Christians & Coronavirus (March/April 2020)

silver lining

True to form, Jewish religious response to the Coronavirus has been dominated by problems relating to halakhic practice and communal structure; about God not so much if at all. With thanks to Adam Brett, I wanted to see what the variety of Christian response looked like. On my own and with help from Adam, I grabbed these first Christian plague-notes from news outlets, blogsites, and interviews. Overall and with or against, they place different emphases on the importance of Christian community and its future vis-à-vis liberal society and the general culture. But across the wide spectrum that is western Christian thought, there seems to be a more or less common propensity to look in and through suffering and lament and solidarity for silver linings of meaning and hope that are peculiar to Christianity as a soteriological form of religion. In more ways than one, Christianity cannot seem to stop with death with which there seems to be some friendliness.

I have tried to organize the overlapping data according to a few ideal types.

Right Wing Evangelical Christian Nationalism

Catnip for people who hate religion and Christianity, early on (posted March 27) there was this article here and this post here about faith and hostility to secularism, liberalism and liberal government, science and medical protocols among conservative Christian evangelicals and evangelical Trumpers, and Christian nationalists.

[[If anyone can find me a solid primary source such as a sermon or interview I will post it here.]]

Don’t Close the Church (Conservative Catholic)

Also hostile to liberalism was this post here “Keep the Churches Open” from March 17 by R.R. Reno at the super-conservative First Things. It made a lot waves. I don’t know if the messaging has cooled down. Again, this was genuine, a first very hot take. Do not close the churches; there are more important things than bare human life (echoes of Agamben here). Prominently expressed was the fear that the institution of the church will wither into irrelevance.

This was the upshot:

“When we worship, we join the Christian rebellion against the false lordship of the principalities and powers that claim to rule our lives, including sickness and death. This does not mean carelessness about our health, nor does it mean indifference to the health of others. Instead, it means that as Christians we have higher priorities. Our end is in God.”

Responding to a little firestorm, that first post was followed by this one here, “Questioning the Shutdown” (March 20), also by Reno that sharpened the theological sword against a decadent secular liberalism that cares only about temporal life:

“Earlier in the week I wrote about Christian churches, especially the Catholic Church. Cancelling services and closing churches underlines the irrelevance of institutional Christianity in our technocratic age. We are bombarded by the gospel of perpetual youth won through diet and exercise (supplemented by the ersatz immortality of social media fame). If churches are darkened in the face of sickness and death, only TV talking heads, media pundits, and public health officials will speak to our anxieties and fears. This reinforces the secular proposition: Life in this world is the only thing that matters.

[…]

And beware those who pronounce that we should save lives ‘at any cost.’ That’s a dangerous falsehood, one that leads to barbarism and slavery. There are many things more important than physical survival—love, honor, beauty, and faith. Anyone who believes that our earthly existence is worth preserving ‘at any cost’ will accept slavery. As St. Paul teaches, he is already a slave, spiritually speaking.”

(Also at First Things was this pushback here by Thomas Joseph White against Reno. It was based, on the one hand, upon natural law and the responsibility of the state to protect human life, and, on the other hand, suspending church services and alternative modes of worship. But from the look of it, like here, “Cornonavirus and the New Human Agenda” [April 17] by R.J. Snell of the Witherspoon Institute, we’ll be seeing more at First Things of this anti-humanism and theological contempt for bare life.)

Apocalypse Now Progressives (Emergent Church & Pomo/Radical Theology)

On the other side of the aisle is this piece here by radical theologian Catherine Keller. Just one-step from the conservative position staked out by Reno in its contempt for penultimate things like life and social order is the theologically wishing for apocalypse. The gambit is that only apocalypse can reveal the evils of neo-liberal capitalism and the hope of radical ecological and social change. Things get worse before they get better. Not death and dying, the final word is this statement of faith. “But what are the chances for a habitable and hospitably shared future? Close to none, if responsibility for the damage remains concealed. Which is why, even in the midst of flood, fire, or pandemic — a way, a wisdom, can get revealed. Apocalypse after all? May it be so!”

(Is the secret concord between arch religious conservatives and radical thought the fascination with first things, the playing with death and other kinds of limit experiences? Who else really has the stomach for this kind of stuff? Apparently a lot of Americans. About apocalypse as a general feature in contemporary Christian culture in the United States is this piece here at the NYT.)

Lament

Christian faith, including apocalyptic faith, is bound up with the theological genre of lament. But the lament tends inevitably to give way to some supervening revelation.

It’s there above in the blogpost when Keller writes, “The collapse of the civilization built on systemic oppression and greed takes innumerable innocents — ‘including slaves’ — down with it. Another figure of the nonhuman flies by: the eagle calling ‘in a loud voice, woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of the earth’ (Revelation 8:13). All of them. It is a cry of profound grief for all earthlings. Is it not audible now across every ‘social distance’?”

