The US Energy Department (USED) has concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic origin was most likely a laboratory leak.
According to the Wall Street Journal, this conclusion “is the result of new intelligence and is significant because the agency has considerable scientific expertise and oversees a network of US national laboratories, some of which conduct advanced biological research.” However, people who have read the classified report add that the USED made its judgment with “low confidence” (which means that it is based on highly incomplete evidence).
While the USED now joins the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in saying the virus likely spread via a mishap at a Chinese laboratory, four other agencies and a national intelligence panel still believe it was likely the result of a natural transmission. Two other agencies are undecided, and White House national security spokesman John Kirby said yesterday that there has not been a definitive conclusion and consensus in the US government on the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here’s my question: Why don’t we know for sure? In eleven days, the COVID-19 pandemic will officially reach its third anniversary. Why is this debate still raging?
If the COVID-19 pandemic origin was in fact at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan, China, as many now suspect, surely Chinese officials know that this is so. Yet they continue to assert that the pandemic did not originate at the lab; in recent months they have even claimed that the pandemic did not begin in China at all.
If this is true, why do the USED and FBI not believe them?
These questions point to cultural realities that go beyond the pandemic and relate directly to the intersection of our faith with our world today.
“The American experiment is ultimately in jeopardy”
In his latest New York Times article, David French reflects on a speech delivered by President Jimmy Carter on July 15, 1979. The president’s purpose was to respond to the political assassinations, economic challenges, and campus unrest of the day along with America’s defeat in Vietnam and the continuing stigma of Watergate. Due to his description of our nation’s ills, his address has come to be known as the “malaise” speech, though that word nowhere appears in it.
According to French, it was “the most important and memorable address of his life.”
Mr. Carter called on Americans to look in the mirror: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns.”
French describes the president’s “central insight”: “Even if the country’s political branches could deliver peace and prosperity, they could not deliver community and belonging. Our nation depends on pre-political commitments to each other, and in the absence of those pre-political commitments, the American experiment is ultimately in jeopardy.”
“Lives which have no confidence or purpose”
The Chinese political system is built on Marxist ideology that makes the individual the servant of the state. In this view, if the state prospers, individuals will ultimately prosper as a result. But Chinese leaders self-servingly assert that for the state to prosper, its autocratic government must remain in power and must control every dimension of the state.
As a result, lying about a COVID-19 lab leak in Wuhan, especially to the Western world it regards as the greatest threat to its global dominance, would be expected and predictable.
By contrast, the US was founded on the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal” and that our leaders serve to represent those who freely elect them. In our system, if government officials lied about a lab leak that created a global pandemic, this would be an immoral and likely criminal act worthy of legal and political response.
But before we congratulate ourselves on the moral superiority of our system over that of Communist China, let’s return to President Carter’s diagnosis of our cultural health forty-four years ago. In his speech, Mr. Carter noted: “Consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”
Our first president would have agreed. George Washington observed: “Human happiness and moral duty are inseparably connected.” Self-governance depends on our ability to govern ourselves. And the existential materialism that has replaced consensual morality at the heart of our capitalistic culture cannot sustain our democracy, much less our souls.
“My unmoved mansion of rest”
This is why an intimate, daily experience with the living Lord Jesus is so vital, not just for our personal lives but for our collective flourishing. No other source can offer us the transforming grace that empowers us to forgive ourselves and each other for our failings and to serve each other out of love for our Lord and our neighbor.
Jesus taught us: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). The psalmist similarly called us to “abide in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1) by making the Lord our “dwelling place” (v. 9).
Charles Spurgeon responded to the psalmist’s invitation: “If [God] loved me yesterday, he loves me today. My unmoved mansion of rest is my blessed Lord. Let prospects be blighted; let hopes be blasted; let joy be withered; let mildews destroy everything; I have lost nothing of what I have in God.”
He added: “I am a pilgrim in the world, but at home in my God.”
If you were to be more “at home” with your God today than yesterday, what would you need to change?