Is faith as we know it enough to get us through a pandemic?

It turns out that a virus we cannot see is a more formidable threat to religious faith than secularism, government or unbelief.

Our Lady of Sorrows Catholic Church is silhouetted against the rising sun in Kansas City, Mo., Wednesday, April 8, 2020. With Easter Sunday in several days, many churches are looking for ways to celebrate the occasion in light of stay-at-home orders and restrictions on gathering in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

(RNS) — This week, Christians will not gather in the streets of Seville, Spain, for the annual Semana Santa processions. There will be no washing of feet on Holy Thursday. Seven last words services on Good Friday will be livestreamed. For Jews, Passover has taken place at tables devoid of physical outside guests. Friday prayers at mosques will not happen.

It turns out that a virus we cannot see is a more formidable threat to religious faith than secularism, government or unbelief. Catholics and Confucians, Buddhists and Baptists have all seen their piety give way to the coronavirus, which demands a solitary sufficiency that forbids the tactile, communal rituals that one would normally see this time of year.

Covid -19 is a health crisis, but it is also a crisis of faith.

This new normal will have profound implications for religious groups. Some will make it through this time, and their faith will be stronger for it. This is a test for believers — in the face of death, and robbed of their rituals and practices, what remains of their faith? It is a dark night of the soul, the ripping away of the familiar, the comforting, the soothing.

RELATED: Click here for complete coverage of COVID-19 on RNS

Many around the world have already been tested. In the Detroit area, seven bishops and leaders of the Church of God in Christ have died from the virus. Outbreaks have risen in the Orthodox Jewish community. In South Korea, the coronavirus outbreak began in a church in Daegu; in France, Covid-19 spread through a meeting of evangelicals in Mulhouse. 

Coffins are lined up on the floor in the San Giuseppe church in Seriate, one of the areas worst hit by coronavirus, near Bergamo, Italy, waiting to be taken to a crematory, Thursday, March 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

Others will be angry and defiant. Already, some religious communities are meeting despite the warnings to close. “I’m covered in Jesus’ Blood,” proclaimed one woman, a member of Solid Rock Church in Monroe, Ohio, where the mayor has asked the church to close. They haven’t. Catholics are crying out to be able to have Communion and signing petitions to push to hold Masses. Some Orthodox Jews are refusing to practice social distancing.

It matters that these communities are so bent on maintaining their religious practices, so anxious to prove their faith, that they are willing to suffer, even as they make others who don’t believe as they do susceptible to the virus. If COVID-19 is a faith stress test, they are failing it. Miserably.

Some churches and places of worship may close because of financial difficulty, others will lose members to the coronavirus, and others will receive scorn and derision for placing their members, family and the public in danger.

RELATED: The meaning of COVID-19: We can’t all be right

Death — human death — is always a part of many of the world’s religions, but the uprooting of a church or a synagogue or a mosque challenges our attachments to our faith, too. Religious tenets and theologies will not hold in this time of uncertainty. 

Instead, forced by circumstances to be monastics, we are left to face our own mortality and the mortality of those we love, in isolation from our religious communities. It is important to remember that rituals and practices are not the only measures of faith and belief. The virus has unbalanced our religious worlds, but we can’t let it make us unaware of the humanity of others. This extends even to those who are willing to put others in danger because of their own convictions; it is easy to deride them or detest their behavior, but like us, they are having to work through the end of things and wondering what lies ahead.

It may be Easter soon, but perhaps this pandemic is more like an endless Good Friday. There is darkness. There is death. There is memory. There is injustice.

How we as individuals and religious groups respond is not only a test of our humanity, but also a test of our ability to change and adapt our beliefs to a reality that none of us asked for but has foisted itself upon us. That is the test. Religion’s survival isn’t up to the God or divinities that are worshipped, but the people who inhabit them.

(Anthea Butler is an associate professor of religion and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!