That image of President Trump and Dr. Fauci standing next to each other as they give briefings on COVID-19 is certainly a study in contrasts.
Mr. Trump embodies a character trait the ancient Greeks referred to as “hubris.”
“Hubris is thinking you can do anything better than everyone else, including the gods,” one source told me. Another source said that hubris “often indicates a loss of contact with reality.” Still another described it as “an overestimation of one’s own capabilities, especially when the person is in a position of power.”
Dr. Fauci, in contrast, is very conscious of the limits of his capabilities as a human being to understand what is real and what is not. That’s why he submits himself to a discipline called the scientific method which the Science Council defines as a “systematic methodology based on evidence.”
Fauci changes his view of reality to fit the facts. Trump changes the facts to fit his view of reality.
The genius of the scientific method is that it is better at obtaining reliable factual data than are tradition, religion and superstition. The limitation of the scientific method is that it is objective and therefore ethically neutral.
Science, for example, collected data on the “curve” of the virus in China and used that to project how it would behave in this country. Then leaders at all levels of government had to decide what is more important, public health or the nation’s GDP? A judgment call that science is not equipped to make.
The facts science comes up with are necessary but not sufficient to move our village or our nation in the direction it needs to go.
In addition to the briefings by Mr. Trump and Dr. Fauci, I’ve seen many interviews on TV of frontline health-care workers like nurses, ER docs and EMTs. All of them know the facts, yet they choose to behave in ways that are not in a sense reasonable. Their risk-taking seems to be based on a view that transcends rational, empirical verification.
This month all three of the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — are observing major holy days. In Passover, Holy Week, and Ramadan the faithful in each tradition acknowledge at least two things: the limits of their power as humans to discern what is good and to do it, and the need for submission to the One who has the power to guide us into the shalom we all long for.
I’ve been told that the meaning of Islam is “submission.” There’s a joke that dates back to the time before the use of GPS and goes like this: The reason the people of Israel wandered for 40 years in the wilderness instead of going straight to the promised land was because they were led by men who wouldn’t stop at a gas station to ask for directions.
Mr. Trump isn’t the only one who resists submitting to outside authorities. Most of us, I daresay, don’t like submitting either. We resonate with the lines in a poem by William Ernest Henley, “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my ship.”
Douglas John Hall in Lighten Our Darkness contends that what our society needs is a new “imago,” a new image of what it means to be human, which rejects the illusion of mastery.
Maybe the most important lesson to be learned from what we are going through is that we are not masters of our own fate, at least not to the degree we had imagined. Maybe “returning to normal” would be a tragic missed opportunity.
Many of us, for example, have lived with the illusion that medical science would save us from most everything. COVID-19 has turned out to be a power greater than even medical science. Another joke: The doctor says to her patient, “I have some bad news for you and some good news. The bad news is that you are over medicated. The good news is that we have a pill for that!”
We thought we were masters over nature. We build domed stadiums where we can play “outdoor” sports when it’s raining or below zero outside, but it turns out that our delusions of mastery have led us into an environmental crisis as threatening to human life and civilization as the coronavirus.
That is, unless we submit to the reality that we humans are part of nature, not lords over it, repent of our hubris, and begin limiting our “unnatural” mastery.
We often bought the illusion that we as individuals are each at the center of the universe. Individual rights trump (pun intended) social obligations. What we find ourselves celebrating during these challenging times, however, are the countless acts of empathy and caring which reveal the attitude that “your needs are as important as mine.” We stand outside hospitals applauding health workers as they change shifts.
Perhaps to our surprise, we have discovered that giving up a few individual freedoms and rights in submission to the needs of the community has made the quality of our lives better instead of worse. Maybe, when this health crisis is in the rear-view mirror, the younger generation will “get” the need for things like an individual mandate at their temporary expense so that everyone will have access to affordable health care and the old will “get” the need for less expensive or even free higher education at the expense of somewhat higher taxes.
Years ago I complained to our congregational president, Andre Hines, that God always blesses me but never the way I want him to. She looked at me in a reprimanding way and replied, “That’s because he’s smarter than you are.”
Perhaps, we will learn from what we are now going through and adopt a new and healthier imago that will free us to let go of the illusion of mastery and submit to our being part of nature and community.