On the role of churches during the COVID-19 crisis.
In evolutionary theory a “vestigial organ” is said to be a vestige, an artefact, a relic of the previous state of development of the organism. Furthermore, it has no current functionality in the organism, and you can even remove it and not affect the life of the organism. In human anatomy, for example, I learnt at school around 40 years ago that our appendices in a peculiar place on our intestine were vestigial and so were my tonsils and adenoids. Thus, mine were chopped out when I kept getting ill during the winter, as was the fashion in the early 1970s, but thankfully my appendix has never become infected and burst which is particularly unpleasant and painful. Now, as far as human anatomy is concerned, medical science has discovered these organs were not quite as “vestigial” as they were once thought and with the exception of a burst appendix, it is unlikely they will now be chopped out!
Thus, it comes to the specific question that I have been pondering for the last week following the response of “the Church” to the COVID “crisis”, is the church a vestigial organ? That is, is the church a vestige, a relic of a previous age of the evolution of humanity and that now we are in this new era, could we get rid of the church and not really notice any change in the life of the nations?
For example, many psychologists would argue that any form of religion is just an externalisation of inner needs of the human person. Freud famously argued it was purely the “father” complex, Jung argued “god” in one sense was immanent within us but vacillated at various points in his career as to what was the nature of the external “God” and how we should relate religiously (he argued for a Quaternity, not a Trinity, adding “evil” to God to make His personality complete and balanced so we needed to integrate “evil” into our own personalities to be balanced — Jung’s unique contribution to religion) and modern psychology is much more likely to speak of the question in terms of empirical pyramid or taxonomies of “needs”. Marxists and critical theorists (the name for Marxists who are attempting to apply Marxist analysis to areas other than the economic and material) want to assert that the lack of material and social advancement of individuals have meant they have looked outside of themselves to something that will give them (false) hope and help them endure the present with a hope for the future. Similarly, there are plenty of political theorists who see religion, positively and negatively, as an instrument of persuasion, control, and oppression. Which politician does not want to be seen with some “spiritual” leader or to receive their endorsement as part of a campaign?
Now, for the “religious”, this type of scientific or pseudo-scientific deconstruction of their beliefs is likely to provoke a whole range of responses, from the post-modern relativistic “yes you are right, but this works for me” to the transrational spiritualist, “you are trying to describe something you can only experience to get the real meaning”, to the evidentialist “if you would just be objective and weight the evidence you would understand my faith is probably true” and my personal favourite, the presuppositionalist, “facts are never neutral but all reality is interpreted by your presuppositions, atheism to argue against theism must accept the presuppositions of the theistic world view of logic, causality and determinism rather than a universe of pure chance as demanded by naturalism and evolutionary thinking”.
Now, all these responses are legitimate, and they deal with the personal justification for the rationality of your belief, i.e. you are not a fruitcake if you believe in “God”. It is perfectly reasonable to believe in some form of “higher” reality beyond yourself even if you struggle to articulate it precisely, such is the case with many things in life. With the exception of around 1% of humanity, most people believe in a supreme deity, atheists are a very, very noisy, small minority among humans. However, it must also be said, and this is really the question that interests me most here, just because I say I believe in God or religion that does not mean it affects my life very much.
Being the descendants of Greek culture, we in the West and those in the East who have adopted “Western” values to a greater or lesser degree, segregate the different compartments of our life and we also separate “knowing” the theory about something from the practice of “knowing” it by doing it. Thus, we study at college a course in X and say we know about “X” because we have the certificate or degree to prove it. However, anyone who has ever tried to employ someone straight out of university to do the job they allegedly have a degree that qualifies them to work for you, knows that a lot of the real learning about the job starts with you training them, sometimes in the basics like arrive for work on time, go home and have a shower rather than come straight from the night-club, do not speak to clients smelling of beer and cigarettes etc. In some other cultures, people are rather taken on as “apprentices” and learn the theory and the skills (personal, social and technical) on the job, you can be confident that an apprenticeship, if properly setup and executed, will produce a competent person that you can confidently let loose in your business after a brief induction.
So, similarly, many of us might claim to “believe” in God but that belief has absolutely no, or a minimal affect e.g. if we are Christians, we might feel guilty at Christmas or Easter and suffer some kind of boring candlelight service, or go to confession if we slept with our secretary. However, the rest of our life goes on essentially independently of what we claim to believe about our eternal destiny beyond our short mortal life on this planet. This is where I am coming from, in this sense our churches seem to have a minimal social function which with the current crisis, have, with a few notable exceptions, either shut up shop all together or gone for “online” meetings.
What benefit are they bringing to the wider culture at the present time in this “online” state? Of course, we can argue that there has always been a separation between the church as an institution and the church as a living organism, between formal religion and “living faith”. However, many of those same institutions that have claimed to be part of the “living faith” institutions shut up shop with barely a whimper much as the rest of the institutions of society. There was absolutely nothing to distinguish their practices, apparently derived from divine sanction and inspiration, to submit and comply to the practices of the messianic state that wants to take care of us from the cradle to the grave and thus can lock us all up, strip us of our civil liberties, forcibly take us off the street into institutions for re-education after injecting us with “vaccines”; if we happen to suffer wrongfully, the same legislation grants the State immunity from prosecution and also exempts any employees of the government and will also tax you for the privilege of them doing this to you — sounds like a Schwarzenegger movie from the 1980s, you would be right, for the UK anyway! Never before have the world governments managed to take so much power to themselves, all in the name of “saving lives” over something, which for a healthy person, is no more dangerous than a cold or mild flu. They have created an international panic and have been skilfully manipulating a complicit media, all whilst destroying the ability of citizens to take care of themselves by trading with one another, consolidating their own power and instead making us dependent on their “handouts”.
