Thinking theologically with pandemics

For millennia, infectious outbreaks have affected religions. So how will this pandemic change our beliefs today?

In this April 2, 2020 file photo, Don Angelo Riva celebrates a mass in an empty church in Carenno, Italy.
Don Angelo Riva, who lost his father to the coronavirus outbreak, leads a mass in an empty church in Carenno, Italy on April 2, 2020 [File: AP/Antonio Calanni]

Theology may be far from our minds during a pandemic in a seemingly secular age. Our interactions with the non-human world of microbial pathogens appear wholly at odds with our relations with another kind of non-human realm that we designate as divine.

Yet, if the past teaches us anything, it is to look carefully at the changes under way in society and politics today, so we can glean, perhaps against the grain, the theological underpinnings of our shifting world views.

Pandemics and religion in antiquity

Pandemics are as old as human settlements and agriculture. Sudden, widespread mortality due to zoonotic diseases struck terror in the villages and towns of our earliest-known ancestors. It invited them to contemplate the afterlife and to propitiate deities who might offer patronage in this life and beyond.

In his famous account of the Plague of Athens, possibly caused by typhus, Thucydides tells us about the helplessness of his fellow citizens in the face of imminent death. The gods, he noted, had abandoned the Athenians, who, left to themselves, gave up any pretence of morality.

Six centuries later, the Antonine Plague, probably smallpox, elicited a similar reaction among the Romans. The powers of the old deities appeared to wane in the crowded, filthy urban centres that dotted the Roman Empire from Britain to Syria. Roman citizens and subjects turned in vain to Apollo Alexikakos, averter of evil, as five million perished, roughly a third of the population.

By the time of the Plague of Cyprian hit a couple of generations later, the ancient Roman world had begun turning towards Christianity in a quest for everlasting life. This pandemic appears to have been a viral hemorrhagic fever, though influenza cannot be ruled out. It is named after Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, who came to symbolise the calm manner in which Christians cared for the sick and prepared for life after death. By contrast, the traditional Roman deities were believed to be wreaking their vengeance on pagan worshippers. Unsurprisingly, it did not take more than a generation for Christianity to assume the mantle of Roman state religion.

Around the same time, in the Kushana capital of Gandhara, near modern-day Peshawar, lay worshippers propitiated Buddhist goddesses such as Hariti to cool off high fevers and the burning sensation on their pockmarked skin. Other prophylactic goddesses such as the leaf-clad Parnashabari and the snake-goddess Manasa have been worshipped by those seeking respite from snake bites and smallpox for at least a millennium in eastern India.

The worship of pandemic-specific deities, in fact, continues even today in India in temples dedicated to the smallpox goddess Shitala, the cold one. In polytheistic societies such as South Asia, rituals often combine medical practices, such as variolation, with a belief in the magical powers of deities and healers.

Theologies of plague

Although Christianity promised earthly solace and salvation to its adherents, it was far from invulnerable. The bubonic plague arrived in the Byzantine Empire in the mid-sixth century. For the next two centuries, as historian Kyle Harper has shown recently, popular cults dedicated to saints and the Virgin Mary proliferated across the empire.

Orthodox Christianity came to merge with the pagan religions of the Mediterranean world, moving away from its monotheistic Judaic origins. Harper also points to an opposed tendency in the Byzantine lands towards a new monotheistic creed based on divine revelation, Islam.

In Western Europe, the effects of bubonic plague in the mid-14th century were just as far-reaching. The Black Death ripped through the feudal structures that tied together lords and peasants. Clerical intercession seemed futile as fear of the Grim Reaper haunted medieval Europeans.

Priests, eager to describe the plague as divine punishment, succumbed to the pandemic as often as the laity. Jews, lepers, and those deemed social deviants were turned into scapegoats. Radical religious movements thrived. The Flagellants and their ritual self-mortification produced much enthusiasm in their wanderings across German-speaking villages. Claiming a more elevated piety than the clergy, they yearned for the return of the long-deceased Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II as a messiah.

The Lollards sought a less spectacular end, though no less radical: the translation of the Bible to vernaculars, such as English, and an end to the veneration of saints, fasts, confessions, and pilgrimages. Seeking to bring religious practice into greater conformity with scriptures, they rejected the Church’s view of the Eucharist as a transformation of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood.

