PRAYER AND BLEACH
Updated: Dec 10, 2020
The CDC recommends that to make a disinfecting solution that can kill the coronavirus, you must mix “5 tablespoons (1/3rd cup) bleach per gallon of water.” This poses a particular problem for me. You see, my best container for holding the solution is a bowl with a 1000ml mark, so I’ve been straining my high school math knowledge, converting back and forth between imperial and metric units in an attempt to get the ratio correct. Getting the ratio correct is a source of anxiety for me because every day I’ve been taking a rag soaked in the solution and rubbing down door knobs, handles, and other common surfaces in my apartment. The goal is to kill the coronavirus and keep my roommates and me illness-free for just a little bit longer, thereby “flattening the curve” and all that. “In bleach I trust,” is my internal motto for this daily ritual, and I’m really hoping it works. Still, I have doubts. Maybe I’ll miss some critical surface in my daily bleach rounds. Maybe the solution isn’t strong enough. Maybe I’ll use up my bleach stockpile too fast. A casual touch of the hand could be enough to infect me and then, who knows what will happen. The second-guessing, the obsessive focus on my body and what I touch, it’s enough to drive a person crazy. Now I know this is just one of a hundred different ways that one could be infected. Bleach, though, gives me a small sense of control, a tiny feeling of agency in a world of chaos.
Therein lies the tension. I am a Christian, and a thoroughgoing supernaturalist at that. I believe that God made the world—never mind the how if that is an obstacle. I believe that God is in control of human history. I believe with Matthew 6:26-27 that God feeds the birds of the air and “Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” I believe that in Christ, “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17) and that “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). More than this, I believe that Jesus in his time on earth actually healed people of their sicknesses, physically, bodily. I even believe that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead. What then am I doing, wiping down everything with bleach, drying out my hands and making them smell like chlorine? (Yes, I know you are supposed to use gloves, but I don’t have any). Protecting a mere mortal from sickness should be a simple matter for a God that can raise the dead. Is there something deficient in me and my faith that causes me to do this ritual cleaning? Shouldn’t prayer be enough?
Perhaps it will help to take a step back and look at the central issue. We all have our trust placed in something, whether we do this consciously, choosing to place our trust on a particular bedrock foundation, or unconsciously, letting it settle somewhere. The title of Bob Dylan’s song, “You Gotta Serve Somebody,” might also be phrased, “You Gotta Trust Somebody.” Now the Nobel Laureate’s phrasing points to an important aspect of trust that is worth drawing attention to, even if I must digress somewhat. Our trust almost always rests on people rather than on things—my trust in bleach to kill the coronavirus is a trust in the scientists working at the CDC because I’ve never seen it happen. No one actually “trusts in science” because “science” is an abstract idea. To “trust in science” in normal usage means trusting the scientists who perform experiments, gather empirical evidence, and interpret the data. We have to trust that they are doing this correctly and without bias, that the vetting of research for publication is working, and that the people who are transmitting the information to lay people like us aren’t distorting or overly simplifying it. This trust also implies a trust in modern technology, or the application of scientific knowledge by humans to the natural world. And sometimes the most empirically valid science is applied in problematic ways. But I digress.
Our trust or faith—two words which really mean the same thing—is always in someone or something. At this historical moment, when so much is uncertain, people are desperately looking for someone or something reliable to trust. As a Christian, I’ve chosen to put my trust, my faith, in God the Father and Jesus Christ. At the same time, my use of bleach and all the other things I’m doing at the recommendation of experts: washing my hands obsessively, practicing social distancing, etc. imply that I trust them to protect me from the coronavirus. We would seem to have a conflicting set of trusts here: modern science and technology versus God.
I must admit, before I try to reconcile the two, that my trust in science—the scientists and their application of the principles of the scientific method—and technology—the application by humans of scientific knowledge to the natural world—is only partial. One of the effects of this pandemic is to show the inadequacies of modern science and technology. Historically, epidemics are a regular occurrence. Late antiquity saw waves of disease and death. Many people associate the middle ages with the Black Death, which swept through Europe from around 1347 to 1352, but there were actually recurrent waves of plague in the Middle Ages. One would think that this modern era, which is so much more scientifically and technologically advanced than late antiquity and the middle ages, would have pandemics beat. The coronavirus pandemic is a good reminder that technological advances have not made us as secure as we think. Indeed, the rapid travel enabled by these advances is what allowed the coronavirus to span the globe so quickly. The same digital technology that has kept us connected during this time is also being used to spread misinformation and fear. Science and technological progress are a somewhat shaky foundation on which to place ultimate trust and faith.