There was also this piece here by Anglican theologian N.T. Wright, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” Like Keller, Wright cites Scripture, “At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).”

But this expression of Christian lament is not entirely bleak. Even as he rejects the theodicy of reward and punishment, Wright continues with his own silver lining, “As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell. And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there’s a thought.”

(Much more raw but maybe not so representative is this bit here of bleak Easter expression at the blog Bleak Theology

Society and Culture Needs Meaning and Hope at the NYT over Easter

Two Easter Sunday op-eds by two conservative writers at the New York Times expressed a more liberal equilibrium between Christianity and culture. What Christianity brings to the culture is meaning, hope, and community

The first one here is from April 11 by Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Wehner starts with the titular question. “How Should Christians Act During A Pandemic?”   Unlike Reno and Keller, not against society and the culture, but with and for them. “If, in this pandemic, Christians care first and care most, we may find ourselves in a whole different dialogue between the church and our culture than what has been primarily a very toxic dialogue,” Pastor Dudley said. “Jesus, Christians and the church may have a better reputation if we rush into care with courage and sacrificial love.”

Wehner’s op-ed is also marked by the spirit of lament but also one of close fellowship with death. What Christianity offers are lessons about darkness and salvation, suffering and lament with hope. “For a world in the grips of a pandemic, this is a time of tears. For Christians it is as well. But it doesn’t end there. The anguish of Good Friday gives way to the glory of Easter Sunday. The hope of what awaits transforms the experience of waiting. But waiting isn’t always easy. We live in a broken world, and there are moments when darkness feels like our closest friend.”

Also from April 11 at the NYT is this op-ed here by conservative columnist Ross Douthat. It’s title “The Pandemic and the Will of God” is followed by the subtitle, “The purpose of suffering may be mysterious, but the search for meaning is obligatory.”

As per Douthat,

“The personal and specific element is crucial here, because the Christian tradition offers not one but many different explanations for how suffering fits into a providential plan. In some cases — the miser growing old alone, the dictator consumed by paranoia — the wicked may suffer as a kind of fitting, self-created punishment for their sins. But then in other cases suffering may be a gift to the righteous, given because their goodness means that they can bear more of its hard medicine, its refining fire. (There is a longstanding Christian tradition that finds it more theologically perplexing when good things happen to good people than when bad things do.)

Then in still other cases, suffering is bound to some purpose beyond the self. Before Jesus heals a blind man, the disciples wonder whose sin made him blind, and their master’s answer is stark: ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’ There is no retreat to mystery here; the man was born blind just so that the Messiah could heal him.”

Incarnation & Liturgical Questions (Orthodox)

The Greek Orthodox community is struggling with matters of more practical concern re: the performance of rites at a time of social distancing. Not unlike observant Jewish responses around halakhic practice, these show a strong metaphysical bent having to do with incarnational theology. An example is here.

Liberal Christianity (Liberal Protestant)

From the flagship journal/website Christian Century comes here and here this good common pastoral sense,  congregation-based in its basic orientation. Both are by Eileen R. Campbell-Reed, who teaches pastoral theology at Union Theological Seminary. The essential pastoral virtue is community building, humility, and listening. The theology is warm and intentionally simple.

Suffering & Church & Prayer & Saintliness (Mainline/Liberal Catholic)

Also pastoral, Father James Martin asks here in the NYT the not uncommon religious question, “Where Is God in a Pandemic?” (March 22). Suffering is an unanswerable mystery. What Martin does not do is go on to justify “the ways of God to man” in the next breath. Rejecting the theodicy that suffering is a test of the faithful and punishment of the wicked, Martin looks to the example of Jesus who in his humanity healed the sick. In an ordinary piece of Church art, he see in Jesus a “pattern of life” moved by pity for the sick and suffering.

With a shout out to biblical historians, Martin looks back on the life of the historical Jesus, explaining, “Christians believe that Jesus is fully divine and fully human. Yet we sometimes overlook the second part. Jesus of Nazareth was born into a world of illness. In her book ‘Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit,’ about daily life in first-century Galilee, Jodi Magness, a scholar of early Judaism, calls the milieu in which Jesus lived “filthy, malodorous and unhealthy.” John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, scholars of the historical background of Jesus, sum up these conditions in a sobering sentence in “Excavating Jesus”: “A case of the flu, a bad cold, or an abscessed tooth could kill.” This was Jesus’s world.”

