Until recently, the economic forecasts were very rosy; the stock markets were breaking all records, although some economic gurus had some apprehensions and had warned of a correction at some time in the future. Yes, sometime in the future. Then, came the virus and an abrupt collapse. Similarly, there was great optimism everywhere, in society, culture, science, technology. With the help of information technology, computer, robot and such things, the world was going to break into a new era of human progress and happiness. Some even dreamt of a trans-human world, where artificial intelligence would usher in a paradise on earth, supported by biomedicine and genetics. Now, with a virus against which there is no known defence, we have come back to earth with both feet solidly on the ground. As some experts have predicted, the virus has spread practically all over the world. That is the price of globalisation, which connects the whole world with each other, through tourism, business, academic, scientific and cultural exchanges, international politics, and through the mega entertainment industry. There were pests and pandemics in human history, but they were confined to certain geographical areas but because of the increased mobility through air and sea travel, the virus has spread fast from part of the earth to the other. According to some calculations, some 60 to 70 percent of the world population could be affected by it and it could turn out to be harmless or deadly, depending on the response. At the moment, the statistics about the mortality rate are conflicting and confusing. Some say about 7 percent could turn out to be deadly, once again depending on the quality and capability of the medical services.
There are different reactions to the virus. Some have resigned to their fate; others are careless; some others are panicky and hysterical. Every thinking person sees the situation as serious and even threatening. Some say, only prayer can help now. But as the virus has affected not only the economic world but also the religious world, with public religious services stopped for the moment, many ask the question about the mode of prayer itself. The liturgical life has come to a standstill. A Lenten season without a penitential service and confessions, and Easter without the Easter services in the Church are unthinkable for many people. How can the consecration of a bishop take place in a small group? The Pope is able to communicate with the faithful only through video and internet. Rationality warns us not to overstretch faith in God. Jesus himself has told us to read the signs of the time.
But still in some quarters there is resistance. Have we become men of little faith, they ask, that we have abandoned the churches because of fear of the virus? The virus has now shaken the traditional and conventional faith life of many people. If there is a God, he should come in now and act, they say. He will act, insist some people. The Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church told his priests and faithful that there is no need of fear of receiving communion in the traditional way because of fear of the virus. The Holy Eucharist is no source of illness and death but a source of new life in Christ, he said. So is the practice of kissing the icons, he said, it is not going to harm anyone. Some Catholics suggested to their bishops that the priests should be asked to take out a simple procession with the monstrance through the streets. A bishop in Texas told his priests in fact to organize simple Eucharistic processions through the parish. In Brazil some Pentecostal Churches have designed various methods to drive out the virus, like anointing with oil, exorcism etc. So there are still many different understandings of religion, the magical and the rational, the mythical and the enlightened, the miracle-craving and the empirical. Faith and superstition are sometimes difficult to be distinguished. There is the popular religiosity which wants God to intervene in history every now and then in a visible way, and it believes that it is possible. There is the intellectual, philosophical and scientific religiosity which takes into account the modern developments in the world. A genuine theology has to take into account both these views and bring about a dialogue between them.
The corona virus could be an occasion to critically look at our life and our religion and to come out of an infantile faith. Who is God and what is the meaning of creation? What does it mean to live as part of this creation which itself is yearning for redemption (Rom 8:22-23), and where there is constant death and resurrection, suffering and healing? The terror that has been noticed everywhere in the face of this not so harmless virus leads the globalised world to introspect and see how imperfect it is, in spite of the alleged progress in all fields, medical and technical. God has created the world as a world in process, in evolution. Many be it is time for an old world, including the religious, to die and then there will be another world (Is 43:19). We must never succumb to the illusion that technological developments or social-revolutionary change, psychological stabilization or genetic manipulation will ever succeed in abolishing the questionability of reality, the dialectic of the negative, breaking the vicious circles of human self-destruction, taming the power of the void, the chaos, the senselessness in the world, and creating a paradise on earth, a golden age, an age of freedom even from all suffering itself. Looking at Jesus will help us to remain realistic about suffering which we try to combat with all our means at hand. But even the one who follows Jesus, carrying his cross daily will not be able to remove all pain and suffering from life but he will be able to endure it and survive it in faith. He will not be crushed by it nor will he sink into despair. If Jesus in the face of abandonment by his friends and even by God was not crushed and defeated, one who trusts in him also will not be crushed or abandoned by him. Faith in Jesus gives the hope that suffering does not have the definitive last word. What is definitive and final in life is that there is life without suffering but it is a divine reality and not something that can be ushered in by human creativity. It is the work of the Mystery we call God.
Let us hope that fantasies about the brave new world will cease to surface for some time. Sensible leaders have realized how embarrassing the rhetoric of promises was. The words that are heard now are “stabilize” and “hold back”. For that they need their citizens, all of them, not only the mighty and the powerful but the simple and ordinary citizens, their cooperation and solidarity. Life is reduced to its minimum, with many restrictions which were taboo a few days ago and people are back to life in its simplicity. Also for the Church it is a time for reflection, yes, conversion. What is needed for the Church and the world is to learn to live and behave decently and secondly, to understand that there is no heaven on earth. Earth is earth and heaven is heaven.