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Book review: The Covid Pandemic and the World’s Religions: Challenges and responses edited by George D. Chryssides and Dan Cohn-Sherbok

12 January 2024

Michael Doe reviews essays about diversity of belief and response

LADY HALLETT’s epic Covid-19 Inquiry will report in 2025, or probably much later, but, we must hope, before another epidemic has overtaken us. Her terms of reference, apart from the opening and closing of places of worship, make no mention of its having any “spiritual” significance.

This collection of essays shows how religious people around the world interpreted and responded to the pandemic. In his introduction, Christopher Lewis asks the basic questions. Was Covid a natural disaster, or, like global warming, something that could have been avoided? How were the more prosperous countries able to respond so effectively while, elsewhere, malaria and the Ebola virus still go largely unchecked?

Every religious community had to cope with the restrictions on meeting and worshipping, and many learnt new IT skills. They had to decide how far doing it online met the requirements of eucharistic blessing, sabbath norms, Friday Muslim prayers, or attendance at Shinto festivals. Clare Amos asks whether Zoom makes Christian worship more or less incarnational. Most exercised a chaplaincy ministry to patients and the bereaved. The exception would seem to be American Evangelicals, among whom life went on much as normal, as more than one quarter trusted in God rather than vaccination.

Did the pandemic change the way in which people thought about God? In contrast with the outlook of past generations, there were few signs of its being seen as divine judgement. Judaism rejects such an idea, but suffering, as in the Book of Job, remains a mystery. Sikhism also rejects easy explanations, preferring to emphasise the interconnectedness of all things. Hindus were more likely to see God as a shelter from the epidemic than its cause.

Among Muslims, it may have strengthened their understanding of this world as the place where we are tested. For some Christians, it was a Lenten experience, nurturing hope through suffering. Buddhists have always seen contemplation on and through suffering as enlarging compassion. Such are the insights of this book, somewhat unbalanced in that there are contributions from Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but nothing from Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians.

It has been said that Covid acted as an X-ray of our own country, highlighting the differences in class and ethnicity, our failure to deal with social care, and the under-funding of public services. Questions about suffering and death were less avoidable, but there are few signs that people turned back to religion. In the world at large, globalisation enabled a concerted response to emergencies, but exacerbated the divide between rich and poor. The UK’s only response to the global realities revealed by Covid has been to make drastic cuts in our international-development support for health services in poorer countries, while trying to steal their doctors and nurses to shore up our own NHS.

The Rt Revd Michael Doe is a former General Secretary of USPG, now serving as an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark.

The Covid Pandemic and the World’s Religions: Challenges and responses
George D. Chryssides and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, editors
Bloomsbury Academic £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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