Although both Flagellants and Lollards were deemed by Rome to be heretical, they paved the way for direct lay interpretation of scriptures and individualistic notions of piety among various Protestant sects, at least some of whom espoused millenarian ideas about a world turned upside down and the impending apocalypse.

These radical ideas have tended to be pushed to the fringe by mainstream Protestantism, but aspirations for an earthly paradise have hardly ceased. Indeed, mainline Protestant churches have pursued an oddly statist vision of the same earthly paradise, by which individual piety and the disciplinary techniques of the state come to be aligned neatly with each other.

Both individual notions of piety and the state’s disciplinary practices co-evolved in Western Europe with the plague until the late 17th century.

In Catholic Europe, the plague carried different implications altogether. In response to Protestant reformers, Catholic theologians sought to defend clerical authority and the necessity of mediation between the divine and human realms. If Protestant churches followed the logic of straight lines and their surrounding plague-stricken cities sought quadrillage, or patterned gridlines, under centralised states, the Catholic response was rooted in awe-inspiring complexity, even baroqueness.

In a pandemic spread over centuries, the imperfect, sinful, ways of humanity seemed to match the capriciousness of God’s will. The clergy remained the Catholic laity’s best hope for salvation.

The Islamic response to plague was far from unintelligible to Christian Europe. Persian polymath Ibn Sina might well have been the first proponent of social distancing, but Ibn Khatib and Ibn Khatima in Granada were the scholars of the plague best known by their Christian contemporaries.

Both saw the plague as Allah’s will, but they also sought to observe the disease, distinguish between bubonic and pneumonic varieties, and contain its spread. Understanding the logic of contagion was, to them, entirely compatible with an Orthodox Sunni interpretation of the Quran.

They adhered to a doctrine of occasionalism, which posits that stable patterns in nature and society can be perturbed occasionally by dramatic events; the former comprehensible to the human mind and the latter less so, but both follow God’s will. As such, failure to protect oneself – and others – is not merely foolish, but also a failure to heed God.

The Maghribi philosopher Ibn Khaldun, who personally endured loss during the plague, took occasionalism to heart in his treatise on the rise and fall of civilisations, Muqaddimah. Some have viewed his work and the lack of quarantine in the early modern Islamicate world from Morocco to Indonesia as fatalistic, particularly in comparison with quarantine regimes that emerged with modern states in post-Reformation Europe.

But such a view fails to appreciate that everyday protective measures are wholly compatible with a firm conviction that God is ultimately sovereign over life and death. Despite the lack of quarantine during pandemics, a growing understanding of the body and an increasing consciousness of God’s ways could happily coexist.

As we recall long-forgotten plagues and peoples, it ought to be clear that pandemics are as much moments of social and political transformation as they are moments of religious change.

Going viral in a secular age

We are habituated to think that we live in a secular age, but as philosophy scholar Charles Taylor has argued, “far from settling into a comfortable unbelief … [our age] is schizophrenia, or better, deeply cross-pressured”.

All the theological responses discussed above are discernible during the past century: the sense of despair and helplessness when we feel abandoned by the divine; a renewed interest in propitiating deities via prayers and offerings; the defensiveness and shoring up of clerical authority; a turn to new ways of worship or even new deities; preparing for the apocalypse; rationalising one’s faith with an impulse to protect oneself and others.

But modern Western societies are habituated to believe that humans are masters of the Earth and lord over its flora and fauna. This belief is, as the writings of early modern philosophers such as Rene Descartes and John Locke reveal, a thinly disguised theological world view that arose with Protestantism, as it sought to subjugate or eliminate its rivals in Europe and beyond.

What these rivals in Catholic Europe or the polytheistic worlds of Asia, Africa, and Latin America shared in common was, above all, a recognition of the natural limits to human growth, based on a conception of ourselves as existing on a continuum with other life on Earth. The relentless pursuit of wealth via global capitalism and modern states, however, has regarded growth as limitless.

As some grew fabulously wealthy at the expense of others between Columbus’s voyage to the Americas and the onset of World War I, the human population quadrupled. During the past century, we have quadrupled again. The plague bacterium is now tamed along with the mass killers of the past, such as malaria, cholera, typhoid, measles, and smallpox.

Our principal threat comes from viruses, strands of intermixed DNA that straddle the blurred boundaries between the living and the non-living. From the common cold to influenza and Ebola, viruses challenge the vain anthropocentric world view that the Protestant Reformation bequeathed to modern Europe and, by way of colonialism and imperialism, the rest of the world.

