How should people of faith respond to the coronavirus? Recent media reports have pointed to a couple of possibilities.
Some believers in Minnesota have joined in a lawsuit, claiming their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion was being violated by a ban on in-person worship services.
A recent article in the New York Times said a few priests in the Orthodox church in Russia claimed that coming to services would actually protect people from getting the virus, like some sort of spiritual vaccine.
The general impression from such reports is that people of faith are either angry at their governments or looking to miracles. But isn’t there something more that could be said?
In my own Christian tradition — and I think there is overlap with Judaism and Islam — times of crisis are also understood as opportunities to reflect on what God might be saying. So, in the midst of a pandemic, how might God be seeking to get our attention? I am going to point to three things:
First, the pandemic is an opportunity to reevaluate what is truly important. People of faith confess regularly that they fail to honor God and instead invest inordinate value and loyalty in some earthly thing. The old-fashioned word for this is idolatry.
Think of all the ways our idols have been revealed in the past few months. For example, I love to watch sports on television, curled up on the couch before a large and well-defined screen. That’s gone, and I wonder if it is all bad. There is more time for my family and community. Some great books are now getting my attention. Walks with my wife are more frequent.
Or consider how many of us were getting accustomed to long-distance travel. Now we are getting to know our own towns and local communities better.
It’s not that I want a world without sports and travel, but we might ask ourselves if they had become selfish preoccupations, obscuring neighbors and others in need.
Second, the virus unmasks the great myth of self-sufficiency. People of faith should know that the community is prior to the individual. We Americans love to celebrate all things centered on the self. But let’s face it: About the only thing we truly do alone is die.
The stories of courage and self-sacrifice coming from our hospitals and nursing homes are reminders of our dependence on a host of people and institutions. The long car lines outside food shelves point to the many in our midst who are perilously close to poverty. And consider our basic need to trust others to wear masks, wash hands and keep a distance in order to prevent the virus from spreading.
Seldom has it been more evident that our own well-being rests in the hands of others and that many in our midst are hurting.
Third, the pandemic calls into question something I would term “nature mysticism.” People of faith are wary of confusing creation with the Creator. In our day there seems to be an increasing tendency to turn to the natural world for meaning and purpose in life. Often this grows sentimental, as the phrase “nature bathing” suggests. The earth becomes the cleansing source of life itself, possessing the power and strength to make us “whole.”
Now, I enjoy the outdoors as much as anyone and long for the days when campgrounds and parks are fully open. But the pandemic reveals what we all intuitively know: Nature has its shadow side. The deadly virus is nature at its darkest. The message here is that nature needs to be cared for and respected. It is a source of awe and beauty. But it isn’t God.
C.S. Lewis once said that pain and suffering are God’s megaphone to a deaf world. If he is right, then God has not been silent during the pandemic. Pain and suffering also raise huge questions, of course, about God’s justice. That’s fair, and faith can provide insights on that as well.
But my primary concern here is to deflect some attention away from the fringe response to the virus and point instead to the ways God might be interrupting our lives and asking us to stop and think. I believe God is speaking. Are we listening?
Mark D. Tranvik is professor of Reformation history and theology at Luther Seminary in St. Paul.