Is COVID part of Divine plan? It is hardly surprising that both believers and non-believers alike are asking questions such as, “Did God send this coronavirus pandemic like He sent the plagues to Egypt?” or “Is this pandemic God’s judgment on a rebellious world?” or “If there is a Divine Being, why is He/She allowing this pandemic to do so much damage?” Such questions are the natural outgrowth of a historical or biblical perspective, and personal answers vary by geography, religious belief, age, and other factors.
This Blog answers three questions:
- What are common theological and secular answers to the question about the cause of the pandemic?
- What have been the implications of the virus on traditional believers in the Divine and their institutions’ rites and practices?
- What are the implications for our lives, especially for our children?
Theological and Secular Approaches
“Where is God?” is a question often being raised as the COVID-19 pandemic has left two million dead worldwide; 90 million sickened; families torn apart by death, disease and border closures; economies devastated; and an uncertain year that looms ahead. The existence of suffering and evil has long troubled traditional religious believers. The theological attempt to answer such questions is called theodicy—a justification for the existence of evil in a world created and ruled by a loving, all-knowing and all-powerful God.
If God exists and is real and good, then why does the coronavirus exist? The arguments for and against the coronavirus as a positive challenge or punishment look like this:
|SECULAR ARGUMENTS||RELIGIOUS ARGUMENTS: POSITIVE CHALLENGE||RELIGIOUS ARGUMENTS: NEGATIVE CHALLENGE|
|Mother nature has her own timetable and is to blame||Virus is chance to appreciate what you have; we had best appreciate the miracle and blessing that God has given us in creating us as souls||Virus is punishment for grievous collective and specific human miscalculations or transgressions|
|A Divine Being plays no active role in the scheduling of natural events||Virus is a positive challenge: when you’re in difficult times, that’s when you actually get to practice faith||Plagues throughout history have been blamed on evil spirits, witches, impiety, and/or licentious behaviour|
|Science, not the Divine, will protect individuals||Value what has been given by God: the ability to talk, travel, love and do good in the world||Disasters have been blamed by fundamentalist clergy and conspiracy theorists on the LGBTQ community (1980), specific minority groups (2001), and countries (China: 2020)|
|Opportunity to realize the power of philanthropy, investment in technology, and humanity||Coronavirus is reminder that we are not in control and must always be dependent on God||This plague foreshadows the end of days for humankind|
|Gaia, the embodiment of nature, is lashing back at humans for our abuse of the environment, and foreshadowing greater catastrophes to be inflicted by climate change||Opportunity to realize the power of prayer and acts of loving kindness||Humankind has fallen from grace, or been corrupted by Satan|
|Human beings have free will||Accept that suffering is inexplicable and death inescapable. All we can do is respond with care and love for our fellows||Judgement day is nigh|
Sources: various sources
Progressive Western Judaeo-Christian religious thought sees adversity as an opportunity to realize the power of prayer and acts of loving kindness. This includes a startling realization that all we can do, all we could control, are our prayers. Through an initial tzimtzum [contraction] at Creation, God has self-limited His/Her role, giving humans greater freedom and responsibility. The biblical age of visible miracles defeating evil has ended. In this mindset, the Lord asks the faithful not to pray for miracles, but out of love and shared fate to be the miracle. God shares our pain and asks us to take action to help end suffering.
In effect, in over-simplified terms, there are three philosophies—secular, religious and a blended synthesis—that appear to shape and reflect how we understand or explain the coronavirus:
|Emphasis on I rather than we||The power of covenant||People want to make meaning in a time of fear, uncertainty and suffering|
|Morality is subjective||Morality is Divinely inspired||Morality is as the majority does|
|Competitive victimhood||Common values||Compassion required|
|Unlikely to spend any time contemplating modern events from a biblical perspective||“Theistic world view”— God is the Creator and Upholder of the Cosmos||People have choices whether they’re going to self-isolate, wear masks, and practice social distancing|
|God, if He exists, is no longer actively involved in the world or its affairs||God is actively involved in cosmic affairs and that is directing it and all who live therein to His foreordained conclusion||If God exists, He/She doers not micro-manage each event in life|
|People can be god-like in displaying acts of charity and loving-kindness||People have agency and free will||People of good will can relish and reward heroic selfless dedication of front line workers|
Source: Nitkin, When The Rabbis Changed God
The Implications of the Coronavirus on Religion
COVID-19 poses a number of specific challenges for the faithful. These include:
- (a) What do they need to actually live a religious life?;
- (b) How much of that requires physically going to church or mosque or synagogue or temple?; and
- (c) To what degree does government have the right to interfere in sacred matters or ceremonies like burial services, communion, laying on of hands, and choir assemblies?
Social scientists and religious thinkers note a number of implications of the virus on the general population as it specifically involves religion:
- Physical distancing restrictions have forced faith groups to entirely close their doors or dramatically restrict access to their sanctuaries
- last fall, a coalition of Christian research organizations surveyed 1,269 North American churches and ministries and found 80 per cent were offering online services
- a substantial minority of Americans, at 35%, believe the coronavirus was sent by God to teach humanity a lesson, the Pew Research Center found in an October survey titled “What Lessons Do Americans See for Humanity in the Pandemic?”