Viruses long predate our arrival on the planet, and, despite our role in displacing their animal hosts from their wild habitats, there is no reason to doubt that they will outlive us too. If we can somehow apprehend the world from the virus’s world view, we would think differently about pandemics and the lines that we draw to separate ourselves from “nature”.

At least since the influenza pandemic of 1918, viruses have mocked our supremacist claims as a species. In response, some turn to traditional religions and deities, as before, but most are turning to our secular deity, the modern state. Alas, as we are starting to realise, the anxious high priests of the Leviathan can offer little solace in a pandemic. Much like our worship of other deities during past millennia, our faith in modern states cannot make the virus go away.

In virtual reality, however, a theological revolution is brewing. While rumours and “fake news” on social media are spreading much like the COVID-19 virus, new forms of loosely organised collectives are emerging within and across national borders.

Black Lives Matter is the most conspicuous today, but we ought not to discount its alt-right detractors. Some refer to these online collectives as “tribes”, implying an atavistic return to a primordial sociality.

These collectives may signify the demise of the cult of the individual, a mirroring of God by the deification of the modern self. But these imagined tribal communities might also be understood as hive minds that decompose individual “producers” into millions of data points that are produced and consumed simultaneously.

These human-generated data combine, separate or recombine, ironically much like viruses, to form digital collectives based on intense faith and affect. The unwitting disaggregation of discrete individuals to myriad data points ought to be seen alongside what Yuval Noah Harari has christened “dataism”, a futuristic faith centred around the mysterious powers of data to solve all human problems.

The COVID-19 pandemic marks a turning point in the history of this fledgeling faith. It has intensified tendencies towards “do it yourself” religiosity or “spirituality” when organised religions and states have failed to satisfy believers and non-believers alike. Traditional modes of worship offline in mosques, temples, and churches have not only ceased temporarily but are increasingly characterised by some in cybersphere as the refuge of “backward” peoples who have not upgraded to the digital age.

The pandemic has also amplified the desire for spectacle and spurred an age of post-literacy. Memes, along with likes, comments, and shares, are central to practices of collective effervescence in a digital age marked by physical distancing. Amusingly, the word “meme” comes from the militant atheist Richard Dawkins, whose book The Selfish Gene (1976) explained how organisms co-evolved on the planet via horizontal gene transfers and genetic mutations.

Online faiths and creeds today differ greatly from each other, but, as we see during this pandemic, the hive mind, not the individual, is its constituent unit. The unattached sceptic or agnostic is the unicorn of our times. Yet the death of the individual, including the theological baggage attached to it, has occurred surreptitiously. Far from a bang, there has not even been a whimper. It is wrong to suggest, as Charles Taylor does, that secular people are “cross-pressured” in an “age of schizophrenia”. This is a humanist gloss on the data-driven stirrings of a post-human world.

Ecstatic and millenarian groups seeking “a new heaven and new Earth” are leading the theological revolution under way. These groups that pursue visions of earthly liberation from liberalism and technocracy to capitalism and patriarchy are not, however, typically treated as liberation theologies. At their core, nonetheless, is a salvationist belief, common in cyberspace, that those who were – or believe themselves to be – oppressed must now be liberated and a post-millenarian golden age ushered in. We wish to re-enchant our world by breaking free from the “immanent frame” or God-shaped hole of our secular age.

Apokalypsis in Greek may signify the end of the world as we know it, but it also means a revelation that unveils ugly or hidden truths about our world. Just as US President Donald Trump appears to American evangelicals as a necessary evil to lead us to a new beginning, COVID-19 may well seem to hive minds today as an agent of radical change. No one knows precisely what this change might be or where it will lead us. But there seems a strong conviction that, despite the powerful status-quo forces that reign over us, we cannot and will not return to how we lived before the pandemic.

The dramatic spread of COVID-19 ought to make us rethink that oft-repeated phrase “going viral”. When the virus holds sway over our minds and bodies, human beings are reduced to caged creatures.

Just like past pandemics, this one, too, has drawn us closer to the prospect of death and compelled us to contemplate the meaning(s) of life. But we are neither the existentialist heroes of an Albert Camus novel nor the hapless victims of bygone plagues. As the virus seeps between our bodies, our minds are rewired. A new alluring reality and its enchantments await us. We can live apart together until we cease to matter to each other or even exist.

Whatever our digital afterlife looks like, the viruses will outlive us in a post-human world.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.