What's the Real Problem at the Core of the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.
—Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics

This passage from Theodor Adorno is something I treasure because it induces a contemplative pondering. Objects do leave behind something of their being that cannot be easily conceptualized. Let us take as our example the SARS CoV-2 virus. The virus is made up of other objects—the nucleocapsid (N) protein, the stalk spine (S) protein, and the RNA.[1] Or we may think of the virus, not as a single entity made up of N and S proteins and RNA, but as the activity of multiple viruses together acting in some, unbeknownst-to-us, evolutionary process. Our units of conceptual analysis—the “objects”—matter, but even if we know at what level our unit of analysis confronts the “objects,” we also find that the reality of the thing does not fit easily to our concepts. And so, “Objects do not go into their concepts without leaving a remainder.”

The same holds not just for objects like viruses, but for any problems facing the world, which our communities, our governments, and our universities are supposedly designed to address. Yet, the realities of our problems do not organize themselves according to public health strategies, or governmental agencies, or university departmental structures. Reality exceeds our thinking of it, and, making it worse, is the way our thinking itself is structured to our institutional functioning and not the realities of our problems.

It is hard to think the whole, and it seems to me that under the current organization of our social institutions there is no place—no social institution—capable of imagining the whole. That office once belonged to, of all institutions, the science of theology.

Finding the Real Problem

So, we are searching for real solutions to the very real problem of COVID-19—which is a what?[2] A viral mutation and evolutionary process? We have designated the virus causing COVID-19 as SARS CoV-2. In humans, the virus initiates an overwhelming inflammatory response. In this century, there have been three coronaviruses to cause a serious inflammatory response. The other two, SARS CoV and MERS CoV, were more deadly than SARS CoV-2 and it is fortunate that more humans recover from SARS CoV-2 than recovered from the other two.

The CoVs—their number are legion—are symbiotic with many mammalian species, permitting successful viral replication (and thus more chances of mutation) and causing varying levels of response in the host animal, from no illness to severe illness to death.[3] Thus, perhaps the “real” problem is not the virus, but the human inflammatory response.

An animal host might have no inflammatory response to the virus, which is the best outcome for the virus. The result will be that the host animal does not die, but may languish in the long term, and may or may not be cut short. The animal may have a significant inflammatory response to the virus, and may in fact kill the virus; the host animal will suffer temporarily, but have better long-term prospects for flourishing. Or, the host may mount an inflammatory response that cascades out of control, killing the host as well as the virus.

If there is one thing that the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has taught us, it is that our model for thinking about infection prior to HIV was wrong. We thought that viruses and bacteria attacked the body. Turns out the human inflammatory response is often what kills a person actually. The inflammatory response is made up of opposing biological and biochemical processes that ramp up and dampen at the same time.

The perfect balance between escalation and de-escalation ideally results in survival of the host and in the death of the cells infected with the virus. Too far in the direction of escalation and the cascade spirals out of control, the body destroying itself as it “attacks” the cells containing the virus. Too far the other direction, and a chronic carrier state begins, which means energy expenditure goes to the replication of the virus, rather than to the flourishing of the animal.

And, evolutionarily speaking, if the virus and host cohabitate long enough, say hundreds and hundreds of years, then the host—in this case the human—may change such that flourishing now means something different than it once did. Something like this cohabitation is believed to have happened at the dawn of eukaryotic cells. Reality itself, which our concepts purport to capture, changes.

Now we humans do not like to think of ourselves as the material upon which evolution rides, so rather than imagining the problem as one of inflammatory responses to evolutionary pressures of viral replication, perhaps we can see the “real” problem as one of prevention. Perhaps we can distance ourselves from each other such that we do not spread the virus? But then we know that this response to the problem will be impossible to achieve; we are too interdependent. So, we imagine that we will just have to distance ourselves from each other long enough for herd immunity to be achieved, a “natural” immunity. Or, perhaps we just need our best technoscientific minds to work out a new vaccine such that we can create an “artificial” immunity, a technologically mediated herd immunity.

Short of immunity, and if we cannot muster the general will to social distance, then perhaps the real problem is the problem of poor government? Bad government led to slow responses to close borders. Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis is a real problem, which is, at some level, true, of course. But confusingly enough, Democrats, who would not normally be given to closing borders on account that we are all globalists now, suggest that failing to close borders, and, indeed, failing to create borders around individual domiciles within a city or a given locale, is the real problem.

But what about the next viral mutation? What can be done to prevent it? Perhaps the real “root cause” is the wet markets in China, which seems to be the source of SARS CoV-2.[4] That means that the real problem is Chinese Communism, the policies of which in the Great Leap Forward resulted in significant poverty amongst peasants.[5] Bad ideology and bad government gave rise to unregulated wet markets all over China to feed starving populations created by bad government.