- for Indigenous faith adherents, traditional practices like gathering extended kin for singing, dancing and acts of hospitality has been sharply curtailed by COVID-19 restrictions, and these can’t be replicated online
- Many disadvantaged (such as the poor, minorities, immigrants, and/or rural dwellers) believers don’t have access to virtual meeting technology, have poor internet connectivity, and can’t afford devices
- in the U.S., in 2020, the “God-talk bandwidth” got consumed by the politicized election cycle
- According to Pew, 37% of American adults see lessons in the pandemic without attributing them to a higher power.
Religion Is Not An Essential Service: Many religious groups received a rude awakening by being told by government and health authorities that they don’t qualify as “essential services” during the pandemic. Many were subject to tighter restrictions than gyms for similar activities. While religious groups, health officials and politicians have been talking for months about the balance between protecting people’s right to worship and public health, what’s missing is an acknowledgment of the central role communal religious life plays in human health, resilience and well-being.
Legal Cases: Various religious groups in the U.S. and Canada have taken governments to court for restricting access to faith gatherings. The process is only just beginning to play out in Canada; arguments in cases involving a Toronto and Alberta church claiming COVID-19 restrictions violate charter rights are expected sometime in 2021.
The Implications of the Coronavirus on Life
Lessons from the Pandemic: A Pew survey of 3,700 Americans provided written answers to explain their beliefs about the lessons inherent in the coronavirus outbreak. They covered topics ranging from:
- (a) the practical (the need to wear masks),
- (b) the personal (the importance of spending time with family),
- (c) society (adopting universal health care, rethinking capitalism),
- (d) appreciation of racial disparities, including devaluing the life of the stranger;
- (e) protecting the environment, and
- (f) the need to end political divisions.
Front Line Workers: As noted in EthicScan Blog, An Immoral Side of COVID (February 24), far too many grocery, food preparation and distribution, and warehouse businesses have not responded as effectively as possible in terms of Good Samaritan or corporate responsibility principles to treating essential workers with fairness and compassion. Common failures of moral justice include:
- (a) discontinuation of pandemic danger pay supplements,
- (b) not investing enough in personal protective gear,
- (c) failure to warn workers about real time, peer infection outbreaks,
- (d) not giving paid time off for infection testing and suitable quarantining,
- (e) nor providing workplace vaccines or facilitating contact tracing;
- (f) not providing disability and funeral benefits for spouses and families of infected workers; and
- (g) inadequate counselling for moral distress.
The Porcupine Paradox: We may be living through what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called the Porcupine’s paradox. On a cold winter day, porcupines need to huddle together to prevent themselves from freezing to death. However, as they huddle together, they feel the painful effect of their neighbor’s quills and draw back. Tossed between two evils, porcupines struggle to find a proper distance where they can tolerate the other, and still benefit from the shared warmth. Some would argue that we are like the porcupine – we need each other desperately, but there is real danger in proximity. It is painful to be distant, it is painful to be apart.
While no expert has an infallible crystal ball, there are a number of religious leaders, philosophers, and secular observers who offer thoughts on the moral and economic threats and opportunities we are facing through (and likely after) this pandemic:
|Our children’s generation will inherit a frugality of love – a fear of getting close to strangers, a reluctance to trust or engage in new relationships||Demonstrate bonds that are strengthened through acts of grace and compassion|
|We stereotype college students and teenagers as ubiquitously irresponsible and untrustworthy, we see people on the street and first notice who is and who is not wearing a mask||Opportunity to draw closer to one another, to reinforce covenant, and establish a morality of grace – gratitude—that correct a centuries’ old societal wrongs|
|Denial of deserved danger pay and sick pay protections to front line workers||Lesson is to try not to become more fearful, more isolated, though that is our instinct|
|Small children who now cower when they see the mail carrier or delivery person at the door||Reflect back on the love extended by sweet, compassionate friends as well as strangers|
|The shaming of individuals and families who make certain involuntary choices around school or socialization.||We can face our fears, remember our most important values so that we can live gracious, compassionate lives|
Source: EthicScan Knowledgebase
We are not the first generation to live through plague times, and neither will we be the last. Organized religion has not mounted as strong or influential a role in public sphere leadership debates, pandemic-fighting public policy, or religious contributions to pandemic solutions as some might have foreseen or hoped for.
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Telling The Truth – Why is God allowing the coronavirus pandemic?:
USA Today – Is the coronavirus an act of God? Faith leaders debate tough questions amid pandemic:
CTV News – Where is God? The COVID-19 pandemic has been a test of faith for believers:
WSJ – The Coronavirus Isn’t God’s Will:
EthicScan Blog – An Immoral Side Of COVID:
The Conversation – God, plagues and pestilence – what history can teach us about living through a pandemic:
Baptist News Global: – Is there a message from God in the pandemic?
Temple of Israel Boston – Grace in the Time of COVID:
The Times Colonist – Finding answers to the challenge of human suffering:
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- COVID Contact Tracing and Tracking: Canada’s Scandalous Missed Opportunity - March 26, 2021