Who brought the coronavirus numbers down?
May 1, 2020
Last month, Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, made a rather interesting theological observation. Commenting on the progress that his state has made in fighting the coronavirus, and praising the concrete efforts of medical personnel and ordinary citizens, he said, “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that.”
I won’t waste a lot of time exploring the hubris of that remark, which should be obvious to anyone. I might recommend, out of pastoral concern, that the governor read the first part of Genesis chapter eleven.
What I will do instead is explain the basic intellectual confusion that undergirds Cuomo’s assertion, one that, I fear, is shared even by many believers. The condition for the possibility of the governor’s declaration being true is the assumption that God is one competitive cause among many, one actor jostling for position and time upon the stage with a coterie of other actors. On this reading, God does certain things – usually of a rather spectacular nature – and creaturely causes do other things, usually more mundane. Thus, we can clearly parcel out responsibility and credit – some to God and some to finite agents. But this account is deeply unbiblical and alien to the Catholic theological tradition.
To understand the scriptural sense of the play between divine and human causality, it is helpful to consult the cycle of stories dealing with King David in first and second Samuel. What strikes the attentive reader is that nothing obviously “supernatural” takes place in these accounts. Practically everything that happens to David could be adequately accounted for on psychological, historical, military or political grounds.
However, throughout the narrative, God’s activity and involvement are assumed, for the author takes for granted the principle that the true God works not typically in an interruptive way but precisely through a congeries of secondary causes. Mind you, it is not the case that some explanations of David’s story are political or psychological and some properly theological; rather, everything is, at once, natural and supernatural – precisely because God’s causality is operating noncompetitively, on an ontologically different level than creaturely causality. If you want a one-liner summary of this distinctively biblical perspective, you could not do better than this, from the prophet Isaiah: “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (26:12).
Now, why should this be true? Here it would be helpful to turn to the church’s greatest theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas, God is not the supreme being (ens summum in his Latin), but rather ipsum esse subsistens, which means “the sheer act of to be itself.” In a word, God is not one more instance of the genus “being,” one thing, however exalted, among others; instead, he is the self-explaining source of existence as such, that great font of being in and through which all finite things subsist and act. Therefore, God does not compete for space, so to speak, on the same ontological grid as creatures; a zero-sum game does not obtain in regard to God’s activity and creaturely activity – the more we ascribe to one, the less we have to ascribe to the other.
Allow me to ground this rather abstract rhetoric with a very homely example. If one were to ask what is necessary to make a bicycle, the response would be something like this: “tires, brake pads, a chain, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, perhaps a schematic to guide the building process, etc.” No one would ever be tempted to respond as follows: “tires, brake pads, a chain, God, a metal frame, the skill of the builder, etc.”
And yet, a smart religious person, upon finishing the project of constructing that bike, would quite legitimately say, “Thank God!” The prayer would be a humble acknowledgement, not that God in a fussily invasive way interfered with the building process, but that God is responsible for the entire nexus of causes and behaviors that made up the process. The upshot is that the two dimensions of causality – one finite and the other transcendent – operate simultaneously and noncompetitively: “You have accomplished all that we have done.”
All of which brings me back to Governor Cuomo. To claim that “God did not do that” because we did it is simply a category mistake. What brought the coronavirus numbers down? It is perfectly accurate to say, “The skill of doctors and nurses, the availability of hospital beds, the willingness of so many to shelter in place, etc.” But it is also perfectly valid to say that God brought those numbers down, precisely by grounding the entire complex of creaturely causality just referenced. This relationship holds at the metaphysical level, but it is perhaps even clearer when it comes to the psychological motivation of those dedicated physicians and nurses. Why ultimately were they willing to do what they did? I would be willing to bet a large percentage of them would say that it was a desire to serve others and to be pleasing to God.
So we should thank all of the good people involved in bettering our current situation, and we shouldn’t hesitate, even for a moment, to thank God as well. There is absolutely no need to play the zero-sum game proposed by the governor of New York.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.