The COVID-19 pandemic has put much of the world on pause for months. Business has been halted, travel is discouraged, and gatherings of large groups of people have become distant memories. The coronavirus pandemic has had a major impact on the world’s religions too. Theology enthusiast Eric Arno Hiller recently discussed the impacts this pandemic has had on the world’s major religions and how they are responding.
Eric Arno Hiller explained that some of the changes are clearly visible, like fewer religious gatherings and ceremonies at the local level of individual churches, temples, and mosques. Such fears by clergy and laymen are not unexpected, as there have been cases of the virus that have been linked back to religious gatherings. Eric Arno Hiller says the most sensational of these religious-related infection vectors is probably in South Korea, where nearly half of the cases of the virus can be traced back to a single religious meeting of a cult who believes their leader “Lee Man-hee, 88, claims he is the second coming of Jesus Christ and identifies as ‘the promised pastor’ mentioned in the Bible.”
“We’re seeing different religions respond in a variety of ways,” Eric Arno Hiller said. “Some people are flat out ignoring and government restrictions or suggestions. For example, religious festivities were attended by many of Hindus in India, Other groups are taking serious precautions, although they may bring a smile to ones face, such as some priests in the Roman Catholic Church offering live online streaming of Sunday sermons and daily mass. We’ve even seen drive-through confession and absolution available in some parts of the world.”
Eric Arno Hiller explained that most religions have altered their celebrations and worship in some way. A multitude of mosques have encouraged people to worship from home whenever possible, and they’ve canceled Friday services. The typically giant Buddhist New Year celebrations were canceled, and Shiite Muslim shrines have been closed.
Eric Arno Hiller also commented on the response within his own Christian denomination, the Lutheran Church Missouri-Synod. He related that “There have been a wide range reactions of LCMS Lutherans, and even within the same congregation, opinions can be quite varied. On one end of the spectrum are people who are terrified to even come to church, and if they do, they want the whole service to not only be socially distanced but for everyone to wear masks and there to be no singing. There are people on the other side of the spectrum who find wearing a mask on top of being eight-plus feet apart a silly overreaction. Some even think putting one’s Faith completely in extreme precautions is tantamount to sacrilegious.”
Eric Arno Hiller also discussed the curious aspect of music and singing in the LCMS in the world of Corona. He said, “Singing has also become a point of contention in our church body. That may sound odd to some other Christian denominations or other world religions, but music has always been seen as an extremely powerful tool with which to transmit the Gospel and teach right doctrine. Lutherans have historically been known as “the singing church” by other denominations. Therefore, to a devout Lutheran, not only does a service with little or no congregational singing of hymns, canticles, and liturgy seem very drab and dreary, it is seen by many as if we are in deep mourning or even suppressing the proclamation of the Gospel itself!”
“However, the most difficult worship issue my own denomination is struggling with,” Eric Arno Hiller said. “Is how the practice of Holy Communion works. Some churches had closed down for a period of time and only celebrated the Eucharist with small family groups or individuals. Now a lot of churches are returning to Communion in socially distanced services, but sometimes the Communion practices have changed a lot. Once again, there’s a lot of confusion and sometimes both a general lack of faith and a misunderstanding of science regarding what is an actual risk versus paranoid obsession.”
When asked what the denomination is doing to help congregations, Eric Arno Hiller replied. “The Synod has issued guidelines and suggestions, but there is a wide range of responses, and quite frankly a lot of suspicion on who to trust by the layman, if not by the clergy themselves. I can’t say that I blame people for the confusion, given that people have observed repeated confusion and flip-flops from official medical bodies, such as the CDC.”
Eric Arno Hiller concluded by saying, “I think most pastors have been as accommodating as they can be to people on both ends of the spectrum, which is not the easiest thing to do when people are quite polarized. The wiser pastors also remind us that at the end of the day, God is more powerful than a virus, and even if one dies at this time, he will be bodily resurrected by Christ on Judgement Day, anyway. That does help give people more of a long-term perspective. It reminds me of a couple of truths that Christ teaches us in the Bible speaking to such temptations:
Matthew 10:28-31: “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul; but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a cent? And yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So do not fear; you are more valuable than many sparrows.”
Mark 8:34-38 “And He summoned the crowd with His disciples, and said to them, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”