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Think Again: Religion in the Wake of the Pandemic

Covid has given us a chance to rethink and reinvigorate our traditions, and we cannot afford to waste it

By Cynthia G. Lindner|June 14, 2021

A year ago, as COVID-19 was surging and the US death toll was rising, a culture unprepared for the wages of suffering sought solace in spiritual practices old and new. We celebrated the compassionate and courageous work of hospital chaplains who kept vigil with the dying and held space for grief in the aftermath of devastating loss. Communities of faith created meaningful online rituals and were pleasantly surprised to find newcomers in the Zoom gallery each week. Religion’s adherents and their commentators took note: Would a resurgence of interest in religious life, spiritual practice, and moral commitment be a silver lining in this dark season?

The reality, of course, is not quite so straightforward. At first glance, a quick perusal of articles about religion in this month’s media seems a dispiriting return to business as usual. The business, of course, is the maddening contradiction that is human nature—made manifest, post-pandemic, in our inexorable tendency to shrink from our own limitations and liabilities, hiding our fear, guilt, and shame behind tired spiritual shibboleths, outdated institutional loyalties and facile political posturing. As the urgency of last year’s crisis of collective vulnerability begins to subside, so our spiritual receptivity and creativity withers, our hunger for meaning sated by the perception of safety and familiarity. In our rush to “get back to normal,” we are quick to reassert the primacy of “me” and “mine,” our natures’ better angels yielding to the idolatry of power and the accompanying objectification of others to which religious communities, their detractors, and those who tell their stories so easily fall prey.

It is not surprising, then, that in this month’s news, religion’s vitality and genius—its compassionate imagination, creative community-building, and its healing power—have disappeared, while the static category of religion as object, institution, and identity-marker has reasserted itself. The United Nations’ Human Rights Council issued a report in March noting that anti-Muslim incidents were on the rise across the world, while here in the US the Anti-Defamation League warned that incidents of anti-Semitism doubled last month in comparison with a year ago. The Roman Catholic Church worldwide continues to experience significant challenges from within and beyond its ranks concerning its leaders’ response to clergy sexual abuse, while the Southern Baptist Convention—reputedly the largest US Protestant denomination—is still in the midst of its own reckoning with sexual abuse in its ranks. Last week’s releases of leaked letters and secret recordings from within the organization show that top leaders were slow to address sexual abuse among their own clergy, registering more concern about the SBC’s reputation and donations than about victims. Meanwhile, Southern Baptists approach their annual convention this week amidst a growing chorus of calls for racial justice and accountability voiced by many leaders among their large African American constituency.

Such accounts are, of course, fodder for religion’s despisers, and even for her friends who continue to hope despite gathering clouds of doubt that communities named by reverence, humility, justice, and mercy would more reliably bear good fruit. Those of us whose vocation, practice, and scholarship draw their inspiration from the ancient and complex wisdom of religious communities might do well to pay close attention to the challenge of this moment, as the US begins to emerge from its long lockdown of anxiety and fear and as persons start to pick up the pieces of their shattered assumptions about our purpose, our power, and life’s meaning. Are religious communities and those who care for them simply resigned to these endless cycles of hubris and apology, self-justification and institutional preservation, or might our own traditions offer some more generative practices for navigating the aftermath of disaster and devastation?

This last week, a reminder of another way forward emerged in an unlikely place: the obituary section of the New York Times. A half-page article reported on the death at age 97 of Richard L. Rubenstein, a campus rabbi and academic who was  “a leading Jewish voice in the theological groundswell of the 1960’s known as the ‘Death of God’ movement.” In his book After Auschwitz, Rubenstein argued that the Holocaust invalidated the traditional idea of an omnipotent, benevolent deity. “The traditional believer is forced to regard the most demonic, antihuman explosion in all history as a meaningful expression of God’s purposes. The idea is simply too obscene for me to accept.” Rubenstein joined other philosophers and theologians of his generation, including Paul Tillich and Thomas J.J. Altizer, in calling the faithful to a serious moral reckoning concerning the power, adequacy, and accountability of the metaphors and narratives by which they imagined the world, themselves, and their relationship to the sacred. A God who mechanistically or magically manages human history, they asserted, deprives humans of their free will and dangerously delimits human responsibility.

Dr. Rubenstein’s obituary claims significant real estate in the Times not only because the Death of God movement was such a watershed moment for religious thought—though it was indeed that. (When was the last time you read the words, “theological groundswell”?) The bulk of the essay describes a complex, committed, and generative life of faith—the rabbi never renounced a belief in God, attended synagogue every Sabbath, affirmed his tradition’s rituals and their power to constitute community, and taught religion at Florida State University for over two decades. Though the fervor over the “Death of God” language subsided after a time, and with it the often-vitriolic attacks on Rubenstein and his colleagues, the questions these radical theologians raised about the presence and absence of God and the necessity of human responsibility continue to shape contemporary religious life and thought.

Theirs is a legacy that is ripe for renewal in our own day. When we herald the heroics of religious communities and individuals, or, for that matter, when we decry their obvious shortcomings in navigating the challenges of global community and planetary suffering, we often neglect the power and promise of theological reasoning that is the heritage of religious communities, a necessity for their own correction and renewal, and an essential resource for the flourishing of fully-human relationships with ourselves, our communities, and our wider ecologies. Like that of our forebears of sixty years ago, our own decade is proving to be a season in which questions of divine and human presence, absence, relation and responsibility cannot be ignored, deferred, isolated or reduced to mere sectarian squabbles. Unlike the 1960’s, however, the historic locations for these big conversations—denominational seminaries and universities’ departments dedicated to the study of history, literature, languages, philosophy and religious studies—are suffering from a lack of robust cultural commitment at the very time that their human subjects are in the greatest need. Perhaps religious communities and the scholars who study them might look to one another for common cause in a vital, pandemic-informed renewal of the human spirit, a more deeply informed awareness of human limitation, and a creative and capacious re-imagination of what it means to be human before God.

Photo via Creative Commons.

Sightings is edited by Daniel Owings, a PhD Candidate in Theology at the Divinity School. Sign up here to receive Sightings via email. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Marty Center or its editor.


Cynthia G. Lindner

Columnist, Cynthia Lindner (DMin’99), is Director of Ministry Studies and Clinical Faculty for Preaching and Pastoral Care at the University of Chicago Divinity School.