt with the three problems which have always preoccupied us – famine, plague, and war – we are now free to explore higher aims – the slowing or even eradication of aging and death, and the maximisation of pleasure and happiness. It is a journey, he suggests, from Homo sapiens (‘wise man’) to Homo deus (‘god man’).
The current pandemic probably doesn’t actually disprove Harari’s claim about plagues. Though the figures are high and rising, the global response made possible by our information and technology resources probably will ensure the overall outcome is less devastating than it could have been. Harari himself has offered some interesting reflections on coronavirus and how we might best tackle it as a globalised world.
Nevertheless, for most people, the current situation will be shaking our very modern confidence in humanity’s power to be in control and our belief that (at least until old age, cancer, or heart disease gets involved) we have the power over life and death. This will be unsettling for many, but perhaps it brings with it some opportunities.
Learning to Grieve Well
Many of us in the modern West don’t handle death well. In some ways this is understandable. Death is not something we are forced to confront very often. Many of us will be fortunate enough to live several decades of our lives before we experience the pain of someone close to us dying. Likewise, many will live many decades – perhaps even sometimes the entirety – of our lives without ever seeing a dead body. And with the ever-rising age of average life expectancy, our own death always feels far away. The result is that when death breaks into our world, we often don’t know how to handle it well – we don’t know how to grieve – and we don’t know how to face the reality of our own mortality.
Some of these factors will become increasingly less common as the weeks and months go on. The sad reality is that many of us may lose someone we love and a number of us will be forced to come face to face with the reality of our own mortality. But herein lies an opportunity, and an opportunity which, as followers of Jesus, we are uniquely placed to take up both for ourselves and for others.
We, of all people, should be able to grieve well and to help others to grieve well. In some ways, against the background of an atheistic worldview, grief doesn’t make a lot of sense. Death is the one thing we can all agree is utterly universal; it is the most expected of events. If human life is just the result of a long chain of random genetic mutations and natural selection, death is just the expected continuation of that process. If consciousness is simply a complex set of algorithms and the firing of neurons, not a lot is actually lost when someone dies.
And yet the reality is, we all know that grief is real and natural, involuntary even. The death of someone who was close to us can be one of the most painful experiences in life and is often accompanied by the sense that, ‘It shouldn’t be like this’.
And of course we know that that’s right. It shouldn’t be like this. There shouldn’t be pandemics, there shouldn’t be coronavirus, and there shouldn’t be death. But we know why some things are as they shouldn’t be, and we know that one day all things will again be as they should be, and we are invited to be a part of that. All of this means that we can grieve well and help others to do the same, knowing that the expression of the pain we feel is right and fitting, but also knowing where we can find hope to bring comfort and strength as we grieve.
Learning to Handle Mortality Well
This season will also give us an opportunity to learn to freshly recognise our own mortality and to handle it well. For some – those most vulnerable - this realisation will feel very acute. For others – those deemed less high-risk – it may be less acute, but the increasing prominence of death around us will still have the same effect.
Again though, we are uniquely positioned to handle this reality well and to help others to do so. This is an opportunity for us to think on death and the hope we have in the gospel. It’s an opportunity for us to examine our fears and to seek peace from them through the application of the word and through the work of the Spirit. And it’s an opportunity for us to hold out the truth that death is a disarmed and soon to be defeated enemy (1 Cor. 15:54-57; Rev.20:14; 21:4), that there is one who can deliver us from the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-15), and that through him, it’s possible to die and yet live (John 11:25).
Learning That We Are Still Homo Sapiens
The prominence of death is also an opportunity to be reminded and to remind others that we are still Homo sapiens and not Homo deus. Though we have been endued with reason, intellect and even wisdom, wonderful gifts which help us to tackle something like coronavirus, we are not God. We are the creatures, not the creator. All our problems started with the desire to deny this truth (Gen. 3:5), and to this day it continues to be our core problem (Rom. 1:18-25). Here, then, is a lesson whose importance can hardly be overemphasised. And here we are with an opportunity to learn it and teach it again.