Or, maybe we ignorantly and wrongly imagine that, if the Chinese peasants could have engaged in a free market, they might have developed into modern technological societies that create better hygiene and technological solutions for food storage (refrigeration)? They thus obviate the need of wet markets. Never mind that wet markets are really just the Chinese version of Western farmer’s markets, aimed at keeping food local and close to its lively source.[6]

Or, perhaps the “real” problem is globalization itself, or global capitalism, or global technology, or the global technocapitalist political economy. After all, it seems that the SARS CoV-2 has found a way to exploit the economic work of human hands permitting its replication and its participation in a larger evolutionary process.[7] Its own mutation is made possible by the metastasis of the global technocapitalist political economy. SARS CoV-2 is, in this sense, socially-constructed.

So, it seems that each department of our sciences, whether virological science, or medical science, or public health science, or social science, or political science gives us different concepts with which to take up with the “real” problem. Each department of knowledge gives us a different ways to ponder the “objects” of our interest. Each gives us knowledge of a set of facts, and within each science we can come to some understanding of what is going on. Yet, it is impossible that the “objects” of our concepts are exhausted by the concepts. It even seems to overwhelm the moral imperative to alleviate human suffering.

There is no social location from which an understanding of the whole can emerge, let alone a social location from which wisdom can emerge. How shall we avoid nihilism? Shall we look to the hills, from whence shall come our salvation?

Imagining Holistically, Imagining Theologically

To avoid nihilism, we must imagine the whole, even beyond the limits of our imaginings. It is hard to hope past the seeming futility of our imaginations. Yet, we still long for a master science and a meta-narrative, hoping that some department of our thinking will find a way to take up with the problem at hand. Something within the human hopes against hope. In this sense, then, we long for a queen of all knowledges—that is to say, a queen of all sciences—where it might be possible to imagine holistically.

This queen of the sciences would not itself gather facts about objects; that is a task for other disciplines. Nor would it contribute to the understanding of one department’s facts. However, it would be in a position to contribute imaginatively to the understanding of the whole, and it thus might be in a position to keep each department of our learning “from closing in on itself and proceeding as if the truths it discovers were incommensurable with the truths discovered by other disciplines.”[8]

It is here then that theology is most needed. The very discipline that universities (even religious ones) and governments despise is perhaps the best hope.[9] For it is theology that attempts to imagine the whole, however fallible those imaginings may be. Theology attempts to bring together all knowledges created by departments (compartments) of human thinking.

And theology knows that its thinking is an act of imagination, and that it imagines beyond the limits of imagination, and that these acts themselves are limited. Thus, the queen of the sciences must even ponder the limits and frailties of imagination, and the limits of the human herself—ego, confusion, arrogance, pride, despair, in short, sin—as she imagines the whole, beyond the limits of imagination.

The theologian must even imagine where the human, with all its limitations, fits into the whole, so she can achieve an appropriate and measured response to real problems. She understands that all her imaginings fall short of the reality of which she is a part, a reality over which she has no control, and yet a reality with which she participates. The theologian knows that her “object” of study is no object that can be studied, but is itself a “mystery that transcends all other objects of study.”[10] This mystery that transcends all objects, and concepts, then is the inspiration for her hope of imagining the whole.

Acts of imagination seem best to happen in moments of contemplation, where one imagines the whole and one’s place in it. The theologian was once the one who pondered, and imagined, and prayed; the one who prays is the true theologian, as Evagrius Ponticus noted. It is in this act of imagination that one finds the source, not of facts or of understanding, but of wisdom.

What seems clear is that the world’s religions are the only social location practiced enough at imagining the whole to be of any use to us, for wisdom. Then, might it not be that only theology—the thing despised by Western cultures—is the best source for hope and for an imagined future beyond the limits of all our sciences?

Theological Imagination, Theological Imaginary

I do not claim special insight into COVID. But I do have a few habits of thinking that my education cultivated, habits that I pass onto my students too. For example, SARS CoV-2 can be thought outside of its effects on the human animal, and thought in terms of an evolutionary process. We have been habituated into imagining evolution along the lines of a tree, with a single original root growing out into branching limbs of species. That was the habit cultivated by Darwinian evolution, a habit of thinking challenged by Guatarri and Deleuze long ago. Viruses seem to challenge that imagined evolutionary tree, because they operate more along the lines of rhizomes, interlocking species development and crossing species boundaries. While the process of crossing of species boundaries enabled by viruses seems to be random and while the process seems to arrive at dead ends more often than not, drawing on a rhizomatic imaginary puts our way of thinking about individual species of natural kinds into question.

If, as we are taught in medicine, we imagine the human immune system as a mere mechanism to fend off unruly bugs that might disrupt human thriving, we miss the possibility of imagining ourselves as participating in a larger world teeming with life and upon which a person depends to thrive. That was the habit of thinking cultivated by my education 30 years ago when I entered medical school. There is even evidence that the bacteria growing in the human gut might contribute to our sense of well-being. It is even possible for some of our feelings of depression might have something to do with a disruption of the microbiome.

If we imagine the world as interconnected through technology, the infrastructure of which is capitalist political economy, we are incapable of such different forms of interconnection. Or, we are incapable of imagining any other form of political economy than capitalism or its inverted image communism. We would do well to remember that theologian Jacques Ellul pointed out a half-century ago, that Marx himself never critiqued technological innovation only the distribution of the capital that it created.

