Coronavirus and Quarantine – Takeaways from Veritas Forum (held on Mar 24)

On March 24, Veritas held a Virtual forum on Coronavirus and Quarantine: What Big Questions Can We Be Asking? featuring David Brooks, Andy Crouch, Lydia Dugdale, and Andrew Schuman.

Mitchell and I both found that the Veritas Forum generated an inspiring discussion about learning from past national tragedies, seeking signs of hope, and developing creative ways to be community. The following are some notes that we (primarily Mitchell) took. We encourage you to listen to it yourself (as well as the following conversations).

The first bit of the conversation focused on gleaning insights from past pandemics. While pandemics can lead to isolation and fear of other people, they can also teach us what it means to be together. The main precedents we have are the plague and the 1918 Spanish flu. In 1918, WWI also ended and, with it, the idea that “life has meaning” passed away. What’s the logic in living if your neighbor dies? Many would argue that the Great War was the time when “Europe stopped believing in God.”

Will we see a cultural transformation as the result of this pandemic? The human vocation is the shared activity of creation and stewarding the earth. Going back to “business as usual” too soon or too late could have consequences.

How do countries hold together in times of crisis? Historically, countries do well when there is high social trust, trust in institutions, integrated population, and a sense of togetherness. Unfortunately, the US has struggled on all of these fronts. To compare, after the bombing of London, social connection increased and Churchill gave moral meaning to the war by fighting fascism. An important part of the situation now is that an overwhelmed healthcare system forces difficult ethical decisions on doctors. The role of the doctor is to alleviate suffering and care for everyone but sometimes doctors are forced to make difficult decisions, which results in suffering for some (e.g., potentially limiting care for pandemic victims or through limiting resources for ongoing medical issues and potentially increasing suicide cases).

One sign of hope in all of this is that people are wrestling with big problems. Times of crises also encourage social innovation (e.g. the Great Depression). In this “great reset” we can now ask “was normal that great?” In particular, Generation Z will likely become more aware of mortality and ask “what matters to me?” When we are confronted with death it can shape us to want to “invest in living.” When we remove certainty from our to-do list we are liberated.

A remarkable claim in Christianity and Judaism is that “God is active in the contingencies of history,” including the worst events. There is nothing worse than “the neighboring empire conquering your small nation, burning your temple, taking away your beautiful things and embarking on cultural genocide.” It is hard to imagine a more dire time than post-exile for Israel: “How can we sing the song of Zion?” (Ps. 137). The amazing witness of the Hebrew Bible is that God was there and there is a way to sing songs of hope. One positive outcome in the case of Israel was a national recognition of sin. Whatever your worst case scenario is, God is present and unlocking possibility.

As people of faith, the exile becomes part of our story. While in captivity Jews are told to “contribute to the health of city.” This is the formation of a creative minority, a call to be separate but not isolated. Another religious idea present in most religions is that suffering is redemptive. It destroys the ego. “Suffering carves through the basement of the soul,” and only “spiritual and relational food will fill this void.” Lament is also “the seed of genuine creative action.” Writing a lament that cries out and reaffirms trust in God unlocks creative power. We can anchor our creative work in the injustice in the world and a trust in God. Creativity is birthed out of the pain and groaning of the world.

In response to questions, it was noted that resilience is not having “good thoughts.” It is about discovering the stress and viewing it as a challenge instead of a threat. Suffering hurts you unless you can attach it to a narrative of redemption. Christ’s example in the garden (“take this cup from me”) suggests that we can mourn and grieve and ask for it go away, but it ought to be coupled with “not my will, but thine.” Rather than a surrender to fate, this is saying, “it’s not my life.”  So when you pray don’t ask for it to go away, ask what is “spiritually most useful to transpire.”

Reflections on “Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Social Justice”

After 18 months of planning (I checked – my first communication was on June 29, 2011), we finally hosted the first ever Veritas Forum at Michigan State University. We at Campus Edge were proud to team up not only with the national Veritas Forum organization, but, more importantly, to partner with a whole group of local ministries: River Terrace Church, Riverview Church, St. John’s Catholic Church and Student Center, Christianity and Culture, University Christian Outreach, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, Spartan Christian Fellowship, The Furnace at MSU, and All Saint’s Episcopal Church. We were thrilled to see around 200 people come to this exciting event.

We hosted Dr. Mary Poplin, professor of education at Claremont Graduate University, as she presented “Radical Marxist, Radical Womanist, Radical Love: What Mother Teresa Taught Me about Social Justice.” The talk was interesting – Dr. Poplin is an engaging speaker and a wonderful person with whom to converse. Perhaps the most important thing Mary did, however, was to spark dialogue. In the days leading up to the event, the Facebook page was the home of a heated debate about the criticisms leveled against Mother Teresa by Christopher Hitchens (and others). In the days since the event, I’ve had coffee with colleagues and friends to discuss further what we thought of Mary’s talk. From the time I spent with Mary, I know she would be thrilled by the conversations all across campus that have been sparked by her presentation and I know that they will continue for some time.

What may be most exciting of all is the number of people who have said that this talk challenged them to think or live differently. Students have shared that the Veritas Forum gave them a better understanding of how to share their faith. Others were challenged to be more forgiving or to take seriously God’s call to justice and mercy.

I am excited to continue the conversation in the weeks and months ahead and look forward to bringing more partners on board for next year’s Veritas Forum. Stay tuned!

– Kory Plockmeyer

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