By now, it would almost be commonplace to observe that the COVID pandemic has created (or perhaps, rather, it has apocalyptically exposed) a cultural rift within the contemporary Orthodox Christian community. As a pastor, I have experienced this division firsthand, and I know of other clergy who have lost parishioners as a result of it.
On the one side stand those who have wholeheartedly embraced government-sanctioned restrictions and measures to reduce the spread of COVID. They accept the closure of churches as a matter of course, and once gatherings are permitted, they welcome mitigation strategies such as multiple spoons for receiving communion. On the extreme end, these folks tend to get anxious when they observe any failure to comply with the letter of the health regulations.
On the other side of the rift are those who resist attempts to restrict or shut down access to in-person Church services. They view attendance at the services as an unavoidable risk, inherent to Christian faith. The most extreme of these folks accuse other Christians of moral capitulation or worse, while yearning for the days of the early Church when Christians supposedly took all manner of risks to gather for the Eucharistic liturgy.
If I am to be honest, I would place myself in the middle of the former group, but I must admit that the latter cultural tendency raises important issues about the nature of risk itself, which are important to clarify. For one thing, it reminds us that Christian faith entails inherent risks that we cannot and should not avoid. Our fundamental confession is that out of love for the world God became incarnate, and in so doing, put himself at risk, which resulted in death. Likewise, God calls Christians to take fundamental risks as they strive to bear the fragrance of God’s love to the world. Tertullian commented that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” In this, he affirmed that the life of Christians is inherently risky, because their demonstration of divine love—rooted in God’s risk of creation and incarnation—involves potentially lethal exposure to the world.
At the same time, both the Scriptures and their fulfillment in Jesus’ earthly ministry testify clearly to the Christian vocation to mitigate risk, particularly among the marginalized. The calls to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, are unmistakeable and unavoidable, and Jesus is clear that our salvation depends on them. While we need not subscribe to a “Liberation Gospel,” we are called to embody the love of God by acting in the world to mitigate the circumstances of those who are at risk: the poor, the needy, the widow, and the stranger.
In the tradition of the Church, then, we see a distinction between two kinds of risk: risk-of-being and situational risk. Risk-of-being is unavoidable exposure to being affected, by virtue of our core creaturely vulnerabilities. Situational risk is exposure to affect because of our circumstances: disease, poverty, class, race, and so on.
Broadly speaking, risk-of-being cannot ultimately be avoided, while situational risk can be mitigated by social, political, economic, technological, educational, and medical means. However, the two kinds of risk are by no means inseparable and independent. For example, people affected by economic instability (a situational risk) tend to be at higher risk of mortality (a risk-of-being). In short, the two categories are “fuzzy” and interdependent.
The secular world holds out hope that we can ultimately render all risk situational. If we can take enough steps, we can eliminate risk entirely and effectively become invulnerable. In the meantime, we invoke the language of resiliency and talk about “bouncing back” better than we were before. According to this view, risk-of-being is an inconvenience to be managed as best as possible, if not entirely defeated. The anxiety over compliance with COVID restrictions stems from the secular anxiety in the face of a risk that continues to resist easy or consistent management.
By contrast, there are those—many of them persons of faith—who appear to collapse everything into risk-of-being. According to this view, only God can grant us this state of ultimate, risk-free flourishing. Therefore, we only need to mitigate the most obvious risks in our lives. The rest is, as it were, in God’s hands, and all we need to do is trust…
The key point is that both these views rest on the assumption that ultimate human flourishing consists of total freedom from risk (that is, invulnerability), whether humanly accomplished (through laws, education, science, or technology), or else divinely graced. They are therefore two sides of the same coin. Moreover, the coin itself is “funny money,” because it ultimately denies love, which always requires exposure to the other and is therefore always risky.
To overcome the rift we are experiencing in our communities, it would be helpful to get into the habit of distinguishing between the two kinds of risk. Clearly, a core risk-of-being for the life of a faithful Christian would include assembling as church at least in groups of two or three to receive the Eucharist, according to Jesus’ words (Matt. 18:20). Could the same be said, however, of the risks associated with how many more people gather in-person, other than “two or three”; whether or not they wear masks; or how they receive the Eucharist? Are these risks-of-being, integral to the demonstration of divine love in relation to the world, or are they rather matters of situational risk that we can and should mitigate within the broad parameters of traditional practice?
Distinguishing between situational risks and risks-of-being in our ecclesial life will not always (or even often) be easy. However, making the distinction—without oversimplifying the complex ways in which the two kinds of risk are interrelated—can help us know the difference, ethically speaking, between our mountains and our molehills.
Fr. Richard René is a Ph.D. student at the University of St. Michael’s College, Toronto School of Theology. He oversees correctional Chaplaincy services in the Pacific region on behalf of the Government of Canada, and 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.