A cataclysmic event can be the most important ingredient for spiritual renewal, a columnist wrote.
“Could a plague of biblical proportions be America’s best hope for religious revival? As the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II approaches, there is reason to think so,” Robert Nicholson wrote for the Wall Street Journal.
Three-quarters of a century “has dimmed the memory” of World War II “and its terrible consequences: tens of millions killed, great cities bombed to rubble, Europe and Asia stricken by hunger and poverty. Those who survived the war had to grapple with the kinds of profound questions that only arise in the aftermath of calamity, wrote Nicholson, president of the Philos Project.
“Americans, chastened by the horrors of war, turned to faith in search of truth and meaning,” Nicholson wrote. “In the late 1940s, Gallup surveys showed more than three-quarters of Americans were members of a house of worship, compared with about half today. Congress added the words ‘under God’ to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954. Some would later call this a Third Great Awakening.”
Nicholson continued: “Today the world faces another moment of cataclysm. Though less devastating than World War II, the pandemic has remade everyday life and wrecked the global economy in a way that feels apocalyptic.
“The experience is new and disorienting. Life had been deceptively easy until now. Our ancestors’ lives, by contrast, were guaranteed to be short and painful. The lucky ones survived birth. The luckier ones made it past childhood. Only in the past 200 years has humanity truly taken off. We now float through an anomalous world of air conditioning, 911 call centers, acetaminophen and pocket-size computers containing nearly the sum of human knowledge. We reduced nature to ‘the shackled form of a conquered monster,’ as Joseph Conrad once put it, and took control of our fate. God became irrelevant.”
Nicholson asked: “Who will save us now that the monster has broken free?”
Nicholson cited British historian Herbert Butterfield, who wrote: “Men may live to a great age in days of comparative quietness and peaceful progress, without ever having come to grips with the universe, without ever vividly realizing the problems and the paradoxes with which human history so often confronts us. We of the twentieth century have been particularly spoiled; for the men of the Old Testament, the ancient Greeks and all our ancestors down to the seventeenth century betray in their philosophy and their outlook a terrible awareness of the chanciness of human life, and the precarious nature of man’s existence in this risky universe.”
“Sheer grimness of suffering brings men sometimes into a profounder understanding of human destiny,” Butterfield wrote. Sometimes “it is only by a cataclysm,” he continued, “that man can make his escape from the net which he has taken so much trouble to weave around himself.”
Nicholson noted: “For societies founded on the biblical tradition, cataclysms need not mark the end. They are a call for repentance and revival. As the coronavirus pandemic subjects U.S. hospitals to a fearsome test, Americans can find solace in the same place that Butterfield did. Great struggle can produce great clarity.
“Could a rogue virus lead to a grand creative moment in America’s history? Will Americans, shaken by the reality of a risky universe, rediscover the God who proclaimed himself sovereign over every catastrophe?”