Never before have the world governments managed to take so much power to themselves, all in the name of “saving lives” over something, which for a healthy person, is no more dangerous than a cold or mild flu.
In the case of the UK churches, I know there are some notable exceptions in the US where even some mainstream “faith” churches are now announcing “the time for cooperation with the government is over, we will be reopening for meeting together”, the degree of compliance with the government’s abuse of its executive power was about 100%. No one seemed ready to make the social or scientific case that the lockdown is counterproductive and the lasting damage to people’s lives will be far worse than any short-term encounter with the virus. Just imagine if the media were concentrating on all the people that were recovering and giving people hope — instead of daily doses of new infections and death-tolls. Far, far more, worldwide over 95%, are recovering –some places have mortality of less than 0.5%, unhealthy groups among Europeans and Americans have suffered far more deaths than they needed to, but even there, those people who died of the virus were just as likely to have died of something else during the course of the year, the salient point is that you are still dead, you have not saved any lives by the incarceration of the people and the decimation of their economy.
At last, there are a smattering of academics across Europe who are daring to say this and publishing studies which are currently in peer review, the UK has already had two studies published refuting the government official “scientific advice” and still more significantly, there were some countries in Europe that did not go into lockdown and they are not post-apocalyptic wastelands. It has been notable, there has been no coverage, I mean none, by our media of those nations and furthermore, a virtually complete ignoring of the China dimension. The latter is easy to explain, there is lots of Chinese money propping up European business and infrastructure, including our secret telecoms infrastructure. There was a report a couple of weeks ago of a company that had developed “top secret” surveillance technology for the UK that was actually owned through a short chain of shell companies by the Chinese government and had just defended itself against an attempt by the Chinese owners to impose some directors on the Board, the two most senior members of the Company resigned saying there was no way they could work for that company doing what they did knowing it was owned by Chinese intelligence. On this and on some of the basic rights within the US constitution, at least the US had sense enough to exclude the Chinese from this type of interference, have rightly highlighted the danger the Chinese state represents to the world at the moment (despite a US media that was intent to defend the Chinese against such “racism” until it became undeniable their direct involvement with releasing the virus into the world) and because of the relative autonomy of the States, with some courageous stands by individual citizens for the right to open their businesses rather than accept food stamps so the government can take care of them instead of them having to work, the US is reopening far quicker than Europe after closing up far later.
Just imagine if the media were concentrating on all the people that were recovering and giving people hope — instead of daily doses of new infections and death-tolls.
All the while, our churches have stayed closed or ministered “online”. I wrote a satirical piece imagining a Tango (a competitor to Corona inc….) epidemic in the Roman world during the time of Jesus but they were all self-isolating in the upper room and so could not do anything. To me, such a scenario is totally unbelievable, there would have been healing lines to Jesus and his disciples as far as the eyes could see, government officials would have been bringing who ever needed help to them rather than fining them for non-compliance with social distancing rules and refusing to allow yourself to be infected with an ineffective vaccine against your will. The virus has already mutated into different strains and any vaccine will be about as effective as our current flu vaccines, i.e. negligible but they are free by your caring government.
So, for me, a church that has behaved in the way it has since the outbreak, irrespective of all the “online” opportunities for new forms of meeting and media, has totally failed to minister in any distinctive way to the communities around them. They have not been prepared to make the scientific or spiritual case for allowing people to meet together, to receive their healing by the “laying on of hands”, to present the strong evidence of their success and their divine authority to minister the way they do. Our civic responsibilities are clear in scripture but so also are our responsibilities before God to minister to people, the apostle Peter was to write without contradiction the need to “honour the emperor” and also the retort “judge who I should obey, you or God” when confronted by the same authorities. No doubt, it would have led to extreme reactions and accusations of “endangering” people, we would have been known the reality of some serious persecution like our Eastern brothers and sisters, but if the results were healthy and healed people, it would have been worth it.
So, if I can be a little bit cute with my answer to my question, I feel the churches who hide behind closed doors and minster online have missed their wider responsibility before God to be minsters to the people as healers and teachers of the people. They are indeed vestigial. The governments of the world were not running to the churches to seek their help in managing their crisis, retired nurses and doctors were not turning up at our church doors to work in the hospices we had opened to care for the sick and to minster to those who were fearful and helpless in the face of negative media propaganda. In previous generations, this was exactly what the church would have done and the government would be coming to us for help instead of us now, instead of us cowering in obeisance to our messianic states for their “health services” to keep us well.
We have civil rights as citizens to meet and to minster to our communities which should have been defended and not surrendered by Christians, we should have been competent to defend both scientifically, socially and theologically, the position we would have taken. “Golf courses, DIY stores and garden centres reopen… but not the churches…” as one of my friends who runs a pressure group has just put out as a petition to restore the right to worship puts it, this is because the government does not consider the churches as “special places” at all, they really do consider them vestigial, they are just like any other social gathering place and a particularly poorly attended example of one. They ignored the churches because the churches did not make themselves known and had nothing novel to say — they were indeed vestigial. Only when we can stand on our own two feet intellectually, theologically, spiritually and socially with a genuine alternative to mainstream secular culture are our churches not vestigial organs of a bygone age that could be chopped off and we would not notice the difference, can we be conceived of in any other way.