Rod Dreher shared recently a letter from, apparently, an orthodox, conservative, episcopal priest explaining why he was remaining in that denomination despite all of its problems. It’s an interesting and encouraging read if you care about that sort of thing. At the end of the letter the author said,
The days are evil to be sure, but there are non-delusory reasons to be hopeful.
I thought… that’s something you could say about a lot of things these days.
On that note, I recently read the short book (about 60 pages), The palliative society, by Byung-Chul Han.
Byung-Chul Han is a Korean-born, Christian (apparently, from his writing), living in Germany now, philosopher. The book is quite philosophical and is translated into English from German (which means it has a lot of hyphenated and made up words). I’ve talked a lot about Ivan Illich here and Han definitely reminds me of Illich, particularly in Illich’s comments that how we handle suffering is a cultural thing. And modern Western cultures tend to rob suffering of all of its meaning, it becomes nothing but a failure to medicate yourself properly.
But more generally the book is about how we are an algophobic society - we are afraid of pain. That’s a problem because, as Han actually says at least once, “pain is a gift”, and when you make life about avoiding pain you diminish life. He goes through many examples of this more in-depth than I can repeat to you right now but, one example everyone knows, loving another person definitely brings with it the possibility of great pain, and a society that avoids pain is also therefore a society that avoids serious relationships. Or, pain also motivates great and necessary changes (personally and societally), and if we drug the pain away those changes will never occur.
But what I found especially encouraging was, I shared a long quotation from a chapter that is much about our pandemic response, and the way we have become a “society of survival”, on Twitter, and it was somewhat widely shared by others… including, it appeared, even by some atheists. And I found that encouraging because, as you’ll see, Han especially talks about the harm of closing churches, and the atheists I observed seemed to be also sharing this video, which has gone viral… you know what, let me just give you the video here.
One assumes atheists care little, personally, about whether churches are open. But they also recognize that they do not want to live in a society that cares only about survival, and so they appreciate churches speaking against that, and that is encouraging.
Therefore just a little Byung-Chul Han, if I may (and if you find yourself once again in a fight with your employer over required vaccination, maybe this will even help):
The virus is the mirror image of our society. It shows us what kind of society we have. Today, survival has the absolute value, as if we are in a state of permanent war. All the forces of life are used for the prolongation of life. The palliative society turns out to be a society of survival.
The society of survival has no sense of the good life. Even enjoyment is sacrificed in the pursuit of health as an end in itself. Strict smoking bans exemplify this hysterical pursuit of survival. Enjoyment must give way to survival. Everywhere, the prolongation of life at any cost is the preeminent value, in comparison to which all others must take second place. We are prepared to sacrifice everything that makes life worth living for the sake of survival.
I appreciated the comment about smoking bans. The obsession with health is not new, we’ve just taken it to new degree these last couple of years. And then he speaks about churches:
Because of the pandemic, the society of survival has prohibited church services, even at Easter. Priests, too, practise ‘social distancing’ and wear protective masks. They sacrifice faith entirely to survival. Neighborly love is expressed, paradoxically, by keeping one’s distance from one’s neighbor, who is a potential carrier of the virus. Virology deprives theology of its power. Everyone is listening to the virologists, who have acquired absolute power in interpreting the situation. The narrative of resurrection has completely given way to the ideology of life and survival. Faced with the virus, faith degenerates into farce. It is replaced with intensive care units and respirators.
This might be a good time to link a piece by Douglas Farrow from a few days ago making similar points. Churches in Quebec (which are perhaps 90% Roman Catholic) were recently told by their government, and just before Christmas, that they had to check vaccination status at the door, after which vaccinated-only congregants could worship together in masks. The link there is Canadian, Roman Catholic theologian Douglas Farrow urging everyone to ignore both rules.
And then, taking the technocracy to task, and in perhaps the section that would help you most with your employer, Han writes,
Life is reduced to a biological process that must be optimized. If loses any meta-physical dimension. Self-tracking acquires the status of a cult. Digital hypochondria, constant self-measurement with the aid of health and fitness apps, degrades life into a mere function. Life is divested of any narrative that could give it meaning. Life is no longer a matter of what can be recounted but a matter of what can be counted, measured. Life becomes bare, even obscene.
The contrast between what can be recounted and what can be counted is a memorable way to put it. Pardon me for saying this as a scientist, but most of the things that matter most in life cannot be easily quantified. But right now, for our technocratic leaders, if it cannot be easily quantified, then it doesn’t factor into their decision making at all. Which means that most of the things that matter most in life do not factor into their decision making at all.
And let me close with one more snip here, perhaps the snip I have seen most widely shared… but since I have quoted so much, let me do my duty to the publisher and author and remind you that you can get yourself a copy, if intrigued.
The fight for survival must be juxtaposed with an interest in the good life. A society that is gripped by the mania for survival is a society of the undead. We are too alive to die, and too dead to live. Our overriding concern with survival we have in common with the virus, this undead being which only proliferates, that is, survives without actually living.
Quick note about Aaron Kheriaty
I did want to give you one more link today, because we should admire and encourage people who take an ethical and reasonable stand (and both those words do apply) and face consequences for it. On that note Aaron Kheriaty, who has been quoted a few times here, and appropriately enough the director of the Medical Ethics program at his university in California, has now been fired by his university for refusing to be vaccinated. Aside from the general ethical issue of medical coercion, his argument has also been that he already had COVID and so the case for requiring people like himself to be vaccinated is especially weak. He has a legal case against the University of California which is, I believe, still proceeding, but he has now been fired by the university. He writes his farewell to them here.