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Coronavirus spread puts religion in a tight spot

Saturday April 04 2020
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PCEA Elburgon, in Nakuru County, remains closed on March 29, 2020 following a government directive suspending all social gatherings, as the country deals with the Covid-19 pandemic. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

By SAHAYA SELVAM

The coronavirus disease 2019 (Covid-19) is due to change the current world order.

Besides the economic implications, many social agents and institutions are adversely affected by this viral phenomenon.

The global extent of the disruptions in educational institutions, religious practices, the entertainment industry, including the media, have been totally unprecedented.

The lack of predictability around this virus aggravates anxiety eliciting extreme measures, and some panic too.

In any case, it has emerged that the defeat of Covid-19 requires concerted efforts led by the civil administrators.

The initial response of religions to the phenomenon of the virus has been a subject of debate, even in Kenya.

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It is a plain fact that religious gatherings have been early triggers for the spread of the contagion in many countries.

The meeting of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus in South Korea, the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in India, the five-day evangelical worship in France, among others, are claimed to have been the epicentres of the early spread of the virus in those countries.

Most of these events took place when governments had not yet imposed any bans.

CHURCH, SCIENCE

When governments did come down heavy on common gatherings, some religious leaders expressed reservation, arguing that religion would be a source of solace in these unsure times.

At the heart of this imbroglio is the unnecessary conflict between faith and science, at least since the time of Galileo Galilei of the 16th century.

Social scientists assert that people of faith rely on their religious leaders to frame their attitudes about scientific information.

Well-educated people might seek assistance from their religious leaders in their ethical decisions in order to clear their consciences.

For people who are less educated and traditional in their outlook, religious leaders might be a major source of scientific knowledge.

Given this tight interaction between religion and science, religious leaders have a moral responsibility to be better informed, and more responsible in their words and choices.

In Kenya, the media called for a conscientious response from the religious bodies given the precarious nature of the current situations.

Media’s uncompromising headlines about churches and the clear directives from the government have made religious bodies to comply.

LEADERS' FEAR

To be fair to religion, some of the unprecedented disruptions that the present crisis has caused to religious practices need to be better appreciated by policymakers.

This year, millions of Muslims will have to postpone their lifetime dream of going on the Hajj. In Rome, for the first time in modern history, the Palm Sunday and Easter celebrations will be held without the physical presence of the public.

In this context, religions have found alternative ways of offering support to their adherents through the global digital communication system – even if it is the same system that tends to augment panic among the general population.

Despite these efforts of religions, some of the radical changes in religious practices in response to the Covid-19 are likely to be irreversible.

It has weakened the institutional religion, empowering individual initiatives. This could be the fear of church-leaders: would the people ever come back?

Having tasted individual freedom, would the faithful just take advantage of the online spiritual trends and virtual communities?

PERSONAL CONTEMPLATION

I believe the future of religious faith, especially in Africa, will be a spirituality that is based on contemplation, and not communal worship alone.

We know this from the history of religion in the Western societies. Communal worship should provide the skills and the motivation to individuals to continue to seek God in personal contemplation.

This, of course, will be in addition to other psychosocial functions of religion. These include providing social belonging and psychological support to its adherents.

For people of most Christian traditions, the corona epoch has come at the time of their annual season of Lent.

It is customary for Christians at Lent to forgo something that they love – alcohol, chocolate, movies, or whatever.

But this coronavirus-induced self-regulation is far too demanding. The end of the season of Lent is clearly marked by Easter.

It is the lack of clarity about the end of the curfews, lockdowns, and the social distancing that is making the masses more anxious.

In this context of lack of predictability, religious faith struggles with some internal questions as well. Is this a punishment from God?

GOD'S PLACE

What is the writing on the wall? These questions, of course, science cannot answer. And human beings seek meaning, not just solutions.

The temptation for some religious traditions is to offer an apocalyptic interpretation to the contemporary history: the world is coming to an end!

They can use selected lines from their Scriptures to brainwash the weak-minded. Thank God, due to the ban on social gatherings, the season of Covid-19 is less likely to breed more cults, unless these prophets have gone digital.

Still, the question remains: where is God in the human struggles with Covid-19?

As N.T. Wright, a New Testament scholar at Oxford University, wrote recently in the Time magazine, some Christians like to think of God as the one having the solution to all human problems, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world.

“That’s not the picture we get in the Bible,” Wright points out. “The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments.” Yes, in situations such us ours, God just suffers in silence with humanity.

Therefore, firstly, as for individuals, the lockdown, the curfew, and the social distancing also provide ample opportunity for silence and contemplation.

INTEGRATIVE APPROACH

It is in contemplation that we are likely to have access to the meaning of the contemporary human history in the light of faith.

Secondly, the approach of silence and contemplation is the solution to irrational, institutionalised religious traditions that feel that they are losing their adherents due to the ban on common church services.

In short, religions that will survive the Covid-19 are those that will have prepared their adherents for individual spirituality based on personal meditation and contemplation.

Religions that will survive the Covid-19 are those that provide meaning in silence rather than pretend to offer naïve solutions in miracles.

Those religions that will survive the Covid-19, and beyond, are those that have an integrative approach to faith and science.

The writer is a Catholic priest and holds a PhD in psychology, specialising in religion and well-being; [email protected]

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