Coronavirus has descended on our world as an apocalypse, a whirlwind destroying the shelter of our fixed verities, ripping the roofs off our traditions and throwing into the blaze of the sun the hidden sins and fragilities of our institutions.
This whirlwind has caught the Orthodox world in the midst of an identity crisis, an epochal moment of transformation from a premodern Eastern Church to a late modern Church in the West. At the core of this crisis is the question of how Orthodoxy is to engage a modern world shaped by nationalism and globalism, separation of faith and state, empowerment of the individual, and human rights. Relatively untouched until recently by modernity, and operating with a liturgical (and thus theological) consciousness shaped by the sensibility of medieval Byzantium, the Orthodox community has found itself ill-equipped and internally divided in responding to modern challenges. The result is a clash of visions along liberal/conservative lines, which certainly cuts across jurisdictions, but can be seen particularly strongly in certain leading churches…
On one end of the spectrum are visions of the West as corrupt, apostatized from the truths of its own original Christian identity. This Western corruption takes the form of a pervasive secularist and liberal humanist agenda, resulting in attacks on traditional Christianity and morality and the promotion of feminism, gender theory, and homosexuality. The more fundamentalist adherents claim that the West is doomed, and call the Church to quarantine in an Orthodox counter-culture.
At the other end are visions that see the possibility of an open engagement with the West, affirming it where we can, critiquing it where it stands at odds with the traditional Christian proclamation. They seek to respond creatively to changes the West has inaugurated, synthesizing an alternate Orthodox modernity on issues ranging from climate change and modern slavery, to inter-religious dialogue and sexual diversity, though all too often getting lost in a wilderness of mirrors, feeding only on the dry crusts of skepticism and knowing better than one’s fathers.
In this context, the apocalypse of Coronavirus acts as an apocalypsis or revelation, in two specific ways. First, it acts as the judgement of the God—not in the sense of eternal condemnation, but as a revelation of fatal flaws in the life of the Church today.
As judgement, Coronavirus has exposed the limits of defining our ecclesiology by a top-down, restricted notion that the Eucharist alone makes the Church and that only in-person assemblies in a building with a priest or Bishop, can invoke the Lord’s presence, despite Jesus’ own promise that wherever two or three gathered, he would be in their midst (Matt. 18:20). In our cultic devotion to eucharistic ecclesiology with its abstract notion of the necessity of the liturgical synaxis, we have laid heavy burdens on the faithful by judging as impious attendance of services online, thus making any kind of communion impossible, lifting no finger to help those spiritually starving.
Further, the explosion of Orthodox-led conspiracy theories that the virus is a western attempt to gain world dominance against “holy” Russia/Ukraine/Georgia/Greece (take your pick or add your own) has exposed Orthodox religious culture’s latent hatred for the world that God called good in creation and for which Christ died. This neo-gnostic hatred of the material also raises its head in a spiritualizing tendency around the reception of communion, particularly the endless claims that receiving the Eucharist cannot possibly make one ill, denying basic medical common sense with tragic consequences seen in certain national churches riven by the pandemic.
Finally, Coronavirus has levelled the playing field according to the universal fact of vulnerability. The disease has crossed all lines and knows no distinctions, dispelling as simply false the Orthodox claims that those who hold the “one true faith” possess immunity from this modern plague. This is the ultimate judgement of God brought on us by the pandemic.
Yet this apocalypse also acts to reveal hope of glory and redemption through our cooperation with God in fear and trembling, anticipating the age when “God will wipe away every tear…” (Rev. 7:17). It has revealed the quiet but blazing sanctity in Christians who help the vulnerable in their time of need bringing food to the hungry, visiting the lonely at the end of the garden, and providing teaching online to the faithful of all ages. It has borne testimony to the tirelessness of clergy feeding their flocks through an abundance of online services, or simply praying for their flock day in and out secretly in their inner room (Matt. 6:6). It has empowered the laity as the guardians of the holy, calling everyone to make “little churches” in their own homes.
These efforts force us to ask difficult questions. What does it mean to attend a liturgical service? Is virtual communion possible? Might we obtain absolution through confessing our sins to one another? Might someone become a member of the Body without even entering a physical church? In short: where and what is the Church? Coronavirus forces us to raise and discuss such issues, only silently whispered up until now in Orthodoxy. Finally, with our social fabric shredded, Orthodox communities and leaders are now grappling with social and ethical issues that we have previously ignored, looking to renew evangelism, catechesis, and outreach to the whole world through renewed social teaching.
In this sense, Coronavirus is an apocalypse, a revelation both of judgement and of hope. It calls us to be creative as the Church, the Body of the Living Christ, to share the wealth of our tradition in this moment of decision (krisis) thrust on us by late modernity. To answer this calling, we must emerge from our communal, spiritual, moral lockdown. As one slogan making the rounds of the internet puts it, “We won’t return to normality, because normality was the problem.” Normality claims that we can live in our own solitudes, untouched by the susceptibilities of others, and that is the problem. If, however, we can allow this apocalypse to reveal to us that all humanity is united in a common, universal vulnerability, iconizing in the fight against Corona our wounded Bridegroom transfixed with nails, then we can be transformed. We can attain to the likeness of vulnerability of Jesus Christ crucified like Ignatius the God-bearer who said of his martyrdom, ‘Let me imitate the Passion of my God’ (Ignatius, Romans 6:3). In this way, we can, through God’s gracious revelation of judgement and hope, participate in transforming the crucifixion of this world by the pandemic into a resurrected life.
Rev. Dr. Anastasios Brandon Gallaher is Senior Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology at the University of Exeter and a deacon of the Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain, Ecumenical Patriarchate. Most recently, he was co-Principal Investigator of the Exeter-Fordham Bridging Voices, British Council Project, “Contemporary Eastern Orthodox Identity and the Challenges of Pluralism and Sexual Diversity in a Secular Age.”
Fr. Richard René is a Ph.D. student at the Univesity of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology. He is the director of St. Silas Orthodox Prison Fellowship (Canada).
Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.