Consortium of:

Interfaith Reflections on COVID-19 by the ICRS and the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace

  March 23rd 2021

Photo source: ICRP4Peace YouTube

“The COVID 19 pandemic is a challenge to humanity, therefore everyone needs to come together and work together to face this pandemic. The book Virus, Man, and God itself is a form of togetherness and the initial step of solidarity because all religious groups have joined forces to contribute ideas in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.” This is the opening statement delivered by A. Bagus Laksana, S.J. (Contributor and Dean of the Faculty of Theology, Sanata Dharma University) in his presentation in a discussion on the book which was held in collaboration with the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies with the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) on March 6, 2021.

Laksana explained that in the book he contributed a chapter entitled "From Fatalism to Spirituality and Solidarity: Challenges of Public and Interreligious Theology in Indonesia in the Context of a Pandemic". In this chapter, he started the discussion by quoting a Gallup Poll (Rodney Stark) survey which polled the answer to the question "Do you believe that God is directly involved in world events or not?" Interestingly, 57 percent of respondents from Indonesia answered affirmatively. Then the next question is, how is God's involvement understood to be included in a pandemic event? Here, Laksana, explains that there are three main paradigms to understand how God's involvement is in the COVID-19 pandemic. First, there is a paradigm known as the fatalistic and fideistic theological paradigm. Fatalism understands that all the ins and outs of a pandemic (who is affected, when will it end) are God's direct will so there is no need to be afraid of the corona. This paradigm has a positive effect when the fear of God alone turns out to be false (pseudo piety) and leads to an attitude that rejects public health policy. Meanwhile, fideism can be understood as an attitude that sees faith in God as sufficient to overcome a pandemic. The human agency is absorbed by God's agency so that some Christian pastors state that fighting COVID-19 is like the biblical narrative of Jesus rebuking a storm. If Jesus can do it and we are people who believe in Jesus, then we can do it too.

Secondly, is a rational and pragmatic theological paradigm. In this paradigm, people believe that a pandemic is resolved with science, public health epidemiology, and is not related to faith, so this paradigm does not give place to faith and religion, especially in the public sphere. One figure who is famous for having this rational and pragmatic viewpoint is Andrew Mark Cuomo, a United States politician who is currently serving as the 56th Governor of New York who says that all of this has nothing to do with God. However, there is also a third paradigm, namely the integral theology paradigm. In this paradigm, God's will is not eliminated ("fatalism" is seen as natural) but is understood in a complex, unfinished and clear manner, through a process of searching and consideration/discernment, seeing all human endeavors, including freedom and rationality, interdisciplinary scientific reasoning, and public reasoning for the benefit of humanity (solidarity). Furthermore, in this paradigm "destiny" can change, it can be avoided. God's will and determination (destiny) contain spiritual meaning, difficult spiritual growth, and faith, is open to the deepest meaning of suffering and crisis so that there is a dialectic between human agency and God's agency.

According to Laksana, in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, religious communities need to go beyond fatalism because fatalism has become a theological issue in both Muslim and Christian theology, for example in the concept of predestination from the Christian side. Laksana then explained that from the Christian side there was a debate between the role of "faith" (literal and absolute) vs the dynamic role between the agency of God and man so that ideas about "spiritual battles" emerged. In fact, in a more balanced paradigm, Christians can understand that God controls all, but also gives freedom to humans. COVID-19 is part of spiritual learning, God is involved in spiritual inclusion but is not interventive. In terms of Islamic theological discourse, Quraish Shihab for example suggests that to go beyond "fatalism" Muslims need to emphasize the meaning of sharia, the interpretation of the Qur'an which is integral to spiritual meaning and solidarity. To go beyond fatalism, it is necessary to consider actions that are pleasing to Allah, involve science, and endeavor to identify oneself even against busy lifestyles. The end goal is to understand that a pandemic is inseparable from God's will and power, and destiny must be understood in a complex manner.

The effort to go beyond fatalism is important towards better public theology and interreligious discourse and relations. Fatalism or crude fideism will probably continue to exist and become part of public debate or discourse. However, the COVID-19 pandemic should be used as a "field of faith growth" which is not only private or personal but also social and public in encouraging solidarity that encourages global human unity towards global solidarity as suggested by Pope Francis. In the end, a public theology that is open-ended, dynamic and starts from shared concerns, and then answers real problems faced by humans collectively by involving all parties. This means that this is not only an internal affair of each religious community. All parties need to see a vision of inclusive truth, namely a common language that can be understood by the public. The seeds of this public theology already exist in the third paradigm (integral theology) and faith that is solidarity, balanced religion, and a theology that can be understood by others. For this reason, it is necessary to develop public reasoning in the fields of religion and theology to help life with humans.

Furthermore, Dicky Sofjan Ph.D. (Core Doctoral Faculty, ICRS), and the editor of Virus, Man, and God also gave some important explanations. Sofjan explained that the book tries to reflect on how humans deal with things that are invisible and visible, viruses as a reality even though we do not see them, and indirectly this is also related to our view of God and religion, something that is not seen but believed by humans. Furthermore, this book seeks to balance medical and epidemiological discourse with the belief that today's society needs a broader perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic. So far, every day the public is presented with depressing news about COVID-19 from epidemiologists, doctors, and health experts. Therefore, this 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 essentialist, over-simplified, and over-generalized views of religion. Sofjan took the example that religion in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic has been accused by certain parties of having an anti-science attitude, many suggesting religion underestimates or denies the existence of COVID. 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, sharing a variety of responses to the issue. 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 services. Nevertheless, because the readers who are 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 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 humankind's efforts to face this pandemic.

Finally, Prof. Musdah Mulia as Chairperson of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP) believes that the title of this book itself is very interesting, because it emphasizes that the virus is a creature of God, so we need to be humble, not to be arrogant. . Furthermore, according to Prof. Musdah, this book needs to be appreciated because it has taken bold steps to invite all parties, all religious communities, even indigenous religions, to voice and express their beliefs and ideas as part of human rights. Prof. Musdah also emphasized that religion needs to be understood as a medium or a way to attain an attitude of piety and the pleasure of God so that whatever it is, it is not absolute, everything can change, in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, our way of religion also changes. We, who have been worshiping communally, must now enter into a more personal and essential spirituality. However, it must be admitted that COVID-19 also opens up difficult facts that religious segregation is increasing, domestic violence has also increased, at the level of state life, even human greed and corruption have also increased. This is of course very ironic. This shows that religious life is only a formality and has not succeeded in transforming humans into a more essential and moral religious life. Therefore, this book is also important as part of religious literacy which is part of public policy. The studies in this book need to be packaged into the material in preaching activities, so that da'wah does not only increase knowledge but also tolerance and solidarity between religious communities. In the end, this book is also important to encourage the formation of religious rationality or religious attitudes with common sense, so that our religious attitude is better because it is based on a critical attitude that can accept differences of opinion and diversity is not only driven by sensitivity and emotions. In the end, it must be fought for religion to become an important aspect in the development of human civilization, so that the more religious people are, the stronger their humanity becomes.