I am in Brooklyn, New York and I am writing a bleak theology while cloistered with the rest of my city. I do not know what these epistles, these letters, these dispatches are to become. But I am writing them, because they give me relief and we are alone together in this time of real uncertainty. Some will find them edifying, others despairing. If you don’t like them, read someone else.
How does one think theologically in the midst of catastrophe? This is a function of these Plague Epistles. What is faith in these dark times? How does community – especially religious community – function when it physically cannot take place? What do we we do when death is at our door and suffering in our midst? These are theological themes that are always in the shadows and the corners of our lives. Now, we live unexpectedly in a time of shadow, feeling like we are cornered.
Is it accurate to call COVID-19 a plague? I’m not sure. Though it’s not plague, per se, it is a fast and relentless illness that affects all of us deeply. It is certainly correct to use the term to capture the miasmic spirit of the time. This plague is not merely about the pandemic, but about the effects it has on the individuals and society affected by the pandemic, itself.
The City that Never Sleeps has forced itself to slow down in ways never attempted before. COVID-19 is forcing a complete reassessment of how we live life here. New cases are identified every day here. I can only report what it is like here in this major metropolis. I can’t imagine what it is like in the rest of America, where people have real space between each other and still cannot escape infection.
Here, we share an implicit understanding that the proximal fabric of our lives and fates are tightly interwoven. We cannot ignore, dismiss, or abandon each other. To do so is at our literal peril. The body politic is real and alive and about to get hit hard. As Albert Camus captured so well in his novel, La Peste, the plague is not just about the rampant infection, but what about what individuals do in that time of affliction and crisis. Who are we in this time and how shall we live?
Over the past few days, we have acquired extra supplies, storing them in our little apartment as we can. It is difficult to determine how much we should have. There is an end date, an eschaton of sorts, but how far is the horizon? During a plague, time takes on a new pallor. Time seems to linger. Along with it we are sealed and what can we do but wait and keep ourselves occupied as best we see fit.
For us introverts, social distancing does not seem like a big deal, at the moment. Though I understand that it will relationally affect others more deeply. In this city of 8.4 million people, it is very difficult to not be within six feet of another person at some time during the day, even if you don’t directly, physically interact with them. It is easier as we have restricted our movement. We do our best and wash our hands. We take walks into open areas and keep our distance. We gauge our proximity. We share a knowing look.
Like most religious communities, my church, St. Lydia’s, has gone entirely online, though I have not had the opportunity to participate. Regular social media dispatches and dialogue among us are edifying. In a later epistle, I will write about how I think our church model creates a robust kind of community for these times of isolation. Because we are praxis-oriented and are not primarily reliant upon a single leader to carry the weight, I think that gives us an opportunity to share the loads more evenly.
There is much to read. We have lots of time to read. The Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament is ripe with readings and analogies for this time. Job, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Isaiah, the Psalms, etc., etc. Everything is terrible. And still we keep going. We find social distancing in the gospels, when Jesus is tempted in the Wilderness and when he tries to escape the pressing crowds, the Desert Fathers, the intentional, cloistered communities of monks and nuns. And still we keep going.
We read about Martin Luther during The Black Plague, Paul Tillich during World War I, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer against the Nazis. We read about ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. We are ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. We read about each other online. We share our stories, our fears, our lives.
Theologically, there is much to chew on, with plenty of time to chew on it. I dare say that my bleak theology is tailored for this time. I write about catastrophe and difficult circumstances in existential and cultural terms. And here we are. Post-punk romanticism was a luxury of a distant time. My theology now directly grapples with our very real norms. My counterweight to joy is real and articulate. There is no escapism here. There is no escape.
Our theological questions must be more careful and considered than ever before. Many wrong, harmful, hateful answers abound. Where is God in all of this? It is a difficult question to parse and answer. For me, my first answer is apophatic: “What is God not?” Because questions of location, of social distance, of proximity, of agency, of viability naturally follow.
More immediately, we must be concerned with our neighbor, because that is who is suffering. Our focus must be on suffering, on those suffering, on our own suffering. We must be there for those who are suffering as best we can, even from so far away. Do for others as we would have others do for us. We must share with each other that we, that our neighbor, our community, are not alone. Rather, we are alone together.
This is not to be despairing. This is to reaffirm that we are alone, but we do not have to be lonely. We have solitude, but our isolation does not have to be absolute. Being cloistered is not being cut off. It is being intentionally communal. Now, more than ever, we walk the delicate line between despair and hope. Bleak theology makes this line more clear. This line is real and it best to explore how to walk it. This is what I do. This is what I write.
Even if we believe that God is with us, we are still alone together. For a time we are hermits. Let us be hermetic. The time of preparation is suddenly past and we are left wanting. We now live in the desert, hunkered down in our caves. Light your candle, but save your wick and wax.