On Vaccines & Secular Salvation Stories

(Photo / iStock)

I’m always interested in how even the most nonreligious people inevitably order their lives around pseudo-religious stories.

As vaccines become available, I can’t help but notice the hyper-religious fervor emerging around their existence. 

For the benefit of both my nonreligious and Christian friends, I want to highlight the odd religiosity of this very secular moment. I’ll outline the salvation story according to the historic Christian categories of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. Buckle up. 

Creation – this is our world before Covid. It was a world where we could pursue our dreams of self-realization uninhibited. We could travel, dine, and socialize freely. We could embrace our romantic notion that the purpose of life is to have the widest possible variety of experiences, select those experiences which are most satisfying, hit repeat, and continue on in existential bliss. 

Fall – the invasion of Covid into our world. The shuttering of our lives and our options. The removal of our freedom. The inability to pursue the fullness of our inner selves. The uncomfortable reminder that illness and death could be just around the corner at any time. 

Redemption – this is the advent of the vaccine, the glimpse of certain hope on the horizon. Science, our Great God, has brought us salvation through the vaccine. Instead of a crucifix, we have a needle. Masks are the symbol of our obedience, the outward sign of our inward submission. Scientists serve as priests; Dr. Fauci our Pope. Our baptism is the moment we’re able to get the vaccine ourselves, and we post a selfie for public proclamation and affirmation. Like Israel in the wilderness, we’re on our way to the promised land, but we’re not there yet. Like the church, we live in the now-but-not-yet. The hope is guaranteed, but fulfillment is yet to come. Stay the path. Don’t grow weary. Obedience is crucial, lest you be judged. The end is near.

Restoration – this is the world when vaccines are widely available and herd immunity is achieved. It’s a world where we can return to our higher purposes of self-realization and sensual indulgence. Freedom is restored. Travel and leisure are restored.  And not only that, but one further: this world is even more glorious than the original creation, for through the vaccine campaign we proved our collective potential. We fought the powers of darkness with the tools of our intelligence and cooperation, and we emerged victorious. 

What is our response to this sketch? How do we process such an obvious synthesis of religious and secular terms? 

For my nonreligious friends, I’d invite you to two realizations. First, become aware of the shape of your hope. Realize that in this moment, you are living for a bigger story; a global one, even. Consider the ways this story so closely reflects the historic Christian arc. Be open to the possibility that this eagerness to merge yourself to a larger story may point to a very real larger story you are part of, but are thus far ignoring or denying.  Ask yourself the question: why am I starving for some kind of salvation story? 

Second, realize that this salvation story is woefully inadequate and fundamentally false. A vaccine is not going to save the world. It may solve some problems, but others endure. You can receive your second dose one day, and be diagnosed with terminal cancer the next. Vaccination also won’t fulfill you. You can return to your leisurely pursuits, but even that long-awaited European vacation, once accomplished, will still leave you more empty than you think. That career goal, once accomplished, will only make you more desirous of the next promotion. If you think your soul will be satisfied in a post-vaccine world, you are forgetting that your soul wasn’t satisfied in a pre-vaccine world. Vaccines have the potential to be a great gift to our society, but they do not fulfill our ultimate longings. 

For my Christian friends, I’d invite you to reflect upon which story is primary in your life and thinking right now: the Christian story, or the vaccination story. One way to define Christian faith is as a central commitment around which we order every aspect of our lives. The danger of the covid/vaccine story, then, is that it is a significant ordering principle. Do the current patterns of your days stem primarily from your commitment to Christ, or are your patterns being set by Covid? I’m not suggesting that a Christian response to covid is to hit the local bar with one hundred of your friends—it could be that out of your commitment to Christ, you carefully follow the guidelines implemented in your area. But which is primary?  And as you look to the future, are you more excited to live in a post-vaccine world, or to live in a world in which Christ sets all things right? Another diagnostic question you can ask yourself is: how disappointed would you be if something in the vaccine plan goes awry? If your response is, “completely crushed”, then you may be lending too much hope to a good gift from God, rather than to the God who gives it. 

There is a better story than salvation by vaccination. I am hoping, along with many of you, that this vaccine effort truly does change the context in which we currently live. But we also must be aware that there are other and bigger stories still happening. I hope you’ll utilize this global yearning for deliverance as an opportunity to see the deeper story, of which vaccination is only an echo. 

(Disclaimer: this post says nothing about the safety or efficacy of Covid vaccines; rather, it invites us to reflect on how the advent of these vaccines affects our minds and lives.)

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