A few coronavirus questions for you
Another embarrassment for the Museum of the Bible

What does religion tell us about pandemics?

In this coronavirus pandemic, let's think a little about the relationship between religion and sickness.

Coronavirus-cross (1)They have a long history together. There's even a 2016 book called Religion and Illness.

Among the connections between the two: Religion helps people make sense of illness, sometimes in unhelpful ways. For instance, in some religious traditions, illness can be thought of as punishment, purification or mystery. This despite the primarily lesson of the book of Job in the Hebrew Bible that suffering is not a sign that someone sinned.

Beyond that, religion can provide ways to cope with illness -- prayer, support from others in the form of contact and meals and rituals having to do with healing.

And, of course, religion can provide hope to those who are ill and may be facing death, which, despite what a lot of Americans seem to think, is not ultimately optional.

The relationship between religion and illness is why, of course, hospitals and hospices hire chaplains. It's among the reasons congregations keep prayer lists.

But there's something else to be said about all of this: Sickness -- and the very presence in the world of germs and viruses -- inevitably raises questions about God. Did God create illness or germs or viruses or cancer as punishment? If you think that, what does it say about such a god?

All of this leads us to the ancient -- and, so far, inadequately answered -- question of theodicy, which asks why there is suffering and evil in the world if God is all-powerful and all-loving. I've written previously that there is no adequate, fully satisfying answer to this question and, because of that, it's sort of the open wound of religion.

But even if we don't know any great answers to the theodicy question, we do know this: People of faith are obliged to love and care for one another, to say nothing of loving and caring for themselves.

If we can get that part right, maybe that's the most important thing we need to know about this subject.

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As we all hide out from Covid-19, there are things we can learn from religion -- in this case Islam and Christianity -- to help us. Here's the RNS story about what Islamic ritual washing can teach us and here's a column about what Christianity teaches us about how to respond in love. No doubt it would be possible to go to all the great world religions and find useful lessons for now. Share 'em if you have 'em.


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