Is a new world being revealed through this pandemic?

by Karen Bloomquist last modified 01 June 2020 08:21 PM
Is a new world being revealed through this pandemic?

Photo: Marcelo Schneider/WCC, 2020.

01 June 2020

In the face of even worse devastations than today, spiritual traditions for millennia have evisioned hope, as in, for example, Revelation 21:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more….[God] will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

How humans relate to nature has been a constant theme for many centuries now.  Many throughout the world, especially indigenous peoples, have long respected, even honoured the relationship between nature and human beings. In recent years, various movements have risen, focused especially on the urgency of the climate change crises. Some of them are faith-based, and often they are led by the young.  They insist that nature should not be exploited for profit, as it often has been. Now amid this pandemic, vacated by most human activity, animals, birds and plants are again frolicking and blossoming.

Dominating and making a profit from nature have had priority for many years.   These practices has prevailed since at least the beginning of the industrial era (and probably long before then), and they now reign in this era of high tech and digitized information. Online programs have now become our “saviours” amid this pandemic, even though they limit human embodiment with each other.

Not only is public health threatened, but so too is the global economy, by our exploitation of nature.  Human well-being, especially of those who are most vulnerable,  must be prioritized over economic profit.  Public health and economic life are deeply intertwined, in ways we may not have realized previously.  So too is human well-being closely bound to and in the rest of nature.

What the virus is telling us

Many have long advocated the importance of valuing and respecting nature and the rest of creation—and this is occurring in many movements. But this pandemic may be waking us up to the reality that a far more sweeping revolution is needed.  What is unknown, and spreading vehemently in ways that no human strategy or solution can meet, is being revealed. This virus is itself revelatory. Human life and nature have become out of sync, no longer mutually dependent.  No matter how ingenious or creative are any human efforts, what is being revealed again is that humans cannot control “nature”—or even how this virus spreads. What we can do is keep our distance or cover ourselves so as to not contaminate others. Beyond that, what is unknown leads many to cave in to fears, which make them vulnerable to various appeals, including those that are demagogic.

We want to be in charge, or at least to control things.  Various technologies have been invented in the past to convince us humans that we can control what is “of nature.” This now is where we place our hope --- that these will save us, eventually. But suddenly we are hit with this virus, which cannot be controlled by vaccines or other measures, and so people throughout the world panic.  There is little in the news that is not related to this pandemic.  There is no escape. We are all in this – as one human community throughout the world, even though some are far more vulnerable. And we are fearful for the future.

So this pandemic has become primarily a spiritual, not just a technological challenge.  But any spiritual dimension has been sidelined in favor of the triumph of secularization, science, and technology.  We rely on these, and they now are what dominate and rule. Any spiritual dimensions have now been atrophied, or confined to only a private arena, cut off from attending to the common good for all. Their wisdom, which has prevailed for many millenia and continues to prevail through many cultures today, is considered “primitive” or out-of-date.

But is it really? Dr. Romina Istrattii, who teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and has co-founded the open-access platform “Decolonial Subversions,” has written recently:

Social media outlets and the wider web have become increasingly populated with negative comments or reports about religious believers; while some of these respond to a few unhelpful faith-based attitudes about the public health crisis, many are the manifestation of a deeper antagonism towards religious belief characteristic of secular modernity.... This seems rather disconnected from the reality of most non-western communities, which have experienced their religious traditions as worldviews defined by unique theological or exegetical premises.[1]

Spiritual traditions have something to offer

The fear that has overtaken so many of the affluent astounds many who are poor throughout the world.  They have long contended with considerable fearful realities (of, for example, hunger, violence, or survival itself),  which have been countered by spiritually-based worldviews that provide them hope.  Amid this current pandemic, what can others learn from them, rather than simply turning for answers to scientists and medical experts, who often reply that they “don’t know”?  We need science, data, and medical expertise and their guidance, but we also need what is grounded through various spiritual traditions.

The world we have known is passing. What may emerge is a new world of global solidarity, justice, compassion, and respect for the rest of nature, based not only on science and technology. That is our hope. Or will we go back to business and life as usual, driven by making a profit, competing and getting ahead of others, at the expense of community with others, including with nature?  Will the inequalities only increase? These are the cultural and political challenges we face today, if we are to avoid going along with the polarizations and dangers of demagogic rule to which we may be driven by the contagion of fear.

Is “a new world” being revealed through this pandemic, or will we seek to move back to what we have been accustomed to as “a normal world”?


[1] Romina Istratii, “Restricting Religious Practice in the Era of COVID-19,”Political Theology (April 15, 2020), at: https://politicaltheology.com/restricting-religious-practice-in-the-era-of-covid-19-a-de-westernised-perspective-on-religious-freedom-with-reference-to-the-case-of-greece/

Rev. Dr Karen Bloomquist previously directed the theological department of the Lutheran World Federation in Geneva. She is the former dean of Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, Berkeley, California, and author, most recently, of Seeing—Remembering—Connecting: Subversive Practices of Being Church (2016).

Disclaimer

The impressions, hopes and ideas expressed in this blog are the contributions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or policies of the World Council of Churches.

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