We can see the author of Psalm 20 reflecting on these competing trusts in a declaration that I find comforting at our current time:
"Now I know that the Lord saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven
with the saving might of his right hand.
Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lordour God." (6-7, ESV)
One of Israel’s challenges as a people in the Old Testament was trusting in military might instead of God for their security. Modern science and technology can be the equivalent of those chariots and horses in the face of this pandemic. We look to them to save us and they either don’t come through or don’t come through in the time that we would wish. The psalmist is saying that his trust and security is in God, not contemporary military technology. For Christians, our trust and security should rest in God and not in whatever technological solution will or won’t come our way.
“Well,” you may say, “If that’s the case why don’t we quit all this social distancing and obsessive hand washing? Churches should stop moving their services online and all Christians should just get on with their lives.” Ironically, this is a viewpoint that some skeptics and Christian might agree on. I think the view comes from the impression that faith in God is an either-or proposition, a zero-sum game, that faith in God excludes faith in other things. I’m sorry if I gave that impression. In addition to the things I affirmed earlier, I believe that science is a means for learning about the world that God sustains. Science illuminates truths about the physical, material workings of the natural world. For that reason, if a scientist says that the coronavirus spreads through droplets resting on surfaces, I’m inclined to believe them.
I live this out in the same way that I don’t stop eating, trusting that God will sustain my body without food, even though I believe that God sustains the whole world, including me. Food is a gift which God has provided to sustain human life. This is not to deny the intermediate causes that brought about the tortilla, for example, that I eat as part of my quesadilla, from the farmer who harvested the wheat, to the cellular processes whereby a kernel of wheat sprouts and grows. Food is a source of nutrients that fuel the metabolic reactions that take place in my cells, but it is also more than that. Food is a means through which God gives life and joy to the world. Though God is the ultimate cause, he often works through material means, and science is very good at studying these material means. One might say that modern medicine and science is, ideally, a means that God has given of transmitting health and improving human life. In other words, my trust in God has trust in science folded into it. The traditional author of Psalm 20, David, probably didn’t stop training and drilling himself or his fighting men because he trusted in God over chariots and horses. At issue here is that ancient military technology and modern medical technology can vie for first place with God in our trust and affections.
My trust in God is of a very different order than my trust in science. I know my ultimate security is in God’s hands. God brings health through scientific knowledge just as he can bring health and life through food, or he can work more directly. How these two can work concurrently or why God chooses one way over the other in particular situations is beyond my pay grade. (My hunch is that, viewed from the perspective of eternity, they will probably turn out to be one single way of God working.) My trust in science is subordinated to my trust in God. The faith relationship is not either-or, but a hierarchical one with science underneath. I’m hopeful that scientists will eventually develop a vaccine and other treatments for the coronavirus, even if they aren’t able to do so as fast as we would like.
Now I know this leaves many questions unanswered. Chief among these is that if you trust that God is in control and sustaining the world, he must also be sustaining the coronavirus that is killing people. God must be quite a monster if this is the case. This is a valid objection; the “problem of evil” is not called a problem for no reason. But it is one that intelligent Christians have been wrestling with for a very long time. If I shared my own wrestlings, this piece would be three times as long. All I’ll say is that I believe that God is good and that the ultimate end of the story of human history is a good one; though as in any story, it may not look good when you are in the middle of it. And the middle of a story can look very dark indeed.
So, what does this all mean? I will trust God as my ultimate source of security. He is at work for good whether I contract Covid-19 or not. I will work to increase my trust in him in the midst of fear and anxiety — after all, increasing trust isn’t a matter of flipping a switch. This means prayer, but it also means trusting in the council and advice of those scientists and experts whose job it is to uncover truths about the natural world and apply them for our benefit. I will listen to and try to wisely apply their recommendations. My trust in God means that I don’t have to be so afraid, even while doing my best to protect myself and others. I will pray and bleach, and pray and bleach, and pray, all in that order.
 Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge is an excellent work on this subject from the perspective of a scientist.