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Developing better science and theology narratives about the Covid-19 pandemic

The Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham
light and subway tiles

bird sin“Lamp and tiles” by greenoid is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Part Two of our series “Making sense of coronavirus with reason and faith.”

How we make sense of the world and our experiences is fundamental to human life at any stage, and especially so when those experiences are challenging. The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged many of our patterns of life and our assumptions about what is important and valuable. There is much debate about re-thinking and re-imagining our world as we move through this time. Part of this re-thinking needs to include reflection on, and analysis of, the explanatory narratives which we frequently employ. Often these narratives can be implicit and have great power to shape both our thinking and our action. As Lucas Mix pointed out in last week’s blog, these narratives can be both scientific and theological. A central question for our project is what narratives are being used to make sense of the Covid-19 pandemic, and in particular how the theological and scientific elements are related. In short, how are we to produce good narratives which speak into the wider world and which are both scientifically and theologically well-informed?

One fruitful way of approaching this is to identify some of the main themes which have emerged and are emerging in the midst of the pandemic, and to reflect on their theological and scientific content and implications. We have identified at least five such themes.

Following the science — the importance of truth-seekingVery early on in the pandemic experts were suddenly back in the limelight. We needed reliable evidence-based information in knowing how to deal with the pandemic. Scientists were central in this. In recent years postmodern philosophy has provided important critiques of the concept of truth, but in some ways has led to devaluing of the notion of truth. Science is mostly seen as a truth-seeking activity. It tells us something about how things really are in the world. It is based on empiricism and reason. This is a welcome reinstatement of the central importance of science, including its role in truth-seeking, but there are some dangers. Notably, the idea that science is the only source of proper knowledge, which can answer all our human questions. Media articles with titles such as, “Can science beat the virus?” and “The science of well-being” suggest that science might be seen as the primary route to solving all our problems. Other forms of discourse, including theology, are needed if we are to have a good understanding of the pandemic and its implications. Theology is often dismissed as private, unjustifiable and unverifiable opinion. However, there are good arguments to say that it, too, is a truth-seeking activity and the crucial area for reflection is how scientific and theological approaches engage with one another. Our project has this at its heart.

A new respect for viruses and birdsongThe pandemic has led to a new appreciation of nature and the place of humanity in the environment. Suddenly we can hear the birdsong and there is less pollution than normal. There is more humility and less hubris in our approach. Distorted views of the power of science might lead us to think that we can find a technical fix for the problems of both the pandemic and the climate crisis. Distorted Christian understandings of our relationship to the environment can degenerate into an overpowering dominance of humans at the expense of other lifeforms. Another key area for examination is the development of good scientific and theological narratives about the place of humanity in the environment as a whole.

The human condition — mortality, sin, and spiritual yearningWe have become much more aware of the vulnerability of human life and our mortality. We have had to engage afresh with death, suffering, grief, loss and lament. In addition, there have been many examples of both the best and the worst of human nature. Alongside panic buying and protectionist policies we have seen community spirit and people pulling together. All of this raises profound questions about both the theological and scientific understandings of human nature and in particular our mortality and our capacity for good and evil.

Justice and equality. The pandemic has affected the poor, and Black, Asian and minority ethnic people disproportionately. This has shone a very bright light on the deep-rooted structural injustices which have existed for many years across the world. The terrible death of George Floyd is making many people and communities reassess their approach to racial justice. This will involve both scientific and theological understandings of our humanity, remembering that both science (via eugenics) and theology (via distorted readings of the Bible) have often been used to justify discrimination. Again, we need to develop good scientific and theological narratives to shape this vital conversation and action relating to justice and equality.

Clap for carers — the road to salvation? Early on in the pandemic, there was a new appreciation of the importance of self-giving and sacrificial service, exemplified by medical and care staff and many others. These examples of the power of self-giving love and care are truly inspirational. A key question is how we understand the phenomenon of human love and care. Biblical accounts say that love is at the very heart of the being of God and that we are made in God’s image, and so are fundamentally meant to be creatures characterised by love. There are also scientific accounts of the phenomenon of altruism. Our ability to grow in our capacity for love, rather than descending into self-centredness, is central to fullness of life for all people, and indeed the whole of creation. A key question is how the scientific narratives relate to the theological ones.

All these themes have emerged to date in the midst of the pandemic. There will no doubt be others. In order to develop both deep understanding of our situation and our actions, the analysis and interaction of the scientific and theological narratives is extremely important, and I’m sure will prove very fruitful. We shall be exploring these five themes more deeply in the ECLAS blog over the coming weeks. The narratives we employ really do matter. They can change how we understand our situation and how we respond to it in action.

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