The COVID-19 crisis has caused a fury of debate amongst Christians as to whether or not we should continue to gather for corporate worship. In the wake of the pandemic, Christians have herded most of their worship gatherings toward online forums and prevented access to their physical locations. On the other hand, a great number have also remained open despite warnings from public health officials, citing a biblical mandate to be “unified” and above all, “anxious for nothing.” As one Louisiana Pastor who defied the stay-at-home order said, “what good is the church in an hour of peril if the church craters and caves in to the fears and the spirits of torment in our society?”1
While many, and one might say the vocal majority, have seen the closure of religious sanctuaries as being faithful to the Church’s mission of caring for the sick, others have called this move “disastrous,” and even “demonic;” an ill-conceived form of sentimentalism. A recent article in First Things by its editor, R.R. Reno, argues that “the mass shutdown of society to fight the spread of COVID-19 creates a perverse, even demonic atmosphere.”2 The refusal to engage in life-as-usual is, according to Reno, symptomatic of a corrosive spirit of fear, allowing ourselves to be ruled by “death’s dominion.”
Yet, ironically, Reno also seems to think it is hardly death that awaits us. Amidst the call by New York City officials to shut down all non-essential businesses, Reno says “the truth is that only a small percent of the population of New York is at risk.”3 Reno’s sentiment begs the question: Just how serious should the threat be before these enforcements become relevant?
Does it even matter for the Christian? Should it? For Reno, it seems that surrendering our fellowship, even for a season, would mean bowing to the golden monoliths of Babylon, imbibing the view that we are to be consumed with fear for the fate of others and ourselves. This, he says, is succumbing to a secular and materialist view of “survival at all costs,” and we must reject this deceptive moralism that places fear of death at the centre of our life. What are we to do? It seems, according to Reno, we ought to get out there and really LIVE, dammit!
But is living really what we’re refusing to do by delaying our ceremonies and deferring our corporate worship to alternative platforms?
In an article entitled “To Quarantine is Christian,” Jared Lucky responds to Reno’s critique.
He says, “ironically, by encouraging us to carry on with business as usual, Reno sends us back into the arms of the very materialism he claims to reject. In the West today, we organize both our working lives and our leisure hours around consumption. We live as if youth, health, and wealth are the default settings of life. Most Christians through the centuries have not had that luxury. Millions today, who worship in the developing world or under the yoke of persecution, have never had it. Why is it that when we make the slightest adaptation to our historically unique status quo, canceling concerts and dinner parties to protect the vulnerable, Reno cries foul? What worldview is he really defending?”4
Indeed, at what point do the pious heed the advice of doctors, nurses, scientists, and government officials? Are these secular bodies merely meant to be thanked for their cautionary note only to then be quickly passed over with a “thanks, but no thanks” by the truly faithful? I ask, are we really forfeiting our lives in any serious sense? Are we not rather simply being sensible—developing an appreciation for more solitary practices and perhaps learning to appreciate the very rituals we so often take for granted?
I do not wish to hand-wave this question aside. It is important to underscore the theological importance of such a debate. The German Theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, once reflected on the experience of isolation with great distress: “The more isolated a person is, the more destructive will be the power of sin over him, and the more deeply he becomes involved in it, the more disastrous is his isolation.”5 Being alone is indeed a dangerous place for any of us to remain for long. Certainly, we can all understand this petition and relate to the concern it holds for restricting our time together in worship. But we must also remember that we are not completely “cut off” from all people. We have the luxury of connecting in various ways through social media, email, video conferencing, and that old-fashioned bygone once termed a “phone call”.
Eventually, God willing, this will all come to an end, with the vast majority being healed. But until then, should we not seek to understand the real purpose of our quarantine: the protection of the vulnerable. It is reasonable to say that during this pandemic there is a very real possibility that the spiritual impairments of such solitude may prove destructive for some, and yet, I believe our love of neighbour invites us to suffer for them all the same. Indeed, it is a suffering we may do well to endure.
It was also in this same time of separation from corporate worship that Bonhoeffer became convicted of the deep privilege of fellowship that he had so often taken for granted. While he spoke of isolation as destructive to the human spirit he also recognized a deep need for moments of quiet and solitude: “As there are definite hours in the Christian’s day for the Word, particularly the time of common worship and prayer, so the day also needs definite times of silence, silence under the Word and silence that comes out of the Word.”6
Against the “complying is cowardice” camp, Dr. Ephraim Radner of Wycliffe College has argued that we should at least seek to understand this ‘Bonhoeferrian’ spirit. Suffer, we may, but Radner offers that we might also approach this situation in which we have been asked to “go home” as an enormous gift and an equal provocation: “We cannot, nor should we, seek to give the impression that life “goes on as normal.”7 Instead, we should remain home, and what’s more, we should learn what it means to do so — “when it comes to worship, we might learn to pray alone…. We might learn to become lonely (or finally to admit that we already are) and to cry out. We might learn to hunger and thirst even for the Bread of Life, for the Body of Christ, as many have done over the centuries in this or that place of desolation or confinement.”8
Is it a coincidence that this virus has confronted us in the midst of Lent? Or might we call it providential? Blaise Pascal once famously wrote in the Pensées that all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone. Perhaps now is precisely the time to figure out what he meant by that. Perhaps it is time to sit for a moment with ourselves, or at least – for those who still have the luxury – with those closest to us, and learn to rely on the God who speaks in whispers. It may be more than just hours in a single day, but “there is a time to keep silence and a time to speak” (Eccl. 3:7). This time we have away from our communities will not last forever, but for now, let us abide.
- Jared Lucky, “To Quarantine is Christian: An Act of Service,” Commonweal (March 25, 2020).
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) in Life Together (New York: Harper One, 1954), 49
- Ibid, 34