Religion at a time of Coronavirus

Image Source: The Elephant

Coronavirus has proved to be counter-public in all its senses. All publics have been forced to go private. One of the most visible among them is religion. The roots of the process of political and moral contestations of the role of religion can be traced in European Enlightenment. Coronavirus has simply offered no time for any such contestation of religion and pushed it into the private realm under the ethical obligation of saving human life from the lethal virus. The hidden hand of religion in public life might check its political abuse as well as the rise of fanatic fundamentalisms of different shades. But the absence of religion is felt in the rise of exploitation of the poor and the migrant at this time of great human distress.

One may resonate with the notion of ‘ the crucified people’ of Ignacio Ellacuria or ‘the los Pobres ‘of Gustavo Guiterrez to understand and respond to the poor people who are suffering the most from the global pandemic. This sense of loss of religious resources at this critical hour to guide humanity towards salubrious responses to the plight of the poor seem to have reduced us all to a state that may be best described by joining the Koranic term Mostazafin / disinherited with the notion of ‘wretched of the earth’ of Franz Fanon to form a new notion, disinherited of the earth. The lethal virus has successfully disinherited us from the earth and our business in all senses of the word will not be the same ever after.

Humanity has not lost hope. The utopian and eschatological force of religions is still part of the horizon that gives us much needed light and energy to cope with these dark times showing that religious and spiritual belongings cannot be simply removed from our lives like the way we change our dresses. We still tap into the power of religion even when it has been forced into a silent retreat in a private realm. Besides, we can trace the growth of what may be described as tele-evangelism for want of a better word through which religious leaders strive to reach out to their people living out of the angst of loss or genuine shepherding care.

This is why we can still trace religious phenomena in a world afflicted by a coronavirus. Maybe we may describe this phenomenon with what Thomas Luckmann called invisible religion. Hence, the forced retreat of religions from the public is not necessarily a deprivation of religion. Although the term deprivation of religion is popularized by Jose Casanova with great effect only to drive home the same point that we are making here which points that religion refuses to be a prisoner of the private realm and slips into the public arenas by energizing revolt and dissent against oppression and exploitation or sometimes legitimating oppression. The boundaries between public and private in the religious realm are porous. This means religions do play a role in our fight against the pandemic and will continue to influence humanity to shape the post-pandemic world showing us that the triumphant Enlightenment dream to eliminate religion from the public is still an unfulfilled dream.

The coronavirus has challenged the global community to pursue an agenda of aggiornamento. It has shown us that our educational , health, market, and several other infrastructures are inadequate and need a process of updating with changing times. The asymmetries that we built to favour the rich power elites of the world are shown unsustainable. Coronavirus has almost levelled the world. The rich and powerful of the earth are forced to save the poor and the marginalized to save themselves. The economies that were built on monopolies and deprivation to raise the market value of health, education, and what may be described as good life seem to have punctured. But we are slow in taking our lessons. Even at this time of great human distress, we have painfully discovered that some people are making the most of scarcity of food and medicine to amass wealth.

Although the virus has shown the fickleness of life , we have proved to be difficult learners of the lessons taught by the pandemic. Compassion also seems to have become a rare commodity as we have hurriedly opened lockdowns to save our livelihoods while endangering the lives of our people. We are left with little or no choice as life and livelihood are intimately intertwined. But we need to find the right balance between the two and our religious resources alongside ethical horizons have to be accessed to guide us in these situations.

Coronavirus has neither proclaimed the death of God nor the demise of religion. In fact, it has brought us closer to God. This does not mean that it has reversed the process of secularization of the modern world. It seems to have shown us that there is not pure insulated secularization from the spiritual quest of humanity. It suggests that there is the spiritual in the secular and the secular in the spiritual. The watertight world of binary opposites is no longer plausible. World that we live in is inundated with abundance. But we can only enjoy it sip by sip. This is why we cut things from their fuller relationship with each other and invest in them our meanings and purposes.

Coronavirus is reminding us of the larger world to which all of us, living beings, and the things of this world belong. We are challenged to embrace a mystical view of life. By fragmenting ourselves from this fuller and larger world, we have damaged our life and our common home. We belong together to the world and God. Maybe the retreat of public religion at a time of great human distress can teach us this fundamental lesson. Let us not cut our umbilical cord with God, other humans and everything in the world. It is time to live our life fully in the fullness that we are destined to live. Let’s find the reason d’état to live and let live with the fullness of life offered to us. But we cannot fully drink of this fullness. We still need to take it to sip by sip but this time we stay with wakeful awareness that what we separate from this original fullness still has its relations to the fullness to which it belongs. This awareness is religious. It will save us and our common home.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao