Theological responses to the pandemic

On June 17, 2020, the Network for Vocation in Undergraduate Education (NetVUE) hosted a webinar on “Theological Responses to the Pandemic.” The goal of this event was to offer a range of theologically-grounded responses to the current public health crisis and to the deep social inequalities that it has laid bare. Four NetVUE scholars took on the task of thinking theologically and responding responsibly to these uncertain and sometimes terrifying times.

Rachel S. Mikva, the Rabbi Herman Schaalman Chair in Jewish Studies at Chicago Theological Seminary and Senior Faculty Fellow for the InterReligious Institute, described our current moment as one in which we are engaged in a kind of “ethical triage” and deep adaptation. She drew our attention to the story of Ruth and Naomi, and asked us to consider it through the Hebrew concepts of hesed, a lovingkindness that does not expect reciprocity, and tzedakah (distributive justice).

Younus Y. Mirza is a Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University and Director of the Barzinji Project at Shenandoah University which seeks to enhance America’s relationship with Muslim-majority countries. Younus picked up on the idea of resilience and reminded us about historical examples of pandemics, specifically the bubonic plague and its effects on the city of Damascus. Muslims engaged in fasting and practiced the ritual of the rain prayer, seeking help from God. Younus also reminded us how the plague resulted in the emergence of extremist movements, and warns us about the temptation to scapegoat during such a crisis. We can learn from these historical examples, Younus observed, including the fact that “pandemics expose fault lines that already exist within society.”

Deanna Thompson is the Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College, where she also directs the college’s Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community. Deanna began with the affirmation that all theology is autobiographical, and shared some of her story of how cancer has impacted her life, including her need to rely on virtual communication for maintaining her relationships. She has written about the “virtual body of Christ” and built upon that idea briefly in her comments. She challenged us to name our losses but also to consider the gifts that can come from gathering virtually. Finally, Deanna asked us to consider “the other pandemic,” that is the “deep, abiding, pervasive systemic racism” in our society.”

Paul Wadell is Professor Emeritus of Theology and Religious Studies at St. Norbert College. Paul’s comments centered on four concepts: narrative, creatureliness, virtues for the journey, and vocation. Paul asked us to consider whether our narratives are adequate to the task of the kinds of strength and hope that are needed now. Second, Paul reminded us of our creatureliness (and in particular our vulnerability and dependency. Third, following Aquinas, Paul wondered about the virtues for the journey, such as courage, compassion, justice, and hope. On the latter, Paul said: “We know we cannot live without hope, but this pandemic has taught us that neither can we ever hope alone, rather we always hope together. We need companions in hope… and hope comes to life in acts of kindness, compassion, and support.” And finally, of course, is the idea of vocation. How do we remain faithful to our callings when the circumstances surrounding them has become so radically changed? What is being asked of us now?

The webinar was recorded and can be accessed here. Please note that when you go to this link, it will prompt you to share your name and email address, but this is not a login; it simply allows NetVUE to keep track of interest. You are unlikely to receive any follow-up emails unless you are at a NetVUE member institution. However, if you do, you’ll have the opportunity to unsubscribe. 

The webinar is an hour and a half long and well worth your time. If you find inspiration in the speakers’ words, you may want to also check out the following blog posts written by or about them:

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