The loudest voices right now are exhorting us to “listen to the science.” And we should. But we would do well to listen also to the wisdom of our ancestors. For if science is what will get us out of the pandemic, it is the humanities that will help us flourish while we endure it.
Over the last year, pundits have commonly averred that we are living in “unprecedented times.” When this assertion is made with respect to the pandemic, it is often accompanied by declarations that we must “listen to the science,” since (as the reasoning goes) science is our best hope for getting back to “normal.” These claims are myopic and symptomatic of an ahistorical worldview that is excessively committed to the notion that scientific progress is the sole mechanism for promoting prosperity. We are in fact not living in unprecedented times. And while science is critical, science alone is insufficient for the cultivation of human flourishing in these challenging times.
The ancient preacher was right to say that “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9). History is replete with plagues and pandemics. Among many others, one recalls the plague of Athens in the late 5th century BC, “Cyprian’s Plague” in the 3rd century AD, the Black Death that decimated Europe in the late Middle Ages, the plague that rattled London in the mid-17th century, and the Spanish Flu in the early 20th century. Importantly, when we study these plagues, we find that they bred problems much like the ones we presently face: physical and emotional suffering, grief, economic instability, social and political disarray, questions of whether and how to conduct schooling and religious observances, uncertainty over whether to gather with friends and family. Thus, while COVID-19 and its attendant problems may seem new to 21st-century westerners, the challenges we face are hardly unprecedented in the annals of history.
As for science, while it is obviously indispensable to our efforts to eradicate COVID-19, science alone cannot provide all the answers we need in this season. Science can tell us—indeed, has told us—how the virus spreads and how best to treat the sick. Medical professionals deserve endless credit for their selfless and Christ-like care of the sick and dying. Scientists have now even produced a number of safe and effective vaccines. These are major contributions for which we ought to give thanks. But while scientific knowledge does save lives, science itself cannot explain why we should care about the preservation of life and health in the first place. Science can reduce the pain of those who suffer, but it cannot teach us how to live well in a world in which suffering, loss, and disappointment are inevitable. Science can tell us that keeping six feet apart will mitigate the spread of germs, but it cannot help us cope with the loneliness that social distancing forces upon us. For these things we must look to the humanities.