Op ed: Religion, COVID-19 is complicated situation
Any experienced priest, pastor, rabbi or spiritual leader will smile when you mention that religion is complicated. One moment the president of the United States is holding up a Bible in front of a cathedral during a public protest. A few hours later, he’s being scolded by a bishop. Pope Francis warns church members against narrowing their focus on the abortion issue, then chides followers for ignoring the more malignant sins of racism and environmental degradation. Contributing to the conundrum, popular media continue feeding us cartoon versions of religious life, pandering to examples of hypocrisy, excess and scandal.
Yet, in spite of this, some of us believe that lasting truths about the human condition, and the serious challenges we face globally and locally with COVID-19, can still be retrieved and appropriated from the deep sources of religion. Here are two that may prove helpful.
First, the oldest thread in all the world’s Great Religions reminds us of our mortality. The haunting words from Genesis, “From dust we have come. To dust we return” destroy every generation’s innocence, burst through the core of each personal denial. Another version of this same hard truth is, “Everything is changing.” As my Buddhist neighbor and friend says, “everything is passing.” Daring to accept that verdict, we all wrestle with an even deeper riddle.
The question, then, isn’t “Is there a God?” It’s “How do we live a good life?” But who are we allowing to define what “good” means? Social media? The Internet? Past generations? Beware of falling too quickly into the “glory days” trap. The world’s in a mess, politically and environmentally. We live on a poisoned planet. Somebody got us here.
And this is where COVID-19 comes into play. Efforts to escape the lethal coronavirus often are dependent on thinking patterns that assume if we can just beat the virus, we’ll be fine. The truth is, no, we will not be fine. Other threats to human health will, sooner or later, appear.
It’s a slow defeat, physically, for each of us. Because we’ve ignored normal medical procedures during recent days of lockdown and fear, we will, most certainly, soon be seeing an uptick in other causes of serious disability and death. The point here, as C.S. Lewis wrote, is that the real religious test is to find enough courage and grace to craft a good and balanced life in the very midst of the difficult, threatening conditions that, sooner or later, inevitably surround and extinguish us.
That leads us to a second gift. One of hope. Not a hope that we’ll be spared from our mortality, but that in the midst of this epidemic we will rediscover deeper realities, find new ways to support each other, lift up what we in the faith community call “blessings.” This is the “art of seeing;” this is the power of the deeper spiritual life. As we are separated by physical distance from the people we love and cherish, as retirement funds and dreams of travel and work collapse, what good could ever come out of this?
Well, for starters, bicycle sales have gone up 300% since March. There are reports of new bird songs currently being recorded in New York City’s Central Park, never before heard by human ears because of blight from urban sound. Yesterday, I received a photograph from a friend of mine who grew up in Nepal. Because of the lockdown and lack of pollution, for the first time in living memory, inhabitants of Kathmandu, that country’s capital, can see Mount Everest on the horizon. Rivers are now clear in Europe, many of us are learning how to cook. And, yes, garden. I stopped to pick up potting soil from a local hardware store yesterday. I was informed none was available anywhere in our small city. “Everyone,” the clerk told me with a smile, “is working on a garden.”
Make no mistake. There’s much suffering. A city attorney wrote to me from New York this week and shared that 44 members of his congregation, mostly Latino, have died from COVID-19.
His partner, a physician working with the poor, is employed with the public hospital system. Memories of his October visit to northern Michigan, our landscape, its peoples, remain sources of strength and encouragement for both of them these fierce and troubled days.
There you have it. Together, all of us have a chance to dream of a new, more balanced world, but not one primarily measured by stock markets, profit margins or hedge funds. It’s time.
And the best of deeper truths from our religious traditions and communities can help us get there.