Some of you might find the Pope’s Easter homily (April 2020) of interest here, touching and simple words of hope and life against death and despair:

“After the Sabbath” (Mt 28:1), the women went to the tomb.  This is how the Gospel of this holy Vigil began: with the Sabbath.  It is the day of the Easter Triduum that we tend to neglect as we eagerly await the passage from Friday’s cross to Easter Sunday’s Alleluia.  This year however, we are experiencing, more than ever, the great silence of Holy Saturday.  We can imagine ourselves in the position of the women on that day.  They, like us, had before their eyes the drama of suffering, of an unexpected tragedy that happened all too suddenly.  They had seen death and it weighed on their hearts.  Pain was mixed with fear: would they suffer the same fate as the Master?  Then too there was fear about the future and all that would need to be rebuilt.  A painful memory, a hope cut short.  For them, as for us, it was the darkest hour. Yet in this situation the women did not allow themselves to be paralyzed.  They did not give in to the gloom of sorrow and regret, they did not morosely close in on themselves, or flee from reality.  They were doing something simple yet extraordinary: preparing at home the spices to anoint the body of Jesus.”

Less moving and allusive, but perhaps more interesting is the thinking reflected in this papal interview here at Commonweal.

It is a broad ranging conversation including critical thoughts about political economy and the poor and the culture of life versus the popular culture of consumerism and death.

Of more interest to me here for this blog post are these thoughts about the Church as an institution and the renewal of the Church out of crisis. The questioner asks about “a more missionary, more creative, less attached to institutions? Are we seeing a new kind of “home church”

Pope Francis responds:

“Less attached to institutions? I’d say less attached to certain ways of thinking. Because the church is institution. The temptation is to dream of a deinstitutionalized church, a gnostic church without institutions, or one that is subject to fixed institutions, which would be a Pelagian church. The one who makes the church is the Holy Spirit, who is neither gnostic nor Pelagian. It is the Holy Spirit who institutionalizes the church, in an alternative, complementary way, because the Holy Spirit provokes disorder through the charisms, but then out of that disorder creates harmony.

A church that is free is not an anarchic church, because freedom is God’s gift. An institutional church means a church institutionalized by the Holy Spirit.

A tension between disorder and harmony: this is the church that must come out of the crisis. We have to learn to live in a church that exists in the tension between harmony and disorder provoked by the Holy Spirit. If you ask me which book of theology can best help you understand this, it would be the Acts of the Apostles. There you will see how the Holy Spirit deinstitutionalizes what is no longer of use, and institutionalizes the future of the church. That is the church that needs to come out of the crisis.”

Spiritual Life (Monastic)

Lastly is this turn in Christian responses to the quiet virtues of prayer and monastic life, turning inward at a time of social distancing. I’m sure there is a lot more like this out there.

This piece by professor of historical theology Dale Coulter “Covid-19 and the Spiritual Life” here at First Things (April 14) was very interesting reflecting back on the Black Death and interior religion and mysticism in monastic and domestic settings.

“The most intense Germanic traditions of the late Middle Ages saw this path as involving radical detachment, an emptying of created things to make room for divine things. In England, the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing referred to the turn to the interior as moving through a cloud of forgetfulness in which the person lost sight of the goods of creation. The vicissitudes of temporal existence destabilize the soul both because nothing temporary can provide a permanent foundation and because the constant changes of the impermanent constantly change the person.

Accompanying this turn to the interior life was a spiritual program that moved from meditation on the self to meditation on Christ and finally to meditation on the God revealed in Christ. The final movement into God was a contemplative elevation, an ecstatic uplift that grace alone could bring about.”

Also here on the monastic life, but here at the liberal Christian Century is this piece by Lucila Crena “The pandemic has made us unintentional monastics” (April 14). As per the norm, these thoughts conclude with words of grace about a redeeming God.

ENDNOTE

That much of what I have found here about Christianity and Coronavirus at this still very early date comes from the New York Times reflects my own propensity as a liberal reader, and as a Jewish reader. What I find interesting about those examples in particular is how they reflect the appearance of Christian religion in a liberal mainstream media outlet. They attempt to communicate stories about Christian theology and culture to a broader reading public. Marking a new watershed in contemporary Christianity is maybe the recognition that the culture is no longer the Church.

Of more general and also scholarly interest is the vast range and quality of Christian response as well as a commonality of theme in relation to a kind of theodicy. On a personal note, what I find utterly alien is not the emphasis on human community, sympathy, and solidarity but the theological performance of transformation, the resolve and resolution on the part of Christians to ascribe purpose and meaning in the binding of God to simple sickness and suffering.

What I have found so far has been largely although not entirely dominated by white men. I will be happy to update this post with more gleanings, but will try to keep them as close as possible to March and April 2020, being close to the outbreak of the virus here in the United States as examples of first Christian responses to the Coronavirus.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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