When tragedy hits, everything begins to collapse, but one strong entity remains: faith. COVID-19 has taken more than 14,000 alone. The pandemic has impacted more communities than just health care, including homes, school systems and the economy. As social distancing becomes the new normal and stay-at-home orders are extended, fear lies ahead, but Professor of Religion Matthew Drever and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies Donald Prudlo say trusting in a combination of science and faith has gotten people through similar tragedies in history.
Like most during this time of uncertainty, Drever and Prudlo are experiencing angst and helplessness. “I remind myself to approach life with a sense of grace, patience and empathy,” Drever said. Specializing in the history of Christianity, Drever focuses his research on Augustine (5th century) and the Reformation (16th century) period. Both contexts were filled with a vast amount of uncertainty and suffering.
“Reformation thinkers are not that far removed from the worst outbreaks of the plague in Europe, and Augustine spent his final days of life in North Africa with his town besieged by war and tending to refugees fleeing from Italy. This is not to minimize our own suffering and uncertainty, but it does remind us that we are not alone. The great world religions have resources on which we can all draw to help us get through these times,” Drever explained.
As a religious historian, Prudlo understands that pandemics have been periodically present throughout history. “I can see both the suffering wrought by these diseases, as well as the hope and charity that they bring forth. However, having a historical view allows perspective. Things were bad in the past, but further good always can come of temporary suffering,” he said.
Faith and science
Drever is reminded of Einstein’s quote that, “Science without religion is lame, and religion without science is blind.” He emphasizes the mutually beneficial relationship between science and religion and explains science gives us our best view into the nature of the physical world as well as technological resources to live well in it. But science doesn’t provide the ethical vision to navigate the world or a wider sense of meaning that many of us seek.
As we work together, six feet apart, or virtually, faith can be an ally in helping our local and greater communities confront the widespread suffering. “We face disease, but also hunger, homelessness, poverty, anxiety, isolation and depression. Science and medicine are invaluable resources to address these problems, but on their own will not be enough,” Drever stated.
Why would God allow something like this to happen?
During any crisis, the question of “why?” is always asked. Prudlo cites Christian theologians who teach that God often permits physical evils such as hurricanes or diseases, so that a greater good may come of it. In many cases, people work together to help those in need.
“For Catholics it’s quite meaningful that this virus is peaking during the period of Lent, when they deny themselves bodily goods for the sake of the kingdom of God. They, like all humanity, hope for a light at the end of the tunnel, the definitive Easter,” Prudlo said.
Connecting to a virtual house of worship
As students and professors continue transitioning to online classes, church goers are adjusting to virtual attendance via live stream.
However, Prudlo explains there is something that is lacking when watching a Sunday service live. Aristotle once suggested humans are social animals who crave human contact and companionship in all areas of our life. “When we can only listen and watch through a flat screen, we miss the smell of incense, the change of posture, the communal responses, the tactile sensations of eating and drinking in a ritual way. It’s a remarkable impoverishment of spiritual and ritual life, both of which are intrinsic to being human,” Prudlo said.
Likewise, traditional teaching and learning cannot be completely replicated online.
Prudlo suggests that discussing Dante in a chat room is far different from the human interaction that takes place in a classroom. “This is even more true for religious life. In ritual congregations, the need for community, for tactile and sensory affirmations of faith, is key. Humans are remarkably resilient, and although we can tolerate such social distancing temporarily, humans must physically come back together after this crisis has passed. Technology can be both a bridge and a barrier to a truly human life. It’s how we respond in humane ways to these challenges that will determine our futures,” he said.