A virtual conference organized in partnership with Brigham Young University Law School, Emory University Law School, Notre Dame Law School, St. John’s University School of Law, and the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. View the full video and browse all essays here.
Section B. Law, Religion, and Culture (Justin Latterell, moderator)
“Worldview and Spirituality: Outlooks of the Church and Individuals Shaped by Crisis“
E. Isabel Park
Over the past six months, the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted our world in ways that will clearly last, even once the virus is under control. It has also raised and re-raised complex questions at the intersection of bioethics, law, medicine, and public health by injecting a dose of reality into the theoretical, abstract terms with which we once discussed these questions. In short, the pandemic has induced an unforeseen stress test on the adaptability and capabilities of our technomedical knowledge and legal systems.
In the long run, the economy will likely recover and the medical field will continue to advance. But, for better or for worse, the pandemic will have left an indelible mark on our lives and on the human psyche, which necessitates a discussion of the coronavirus pandemic as not only a medical crisis, but also as a moral, spiritual one.
As individuals’ Weltanschauungen, or worldviews, struggle to accommodate the realities of our pandemic-ridden world, the Christian church has the potential to provide a spiritual framework to those who might be unusually open-minded to such considerations. In addition, remote religious services call for a careful re-examination of the definition and essence of ‘church,’ which raises important implications about the church’s role and how it should fulfill that role in our current situation and beyond.
II. Crisis of the Weltanschauung
One’s ‘Weltanschauung’,1Freud’s Weltanschauung gives rise to an irreconcilable tension between scientific knowledge and the spiritual demands of man. This is in contrast to Wilhelm Dilthey’s original conception of the term, born partially out of an attempt to dispel the notion that religious life could play only a limited, tangential role in our intellectual development. or worldview, is a philosophical, cognitive framework that orients not only the universe, but also humanity’s relation to it. Our worldviews can be rooted in theological doctrine, as well as in scientific theories and metaphysical conceptualizations. Furthermore, our values, emotions, experiences, and postulates are inextricably tied to our worldviews.
It seems only natural that this cognitive framework would undergo significant entropy in the face of a global pandemic. Our current situation forces us to confront and to synthesize concepts that we dichotomize in ordinary times — mind and body, life and death, experiential and emotional realities, seeking joy in the midst of suffering. The coronavirus pandemic, like other crises, “points to something strange and unfamiliar, as if it were coming from invisible sources, something [pressing in] on life from outside, yet coming from its own depths,” as Wilhelm Dilthey writes. This phenomenon raises a conflict between the desire for comfort from a transcendent power and the problem of theodicy, one of the oldest challenges to monotheistic religions. That a perfect god could allow suffering and pain, and, furthermore, that such a god could have an ultimately good purpose seems paradoxical. For many, the acute realities we face during the pandemic necessitate a modified worldview that can accommodate these new realities.
We are propelled to alter our worldviews, at least in part, because a disturbed and incohesive worldview is highly unsatisfying, particularly when our worldviews prior to the pandemic felt comprehensive and stable. For six months, the pandemic has imposed a new “normal” that fuses previously compartmentalized aspects of our lives — work, family, and religion, among others. And it will continue to do so indefinitely. These prolonged changes to our daily lives compound the discomfort of an unreliable Weltanschauung. For many, religion appears to provide more easily accessible, emotionally comforting answers than medicine, law, and science do. This tips the scale considerably as we seek an equilibrium between reason and the subjective dimension of spirituality and religiosity.
Together, these forces contribute to what likely is an inversely proportional relationship between time and resistance to considerations that either contradict an existing worldview or encourage a modified perspective. In our current context, the extended duration of the pandemic is gradually eroding our metaphysical convictions. Individuals across the spectrum of religiosity, or lack thereof, may become more (or less) open to incorporating some aspect of religion into their lives. How then does the Christian church fit into this picture?
III. The Church as Ecclesia and its Weltanschauung
Remote worship reminds us that ‘church’ is ecclesia, not kirke — the called-out people of God, not the ‘place’ of God in the literal, physical sense. This follows naturally from God’s omnipresence, an axiom of Christian theology, and finds further support in biblical texts. In that sense, the pandemic’s restrictions on large gatherings has minimal to no effect on the ontological essence of church. The church is as intact now as it was pre-coronavirus, making energy devoted to pushing for the freedom to congregate a relatively low priority. The focus on contesting the legality or ethics of congregating could instead be redirected to expanding the church’s reach and impact within a remote format. As the Moody Church’s Pastor Philip Miller recently preached, the church “gathers to imbibe [religious teaching] and scatters for impact.”
In terms of its worldview or philosophy, the church should steer away from a consequentialist view that is confined to our human temporal and spatial awareness, especially because it is less compatible with a monotheistic belief system than it might initially seem. This means refraining from making value judgments on how individuals frame religion within their worldviews, understanding that religion has a profoundly personal dimension. It is therefore difficult for us to impose a value or normative judgment on others’ faith and its development in their lives. For example, it is true that religion is sometimes used (and derided) as an intellectual crutch. And, of course, genuine faith is more desirable. Believers can appreciate that a genuine faith has more to offer than a goal-oriented ‘faith’ that is self-tailored to our circumstances. But does that mean there is no value in seeking out what religion has to offer as an emotional and intellectual crutch, or what other function it might serve? Not necessarily — and reinforcing this notion could be problematic and counterproductive.
Next, we have to consider the church’s Weltanschauung in addition to the individual’s. Monotheistic belief systems commonly attribute to their god or higher being benevolence, omniscience, and omnipresence. In directing a certain course of events, a benevolent god would be compelled to consider the net good of its outcome as it affects all beings in both the present and the future. This broader measure of justice and good lends itself to a forgiving outlook on the use of religion for a purpose we might deem improper, insofar as we trust that our equations of net good as a function of purpose in a cosmic sense are incomplete. In other words, Christians should be less concerned with policing others’ use of religion if they trust in the directive of a sovereign god.
In light of how the current crisis is shaping our Weltanschauungen at both individual and institutional levels, the church’s response should provide both theologically sound and compassionate answers to those open to them. To this end, the coronavirus pandemic imposes an unexpected opportunity to reflect on the theologically fundamental ideas that we often dismiss or repress in everyday life — including views on suffering, what belief in an omniscient and perfectly benevolent god means for our worldviews and response to crisis, among others — and formulate a course of action and outreach that is biblically sound.
The church must also recognize that both believers and non-believers have unique spiritual needs. All individuals are susceptible to doubt and to leaving the church, particularly in light of crisis. While non-believers may be more likely to seek out spiritual answers to fill the lingering emotional and spiritual gaps in their nontheistic or atheistic Weltanschauung, believers may find previously unknown gaps in their theistic worldviews in light of the spiritual challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Believers going through difficult times might grapple with confusion and anger directed at a supposedly benevolent being who allows so much suffering and chaos. For questioning believers, atheism or a more detached agnosticism could be a viable alternative to Christianity. Whether the pandemic results in a religious renaissance, plateau, or recession rests on the church’s ability to prioritize and adequately address the spiritual needs of individuals with a Weltanschauung that supplements their own changing worldviews.⬥
E. Isabel Park is currently a Project Assistant at Sidley Austin LLP. She graduated from the University of Michigan in 2018 with a BA in Sociology and Philosophy. Her interests include the role of fundamentally religious, ethical principles in the reform of sociolegal systems and Christian apologetics.