Lost at Sea

Brad Littlejohn
Bradford Littlejohn is a senior fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and president of the Davenant Institute. He is the author of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty (Eerdmans, 2017) and numerous other writings in the areas of Christian ethics, political theology, and Reformation history. He lives in Leesburg, Virginia, with his wife, Rachel, and four children.

A few days ago, I left the house for my first sizable social gathering in over three months, now that my home state, Virginia, was at last opening back up in earnest. Many of the folks I was seeing I hadn’t spoken to at all since those whirlwind days in early March, when the world seemed to be crashing down around our ears, and every face was grave and apprehensive.

I knew there were significant differences of opinion in our community about the best ways to handle the virus, and so I came prepared to tread gingerly around the subject that was too large an elephant in the room to be simply ignored. After various forms of small talk, the conversation turned inevitably to the life-changing experience of quarantine we had all just been through. I lamented, in general terms, the division and distrust that recent events had exposed in our society, to general agreement. As the conversation continued, however, it soon became clear just how deep that division ran.

I had come to the event buoyed with gratitude for the current trajectory of things in Virginia, where a strong early response and a slow, phased reopening had spared our heavily populated state a major COVID-19 outbreak and had reduced new cases to a manageable load. I was no fan of our liberal governor, and did not doubt that many decisions could have been managed better than they had, but as I watched the graphs of new case spikes in the South and West, I felt grateful to be in a state that was headed in the right direction.

It quickly became clear that that was not the dominant sentiment among my friends. As the conversation lurched into denunciations of our governor and the remaining limitations on business activity and ordinary community life, I fumbled to regain my footing in a social dynamic that seemed to have suddenly turned sideways. I searched for anchor points of common ground—the efficacy of masks, the fatality statistics, the constitutional responsibility of government to protect life—but each turned out to be more quicksand.

As I drove home, I found myself dazed and reeling, questioning my own sanity. It was as if I had thought I was a survivor of a shipwreck clambering gratefully aboard a lifeboat out of the icy water, only to find that the other inhabitants of the lifeboat were swapping stories about how they had been unceremoniously forced to jump overboard for a false alarm, and indignantly demanding that the lifeboat officer row them back to the ship right away. We all agreed that we had been through a deeply traumatic episode, but we had radically different narratives of what that episode was and what it meant.

I was surprised at how deeply this experience of clashing stories affected me, especially as I had already observed this phenomenon widely on social media and knew—in the abstract at least—how wide the chasms on this issue were. Perhaps I realized then for the first time just how deeply human beings need one another to make sense of themselves and their worlds; we may inhabit a common reality, yes, but we cannot be sure of it without a community of friends and fellows whose agreement assures us that we are not imagining things. This effect is powerful, so powerful that the opinions of others can persuade us that something is there even when we do not see it, as the tale of the emperor’s new clothes reminds us. And woe to that person who does see something that no one else does; there are few experiences in life more lonely.

Perhaps I realized then for the first time just how deeply human beings need one another to make sense of themselves and their worlds; we may inhabit a common reality, yes, but we cannot be sure of it without a community of friends and fellows whose agreement assures us that we are not imagining things.

If this is how we are even in the best of times—leaning on one another to make sense of the world around us—how much more so when that world around us seems to have vanished from under our feet and we find ourselves in freefall: when none of the ordinary rules or rhythms of life seem to apply anymore, and there is nothing in our past experience by which to judge our present predicament? We intellectuals like to wag our heads at the “echo chambers” into which Americans have increasingly sealed themselves, but at a time such as this, who can blame them?

When I drove home that evening, I found myself reaching out desperately for like-minded friends: I needed an echo chamber to convince me that I wasn’t merely hearing voices in my own head. All of us, these past few months, have instinctively herded together for safety and reassurance with those whose agreement can at least offer us some rock to cling to amid the whirlwind of uncertainty that surrounds us. And we are above all a storytelling species: we make sense of our world by telling one another stories about it. Is it any wonder that, in our hunger for coherence, we have told each other stories that confirm our pre-pandemic vision of reality? And then, our ears ringing with these stories, we have stumbled back out into the wider world—into our churches or workplaces—and found that six feet of social distance is the least of our problems: some of us don’t even seem to be inhabiting the same country.

Of course, this dizzying experience is but another way in which the virus has unmasked realities that were already with us, has preyed on the underlying conditions of our body politic. Postmodernists have been telling us for two generations about our propensity to socially construe reality through narrative—and, rather than cautioning us therefore of the difficult but necessary attempt to find the real, to parse the true stories from the false, instead egged us on to do it ever more shamelessly. In so many of our moral and political disputes, within the church and without, we find ourselves today confronted not merely with different practical proposals for what ought to be done in the future, but with fundamentally different intuitions about what is happening in the present, and rival narratives about how we got here. With the past and present every bit as up for grabs as the future, it is no wonder that we have lost faith in the power of persuasion.

For too many Christian intellectuals, the proposed remedy to this crisis has been “civility”: Why can’t we learn to respect one another’s differences? To dialogue and learn from one another? To speak softly and winsomely in the midst of conflict? During the pandemic, I have read several banal though well-meaning admonitions from the Christian blogosphere along these lines: “Some will be more cautious, and others more confident, but we all have something important to learn from one another.” In the great words from the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, “Would that it ’twere so simple.” Civility will not get you very far on a lifeboat in which half the passengers are convinced they have been rescued from shipwreck and half believe they’ve just been thrown overboard. Civility is a wonderful virtue for managing disagreements about where we go next from a shared starting point, but when the starting point itself is up for grabs, it ends up looking a lot like relativism.

Civility will not get you very far on a lifeboat in which half the passengers are convinced they have been rescued from shipwreck and half believe they’ve just been thrown overboard.

