Certain stories become “part of the furniture” of a culture. From the mystic of the rainbow to the survival of the animals on an ark, the Noah Story is deeply embedded in American culture. We all know the extraordinary combination of judgment and survival captured in the story. So when nature, especially torrential rain, decides to exercise its power against humanity, our psyche finds itself reaching for the Noah Story.
In one of those perfect moments of serendipity, the historian Frank Snowden just launched his latest book, “Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.” Although he did not know that his book would appear in the middle of a pandemic, it is very prescient.
In an interview with Yale News on April 8, Snowden explained that he sees a link between the environment and epidemics.
“The world we’ve created is so populous, and also so unregulated and greedy that we enormously invaded the habitat of wild animals,” Snowden said. “That is putting extraordinary pressure on them, so human beings are forcibly brought into contact with species that may be reservoirs of an extraordinary range of diseases that human populations have never en- countered before.”
For Snowden, epidemics are nature pushing back. It is as if the pandemic is the world’s way of judging the excess and greed of humans. As major predators, we are too dominant. The world needs to rebalance; our ecosystem needs adjusting. Humans are just too powerful, and nature is insisting that we stop our unbridled expansion.
In the Noah Story, the flood is God’s judgment on human sin. The phrase sin captures our propensities for egotistical indifference to all around us. And so the drama unfolds: God starts over. Working with the one righteous person on the planet, each species of animal is saved, and creation is renewed.
For those who see in this pandemic nature pushing back and judging human sin, we have a secular Noah Story. It is not divine judgment, but environmental judgment. Our inability to cooperate with nature is being exposed. We are being judged by nature for our sin.
It is always difficult to judge the significance of a historic moment while we are living through it. We do not know how this will end. We do not know how many people will be infected by COVID-19, nor the number of fatalities. We do not know if this will bring about enduring change or just be a temporary inconvenient season. We can only guess about the judgment of history on this moment.
However, engaging with contrasting narratives is helpful. A narrative that sees this pandemic as the judgment of nature deserves our attention.
It is one of many narratives out there: There is the narrative around the sin of globalization, that says we are too interconnected and it is not surprising that diseases travel effortlessly around the globe; there is a narrative that sees the pandemic as a reminder that utopian dreams are an indulgence and American capitalism needs to remain our focus; and so the narratives emerge. There is often partial truth in these narratives. We should pause and listen to these different perspectives and see what insights we can gain.
And so, I listen to our secular Noah narrative. There is a strand in the Christian tradition that has often seen judgment in terms of “self-inflicted judgment.” So, for example, it is not that God sends us to hell, but that a life lived without love at its core becomes a self-inflicted hell.
Understood in this way, there is wisdom in the secular Noah narrative. We are flattening the pandemic curve. Next we need to work on flattening the climate change curve. And we all need to become Noahs for our time – setting out to work in harmony with nature, not against it.
The writer is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.