American Penitence in Our Time of Plague

Lent—the high penitential season of the Christian liturgical calendar—ends this week. These final days that precede Easter are meant to be a time of reflection on our individual and collective moral inadequacies. These inadequacies are what underscore our need for a savior.

Penitence is a recognition that we can’t save ourselves: not through knowledge, or moral effort, or reason, or politics, or any other way. Holy Week is also a time for Christians to contemplate the unthinkable suffering that Jesus Christ underwent to save all sinners in an act of love on the cross.

The animating idea of Christian penitence—that the self is fundamentally flawed and inadequate—doesn’t sit well in the context of 21st-century American secularism. The dominant idea right now is that only through relentless self-affirmation and indulgence of personal desire can a person become self-actualized. In effect, the mainstream secular world calls each of us to a deification of the self: You Do You!

The marginalization of Christian religious practice in American life largely is due to the church’s explicit rejection of this self-deification.

For many of the faithful, Lent 2020 will endure in spiritual memory. During the COVID-19 pandemic, being distanced from friends and family approximates a kind of monasticism that allows for a richer, more profound contemplation of metaphysical questions.

Further, the hiatus from work and sports—two traditional spheres of individual glory and aspiration—remind us that our dignity can’t derive only from the successes of our daily striving. In short, quarantine and social distancing provide the ideal conditions for a prayerful, reflective Lenten season.

In the context of the spreading illness, the Pew Research Center published some polling data on how Americans say the virus has changed their lives. There is a lot of interesting information there, but Pew’s data on prayer was especially compelling: 55 percent of Americans polled say they have prayed regarding the virus.

In and of itself, this doesn’t mean much. But digging deeper reveals a curious phenomenon. Of people who report that they “seldom or never” pray, 15 percent report having prayed about the virus. Of those who identify as “unaffiliated,” 24 percent report the same. Of those who identify no religious identity “in particular” (a group often called the “nones,” who make up about 20 percent of the nation), a whopping 36 percent say they have prayed for a slow in the transmission of the virus. This figure is particularly interesting, given that about one-third of young Americans, a group that is more apathetic toward religion than any other in American history, identify themselves as having no particular religious faith. Finally, of those who are atheist or agnostic, 6 percent say they have prayed about the virus.

Many Christians may be tempted to scoff at these numbers; many have accumulated resentments of these groups as a result of the way that the faith is mocked or disparaged on late-night television, in elite magazines and newspapers, and via other secular media forums. But faithful people should rejoice at these numbers. For a person who “seldom or never” prays to be spiritually moved to pray can only be recognized as one of the few blessings we can glean from this crisis. The prayers these people are uttering likely are not the sort voiced by well-practiced Christians: they are more likely a tentative, cautious groping toward the divine.

What we’re seeing are expressions of hope—a hope that there is a God, a hope that a personal relationship with Him is possible, a hope that God hears us. As scripture tells us, God won’t break a bruised reed, nor will he extinguish a weak flame in the dark. Any Christians who are secretly or openly deriding the atheist-at-prayer should stop—encouragement should be the order of the day.

And yet, it is worth asking the newly prayerful (our atheist and agnostic friends and family, the nones, the unaffiliated): to what or to whom were you praying? And if this entity hears your prayers, and might be responsive to requests for intervention, what is the nature of your relationship to this personal God when you aren’t facing a crisis? Is the purpose of this God merely to assuage your fear, to abbreviate your suffering, to bolster your confidence? And if the purpose of this God isn’t simply to arrange your various gratifications, then what is it?

Of course, the time for these questions is not now. They must wait until their prayers are answered. But when that time comes, these questions must be posed in the right spirit—they must be expressions of genuine curiosity and not an implicit charge of hypocrisy or inauthenticity. When the time comes, broaching these considerations in bad faith will only validate whatever negative stereotypes of Christians already exist in our culture.

For now, it is a time to give thanks. I thank my atheist and agnostic friends for praying. I’m confident our prayers—yours and mine—will be answered.

And, as Sunday approaches, I invite you to come and celebrate Easter with us (even if only this once): the festival when we celebrate Jesus’s victory over death. The man who could heal the sick with a simple touch or a mere word loved us so much that he took the consequences of our sin on himself so that we might be free: free from our sins, free from vanity, free from fear, and free from our vainglorious confidence in our self-sufficiency.

About Adam Ellwanger

Adam Ellwanger is an associate professor of English at the University of Houston – Downtown where he directs the M.A. program in rhetoric and composition. His new book, Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, will be released from Penn State University Press in 2020. You can follow him on Twitter at @DoctorEllwanger

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