The COVID-19 pandemic has raised a number of urgent questions. The most recent, grabbing newspaper headlines, asks what sort of tradeoff we should be making between our health and our economic well-being. When does the cure become worse than the disease?
The Hebrew scriptures millennia ago offered an insight that has proven timeless: “The human does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3). This is not to say that humans can live without bread. Rather, it’s to insist that our lives consist of more than bread — more than the material things of life.
As Miroslav Volf has argued in his book Flourishing:Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World, all of the world’s great religious traditions, in one form or another, affirm this insight. Jesus is said to have quoted it verbatim when tempted by Satan to use divine power to relieve his own hunger. Confucius counsels: “Virtue is more essential to the people than water and fire” (Analects 15:35). And the Buddha once described the material abundance of his father’s palace as a “burning house” from which he needed to escape.
In light of this ancient wisdom, the argument about medical versus economic well-being is really an argument about which type of bread, provided for which people, is more essential. This is almost certainly a false choice; prosperity will slip through our fingers if we don’t attend to our health and, in our interconnected world, a healthy body is impossible in the context of economic collapse. That’s just the sort of thing our flourishing is; it’s a integrated whole. And that whole is important — including the bread. To say that we do not live by bread alone is not to say that we can or should live without “bread”— without health, without healthcare, N95 masks, respirators, or the rest—but to make the point that human beings need more than material goods to live a flourishing life. This demands we ask ourselves a question:
What more than bread constitutes our lives?
The Hebrew scripture goes on to give an answer: we live by “every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Each of the world’s religious and philosophical traditions proposes an importantly different set of answers rooted, alternatively: in insight into the nature of reality, in peace with God and God’s creation, in submission to God, in the happiness of all without preference for oneself, in the safely secured virtueof the sage, in the Way.
In the midst of a pandemic, this question is present in new and pressing ways. We can update it for this moment: What more than bodily health and economic security constitutes our lives? What more than toilet paper, Clorox wipes, milk, and Netflix queues makes our lives worthy of our humanity?
This crisis can be a revelatory moment of rupture for us if we have ears to hear.
What is this more in our lives? Is it art? Is it nature? Is it community? Is it something about the interconnectedness of our flourishing — that my well-being depends on your actions and your well-being on mine? Is it justice? Is it something about the fact that, even as we see the depth of our interconnectedness, we also see plainly the different costs each is asked to pay: white collar workers who more and less seamlessly shift their work to home; medical workers and first responders putting themselves in harm’s way; blue collar workers laid off or continuing to work at risk to themselves and their loved ones; “gig economy” workers making “shelter-in-place” possible by shuttling groceries and medications (and their latest Amazon whims) to others’ doorsteps? Is it faith?
What more constitutes our lives? Even as we do our very best (as we must!) to secure the bread our world needs — the health and well-being of our neighbors — we are confronted with an opportunity, a responsibility to ask ourselves this ancient question anew.