Faculty Reflection

A Post Corona-Virus "World" and the Desert Fathers and Mothers

Charles Ringma (Professor Emeritus, Missions and Evangelism)
Is it possible that in the post-covid-19 “world” we may see a renewed emphasis on fellowship in the churches, or we may see a vitalised laity who seek to be like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, or we may see both, or something else may emerge?

Even though the Corona Virus is still spreading in many countries, in other countries there is speculation about what a post-covid-19 “world” might look like. The main discussions are around economic, education, health and technology issues. And clearly, while there is always the possibility that valiant attempts will be made to recapture “business as usual,” it is highly likely that changes will occur in each of these areas. What is an open question is whether the changes will be first order (fine-tuning within an accepted paradigm) or second order (change in terms of a significant paradigm-shift). My focus here is whether there will be significant changes in the churches.

In exploring some possibilities in that domain, I first need to make an important theological point, namely, that the church is both a divine and a sociological entity. This is somewhat akin to Christology where we make the claim that Jesus is both “Son” of God and “Son” of Man.

What is important about this formulation in relation to the church is that the divine dimension of the church remains the same (though it may be understood and articulated differently), while the sociological dimension may significantly change. However, these two areas should not be separated. Just as in Christology, when we speak of Christ, we speak of the one person, so we should speak of the church as one entity. In other words, these two dimensions belong together. Martin Luther called these two dimensions God’s Right Hand and God’s Left Hand. The sociological or institutional dimension being the Left Hand.

In the light of this, I wish to make the point that during this period of the Corona Virus the functional reality of church as sociological entity may well have been weakened due to a lack of normal church services. And the three dimensions of church, identified by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Word, Sacrament and Fellowship, may well have been weakened, despite the use of virtual church.

But what is unchanging despite the above changes? Simply put, the faith, spiritual practices, ethics, life-style choices and service and witness of the church’s members. (And this includes all those who live this way and no longer attend church). In this period of social isolation, some, maybe many, may have discovered (or recovered) a new personal spiritual resilience.

The heart of Christianity is people impacted by the gospel through the Spirit and seeking to live in the way of Christ and in service to the neighbour. And for most, the gathered church is important as a source of sustenance and on-going formation, as well as combined missional activity.

If none of the above is too unacceptable, then I can come to my main point. Is it possible that in the post-covid-19 “world” we may see a renewed emphasis on fellowship in the churches, or we may see a vitalised laity who seek to be like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, or we may see both, or something else may emerge?

Why like the Desert Fathers and Mothers, you may ask? These Christians went into the desert to pray for a renewed church and world. They were a lay movement. They were concerned that the church of their day had become too culturally captive. And they believed that through prayer and ascetic practices a revitalised church could come into being. As such, these desert Christians were the forebears of Monasticism which played such an important part in the further development of Christianity.

So, some core questions are: can we expect a more institutionalised church in a post-covid-19 “world” with the sociological dimension of church becoming more dominant, or can we expect a greater emphasis in our churches on community and a shared life, or can we expect to see a renewed and more resilient laity who will take on a far greater role in shaping the Christianity of the future? Rather than seeing the church as a restaurant or a petrol station to meet their weekly spiritual needs, they begin to see the role they can play in the purposes of the Reign of God.

The core beginnings of these purposes have to do with being birthed anew by the gospel and the Spirit. To embrace a cruciform spirituality. To live a “desert” asceticism. And to become again people of prayer.

Martin Luther wrote: “prayer is the chief work of the Christian.”[1] Prayer not only renews our life with God and blesses the church, but, importantly according to Luther: prayer “can preserve the world.”[2]

As Christians we are called to live before God and the neighbour. The contemplation of God calls us also to see the world with new eyes and see its healing and renewal in the abundant grace of God.

So, what do you think? What are you wrestling with and thinking about in this time where our more regular routines are on hold? What are you hoping for on the other side of this pandemic? What is “brewing” inside of you? And how are you investing in this time reflection, thinking and wrestling so that things may more fully swim into view?