The problem with relativism is that, for most people, it only works up until the point where they encounter something that they think really matters. I know many people who are relativists about scientific claims but draw the line when it comes to theology. And many of today’s loudest prophets of relativism on the left may dismiss universal sexual morality as outmoded, but they can outdo those on the right in passionate indignation when faced with the realities of racial oppression: in that, they are not shy about naming the objective wrong that they rightly perceive. Quite often our calls to civility are thin disguises for the fact that we don’t think the issue matters all that much anyway.

It is hard to tell ourselves that in the current crisis. The values that are on the line are all of the highest order: life, livelihood, freedom, community. If one narrative is true, all those calling for a premature end to social distancing are recklessly endangering the lives of their brothers and sisters, and compounding the economic pain as well, as their actions cause business closures to be reinstated. If the other narrative is true, all those refusing to resume life as normal are cowering cravenly before an unreal threat, acquiescing in a massive government power grab that will leave us in lasting bondage to a nanny state, and needlessly scuttling the livelihoods of their friends and neighbors.

And yet, one of these narratives must be true and the other false. Not that any one of us probably has the full story: the virus may be dangerous and social distancing effective, and yet our scientists overconfident and our politicians self-seeking at the same time. But the fact is that there is a fact of the matter. Confronted with the hard rock of life-or-death reality, postmodernism crumples. Narratives may give meaning to our lives, but truth is more important than meaning.

So how do we move forward? How do we live together on the lifeboat, confused and angry as we are? I do not have many answers yet; if there’s one thing I’ve become convinced of in recent months, it’s that there are no easy answers, no easy way to live together in the absence of some common vision of reality. But here are a few gestures in the direction that I think we need to go.

First, remember that there is nothing new under the sun. Former generations have gone through crises much deeper, and just as disorienting and polarizing, and even these are mere ripples on the surface of eternity. Throughout this pandemic, I have frequently returned to C.S. Lewis’s essay “Learning in War-Time.” “The war,” he says (and we may substitute “the pandemic”), “creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” Every time we find ourselves thinking “But this difference is too big to ignore—lives/freedoms are on the line,” we should be pulled up short by realizing how often, in our daily lives, souls are on the line. Every decision we take, and every decision we encourage others to take, is a step toward eternal bliss or eternal doom. If “civility” stems from complacency about the real stakes of our disagreements, then to hell with it. The stakes are high in this pandemic, but they are always high. And yet we must still figure out how to speak the truth in love.

Second, don’t give up on friendship. I have heard of many friendships strained and frayed by the present crisis. You might have thought to yourself more than once, “How could a sane person say that? I don’t know if I can be friends with this person anymore.” But thank goodness Jesus doesn’t say that about us—a trite and pietistic sentiment, perhaps, but no less true. We like to think that we chose our friendships—and that we chose them because we evaluated each person and found them worthy of our affection and useful in pursuing common ends. But that is silly. More often than not, our friends were just put there by God; we found them there in our lives, and made the best of it. When profound disagreements strain these relationships, we need to remember that God put them there for a reason, and that reason was probably not to make us feel more comfortable.

Third, don’t give up on persuasion. As I said above, there is a reality there, lying hidden underneath our comforting (or not-so-comforting) narratives. We have a moral responsibility to find it and to live in line with it, and a moral responsibility to help others find it. Many of us will feel tempted, as we return to churches and workplaces, to stick to the small talk, and avoid any source of friction, to pretend that nothing unusual is happening and nothing important divides us. But that, I am convinced, is to dishonor the God who put us through this crisis to test us and train us, to force us to come to grips with hard truths. We cannot hide from the new pandemic and post-pandemic reality, and we must face it together, so we had best get to work on agreeing what it is we are facing.

But we should be under no illusions about the task. Civility will not be enough. Indeed, our conversations may feel rather uncivil at times; they will be raw and tense. After all, shipwreck or no shipwreck, we have all just been plucked out of an icy ocean and are still lost at sea. We will have to strain and stretch to find common ground that can bridge paradigms that seem worlds apart, we will have to humbly reconsider facts that we take for granted, and (hardest of all) admit when maybe we got something wrong. And a lot of this will have to take place in person, face-to-face, as much as most of us shy away from such confrontations.

Not that this all has to involve confrontation. More often than not when it comes to persuasion, less is more. Bridge-building will usually proceed one plank at a time. When conversation turns to the current crisis, and you think the conversation is going off the rails—say, an angry rant about a mayor’s or governor’s failings—perhaps all that’s needed is the mild interjection, “Well I’m very glad I wasn’t in their shoes and didn’t have to make that hard call.” Such a sentiment is hard to disagree with, and may provide a small anchor point for more agreement later. Quite often, all that is called for is faithful presence. People rarely change their minds all at once because someone sets out to change them. Quite often, they change them gradually because they realize that someone they respect and trust sees things differently. But of course, that respect and trust are key, and too often we forfeit them in our well-meaning but futile efforts to play whack-a-mole with every error we encounter.

In other words, we must somehow learn to hold together passion and patience: a deep conviction that the truth matters, and that our differences on a matter so urgent are intolerable. And at the same time we must be willing to wait—to wait on the world for more clarity about what is actually going on, to wait on our friends through the long months and years it can take to come to a common mind, and to wait on the Lord for the strength to endure it all. For it will be painful—both passion and patience come from the same root meaning “to suffer.” It is tempting to try and escape this suffering by not waiting or not caring, but if there is one thing that should be abundantly clear about this pandemic, it is that we have been called to suffering. For those of us who have not yet been called to the suffering of illness or lost loved ones, or the suffering of joblessness or financial strain, let us embrace the anguish of the loss of a common reality as our own calling to suffer together with our world at this time, “knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame” (Romans 5:3–5).