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Book Discussion on Viruses, Man and God: ICRS and PMB-LIPI

  March 23rd 2021

Photo Source: PMB LIPI Youtube

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed all aspects of life. Various assumptions, predictions, and scientific and medical analyses have emerged to explain this pandemic. All are trying to answer the question of how we should respond to this epidemic: optimistically or pessimistically? With the deaths of more than two million people across more than 200 countries, the fate of mankind is increasingly uncertain. Even religion as a social system has been required to think more deeply about its role and contribution in strengthening humanity in the face of this dangerous virus. Some of the earliest questions that arose regarding the predicament caused by this pandemic include why did Allah allow mankind to suffer from this deadly virus? Why didn't God eliminate all the diseases and sufferings of the people who are called caliphs on this earth? Where is the role of faith in dealing with this epidemic? How do humans respond to the adversity they face? For this reason, on February 1, 2021, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies released a book entitled Virus, Manusia, Tuhan: Refleksi Lintas Iman tentang COVID-19 (Virus, Man, God: Interfaith Reflections on COVID-19) as an effort to reflect on and answer various questions related to the relationship between man and God during the COVID-19 pandemic. This book is a compilation of writings from religious scholars, theologians, and those representing religious communities in Indonesia. In this book, they offer a variety of interfaith reflections and perspectives. Following the book’s release, on February 22, 2021, the Center for Community and Cultural Research - Indonesian Institute of Sciences (PMB-LIPI) held a panel to discuss the book with Dr. Dicky Sofjan, a core doctoral faculty member of the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies and one of the editors of the book and Pdt. Robert Setio, Ph.D. who currently serves as dean of the Theology Faculty of Duta Wacana Christian University, and one of the contributors to the book.

There needs to be a broader perspective regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, every day we are treated to depressing news about COVID-19. This kind of news usually comes from epidemiologists, doctors, and health professionals. This book moves beyond medical and epidemiological explanations. The book takes a position and role to lay the foundation for understanding the plurality and complexity of religious phenomena and religious responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. This is important, because according to Sofjan, during this pandemic period, there have been too many views that are essentialist, over-simplified, and over-generalized in terms of religion. Sofjan took the example that religion in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has been accused by certain parties of taking an anti-science attitude, the critics arguing religion does not believe in COVID and therefore underestimates the disease. Sofjan argues that this is a form of essentialism, over-simplification, and over-generalization, because of course, the reality of religion and its responses to the COVID-19 pandemic are not that simple. However, the plurality and complexity of religious phenomena and their responses in society related to the COVID-19 pandemic must also be dealt with wisely. Therefore, this book seeks to provide a deeper understanding of various religious traditions by writers who come from various religious backgrounds.

Furthermore, Sofjan explained that the book tries to reflect on how humans deal with things that are invisible and visible, viruses as a real reality even though we do not see them. Indirectly, this is also related to our view of God and religion, something that is not seen but believed by humans. However, because the readers targeted by this book are diverse, this book is not designed to be a very heavy academic book, but rather a readable, reflective semi-academic book (not only presenting information and data but also interesting. important learning for humans). This is intended so that this book is open to speculative attitudes, for example concerning the new normal situation, so that there is a "lessons learned" stage from humanity's efforts to face this pandemic. According to Sofjan, this book also seeks to view religions as equals, not only prioritizing the religious majorities’ viewpoints because it is clear that the challenges of religious life during the pandemic are faced by all religious people. In addition to grappling with theological and theodicy problems with questions such as “Why doesn't God solve this pandemic immediately? Is He capable?", this book also reveals that the pandemic situation has increased the need for religious service. Sofjan took an example, that in Bali the suicide rate during the COVID-19 pandemic increased by 20 percent. Apart from that from Dr. Fatimah Husein also shows that during this pandemic, the problems of religious segregation and intolerance are increasing. Poverty and the marginalization of vulnerable groups in society are getting worse. Family disintegration, domestic violence, and divorce also play an important role in religion. In the end, Sofjan sees that this book guides his readers to reflect on what is the meaning behind this pandemic and how religious communities need a search for new meanings, new religious reflections in dealing with this pandemic. Amid this pandemic too, religious people should be aware that religious life is not only limited to prayer activities, but all religious people must increase solidarity in all its limitations to help each other ease the burdens of life.

Furthermore, Robert Serio also explains a little about his chapter entitled "Viruses, Animals and God in the Anthropocene Age: An Animally Derridarian Criticism" (Virus, Binatang dan Tuhan di Masa Anthropocene: Sebuah Kritik Animally Derridarian). The context of this chapter is the Anthropocene which Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer understand as a condition in which: human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet; most of the world's major river has been dammed or diverted; fisheries remove more than a third of the primary production of the ocean's coastal water; and humans use more than half of the world's readily accessible freshwater runoff. In this context, Setio sees that it takes an effort to put the realities that exist in nature in unity with humans (p. 126). There needs to be a deconstruction of the view that places humans above non-human beings, therefore the deconstruction of religious teachings about humans. The deconstruction is based by Setio on Derrida's animality critique known as "The Animal That Therefore I Am." When one time he looked at his cat while walking to the bathroom from his bedroom, he thought and reflected "When I feel so naked in front of a cat, facing it, and when, meeting its gaze, I hear the cat or God asks himself, ask me: Is he going to call me, is he going to address me? What name is he going to call me by, this naked man, before I give him a woman? " Animality criticism becomes a warning about how God is depicted in religious traditions. At least in the Christian tradition, descriptions of God are often if not entirely anthropomorphic. Even though it is recognized that God is greater than humans, the attributes imposed on him come from what is in humans. So God's presence can't be seen in the form of non-human beings such as animals. This classic ontological and teleological proof of God even places God in a position that is far from creation.

Then, Setio argues that when the virus emerged, humans realized that there was an invisible force that could greatly affect human life, so those religious people created various reactions from religious circles to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some examples of such reflections are such as religious people need to fight fear, God is smarter than viruses; religious people see it as a trial and warning of the end of time; perhaps the emergence of the virus is a sign of scientific failure; some see it as a conspiracy to overthrow religion that must be resisted; but some see the COVID-19 pandemic as momentum to strengthen brotherhood and reason to rethink the relationship between humans and nature. According to Setio, people can interpret anything about COVID-19, nothing is standard, in fact, this diversity shows not only multitasking but also the fluidity of the human depictions of themselves (p. 135). Something inherent in humans is always volatile. Because what is seen is changing, it is not stable, so is the self-image of the person who sees it. What we discuss is our thoughts about something. So the human self-image can also always change and be vulnerable. Within the framework of religion, volatility can also be understood as the presence of God. Here, God is understood as immanent but also transcendent. In this situation, the role of religion is to build cosmic solidarity, not only between humans (across religions, across knowledge but also creatures). Religion also needs to build awareness of the multiplicity of the cosmos and make the cosmos a place to live together for all beings which in turn is useful for preventing, emphasizing, and even eliminating unilateral greed. Therefore, religious communities during the COVID-19 pandemic need to rethink their relationship with nature and God (p. 138-139).