We, at least in the United States, seem incapable of thinking outside the limits of our habits of political economy. When we find that viroid life now rides on the infrastructure created by technocapitalist political economy, we have no resources to imagine it otherwise. We cannot seem to get outside it; we have only cultivated one imaginary.

Imaginations are cultivated. Like any dimension of human life, the imagination is informed by habits. In many ways, the “hard” sciences are in a better position of cultivating alternative imaginations, because when data are presented that challenge the hypotheses (and sometimes the theories themselves), they are trained to repeat the experiment, to carefully look at the methods they used, and to self-critically ask if they strictly followed the protocol. And if they did, then they permit their imaginations to run wild until they happen upon an idea that makes sense of their data outside the restrictive hypothesis (or theory).

But where do we go to imagine the whole. I have argued that it is only theology that can imagine the whole. But where are theological imaginations cultivated? The place where a theological imagination is cultivated is in the habits of liturgy. One is placed in the midst of practices—liturgical rubrics, liturgical technics, if you will—that ask one to throw one’s imagination outside the whole of being and to encounter the author of all beings. Liturgy then is the cultivation of habits of imagining in a community assembled from people we do not usually congregate with at work or at home in the suburbs. What might human political economy look like from this outside of this theological imaginary? What might human life look like? What might life look like?

Certainly, it is true that, by virtue of the sciences, which are not devoted to a theological imagination, we discovered the evolutionary process of viroid life and our own interdependency upon other beings in the microbiome. Of course, there is a place for all departments of human learning.

The theological imaginary cultivated by the liturgy is one that puts front and center, and repeatedly so, that the human is not the master and possessor of nature, not even of its own nature. It also recognizes that COVID-19 threatens our lives in its unknowing participation in an evolutionary process. Liturgy cultivates the habit of seeing our place in the whole.

And while seeing ourselves as a bit part in a whole over which we do not have control might lead to depression and nihilism, and leave us paralyzed to act, the liturgy cultivates a habit of hope. It cultivates a habit of hope in the faithfulness of the author of all beings. Technocapitalist political economy cannot be our hope. But we might take up with the reality of our place in the whole, and find a useful tool that helps us to act in hope, while realizing that our ultimate hope is elsewhere.

If the theologian is the one who prays, then prayer, liturgy is the place that cultivates the possibility of imagining the whole. And it is the place where we cultivate hope in the face of a virus that both rides on the technocapitalist political economy and threatens it at the same time. Are we in the habit of imagining alternatives?

EDITORIAL NOTE: An earlier version of this essay appeared in Political Theology Netowork as "Imagining the (Theological) Whole."

[1] See Coronaviridae Study Group of the International Committee on Taxomony of Viruses, “The Species Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome‐Related Coronovirus: Classifying 2019‐NCoV and Naming it SARS‐CoV‐2” Nature Microbiology 2020; 5: 536‐544. See also Jiabao Xu, Shizhe Zhao, Tiesahn Teng, et al. “Systematic Comparison of Two Animal‐to‐Human Transmitted Human Coronaviruses: SARS‐CoV‐2 and SARS‐CoV” Viruses 2020; 12 244: https://doi.org/10.3390/v12020244.

[2] See Jeffrey P. Bishop and Martin J. Fitzgerald, “Norming COVID-19: The Urgency of a Nonhumanist HolismHeythrop Journal.

[3] Coronoviridae, op. cit.

[4] See Therese Shaheen, “The Chinese Wild‐Animal Industry and wet markets must go” National Review, March 19.2020. Accessed March 25, 2020. See also Sam Ellis, “Why new diseases keep appearing in China: Why COVID‐19 was bound to happen” Vox, March 6, 2020. See also, Sam Ellis’s Vox Atlas piece, “How wildlife trade is linked to coronavirus”, March 6, 2020. Accessed March 27, 2020. See also Julia Belluz, “Did China downplay the coronavirus outbreak early on?” Vox January 27, 2020. Accessed Mach 31, 2020.

[5] See Bishop and Fitzgerald, op. cit.

[6] Shuru Zhong, Mike Crang, Guojun Zeng, “Constructing freshness: the vitality of wet markets in urban China,” Agriculture and Human Values, 2020; 37:175‐185, 177. The paper was accepted in September 2019, and based on fieldwork done from May 2016‐July 2017 and in part of 2018.

[7] Bishop and Fitzgerald, op. cit.

[8] John C. Cavidini, “Why Study God? The Role of Theology at a Catholic University,” Commonweal, September 30, 2013.

[9] After all, we must keep reminding our religious universities about the central importance of theology. See Cavadini, op. cit.

[10] See Cavadini, op. cit.

Featured Image: Jacopo de Barbari, Portrait of Luca Pacioli, 1445; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jeffrey P. Bishop

Jeffrey P. Bishop is Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University and holds the Tenet Endowed Chair in Health Care Ethics  He is the author of The Anticipatory Corpse and is the co-author of the Expanded Reason Award winning Biopolitics After Neuroscience.

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