This is the best theological reflection on coronavirus that I have read so far. It’s a Jesuit Review essay by Tomáš Halík, who is a Catholic priest and a professor of sociology at Charles University, Prague. It offers something of the prophetic perspective that is missing from much of the bland and frankly sub-biblical evangelical commentary that I have come across. It has a distinctly Catholic point of view, but most of what he says has relevance for the whole church. It’s not a very long essay, but I’ll summarise what seem to me the main points.
- The pandemic is a sign of the times and points to more serious disorder ahead. “The global vulnerability of a global world is now plain to see.”
- In response, the church—Halík quotes Pope Francis—must function as a “field hospital.” It must open its doors, get out, and attend to the needs of the afflicted. But three other roles are also important: it must offer a diagnosis of the crisis; it must help strengthen society’s immune system against the ills of globalisation; and it must provide a place of convalescence.
- Empty and closed churches at this time are a “cautionary vision of what might happen in the fairly near future”, as a “sign and challenge from God.” They expose their “hidden emptiness and their possible future.” One chapter in the history of Christianity is coming to a close, and it is time to prepare for a new one.
- Prophetic interpretation, however, demands “the art of spiritual discernment, which in turn calls for contemplative detachment from our heightened emotions and our prejudices, as well as from the projections of our fears and desires.”
- So perhaps we should hear in the current enforced abstinence from religious services a “call to reform.” In particular, Halík wants to see Christian communities become centres of learning. To my mind this is the key constructive proposal, not least because it grounds “prophetic interpretation” and “spiritual discernment” in a responsible and broad-based pattern of education:
I am convinced that our Christian communities, parishes, congregations, church movements and monastic communities should seek to draw closer to the ideal that gave rise to the European universities: a community of pupils and teachers, a school of wisdom, in which truth is sought through free disputation and also profound contemplation.
- The other major suggestion is that the church must reposition itself among spiritual seekers, not for the purpose of proselytising (there’s no point putting new wine in old wineskins), but in order to engage in dialogue: “We need to take new and old things from the treasure house of tradition that we have been entrusted with, and make them part of a dialogue with seekers, a dialogue in which we can and should learn from each other.”
- Finally, this is a time of civilisational change. It calls for a “new theology of contemporary history and a new understanding of the church.”
There are a couple of things I’m not convinced about. I don’t like the “field hospital” metaphor. Perhaps a “field hospital set on a hill” would better capture the prophetic responsibility. Halík is also rather dismissive of the court of the Gentiles analogy, but I think that Herod was on to something important: boundaries are in place, albeit semi-permeable ones; Gentiles have actively to seek the God of Israel; and the Old Testament prophetic tradition is kept alive.
But I think that Halík’s essay models very well, within its particular ecclesiological framework, the sort of far-sighted reflection, awareness of history, and attention to symbolic detail needed to narrate a pathway for the church from this age to the age to come. He reaches backwards towards scripture from this contemporary standpoint and barely touches it, but the possibility of a continuous prophetic narrative is glimpsed.
Above all, unlike many theologians, he is not afraid to look for God in the events.