Following three installments of the Coronaspection project by Rabbi Alon Goshen-Gottstein, featured here on Zenit, Zenit took the time to interview the rabbi regarding this project, and specifically how he saw the messages of Christian leaders.
The Coronaspection Project
Zenit: For the sake of readers who may have not followed some of the earlier notices, could you summarize for us what is Coronaspection?
Rabbi: Coronaspection is a series of 40 video interviews and messages with religious leaders regarding the spiritual challenges brought about by the Corona virus. Leaders from 15 countries and 7 religions were interviewed and asked how to handle some of the major faith challenges of the moment: how to deal with fear and anxiety; how to cope with loss; how to use the time in lockdown and how to use solitude; how to maintain a sense of solidarity with others; what kind of world do they envision for the future. The sum total is a storehouse of teaching and inspiration, delivered by some of the most prominent voices in religion, in general and in the Christian world in particular.
Christian Participation in Coronaspection
Zenit: Who were the Christian leaders whose voices are featured in Coronaspection?
Rabbi: Let us begin with Pope Francis, who supported the project and our use of his messages in the framework of Coronaspection. Other Catholic voices include Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, Bishop Domenico Sorrentino and Maria Voce. On the Orthodox side we had a message from Patriarch Daniel of Romania and an interview with Bishop Kallistos Ware of Oxford. The archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, gives a very engaged and joyful interview, and the head of the Church of Sweden, the Lutheran archbishop Antje Jackelen shares the concerns of her church during this period. The new Patriarch of the Armenian Church in Istanbul, Patriarch Mahsalian, offers a view from Turkey, and finally Elder Jeffrey Holland of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints shares his own spiritual process during Corona times. This is a wide and diverse group of thinkers, and it has been a thrill to have contact with them and to learn about their faith, spiritual life and message during this challenging period.
Zenit: Do you believe the answers to the questions in some way break down according to the differences in religion?
Rabbi: One of striking outcomes of the interview process has been that there is great unanimity across the religions. There are some fundamental messages that resonate across the project, regardless of religious affiliation. One of them is the recognition of the fundamental unity of humanity and how we are all interconnected. As the Archbishop of Canterbury states – the virus has taught us that we are all connected. It hits all without discrimination and its dissemination shows how we are all closely related. The challenge, he says, is how to turn this interconnectivity to an interconnectivity of compassion. This is probably the greatest message that comes out of the project and it is shared by religious leaders of all faiths. Another key feature that emerges is the basic sense of positivity that religions bring. Religions teach hope, and each of the messages in the project is a message of hope. Bishop Sorrentino speaks of the various positive aspects that emerge from the virus, from discovery of family life as a life of prayer to the increased sense of spiritual search that characterizes this period. Citing St. Francis’ canticle to creatures, he says – if St. Francis can speak of sister death, why can’t we speak of brother Corona?
Zenit: Can one identify differences in spiritual approach according to denominations?
Rabbi: One of the interesting things to observe is that differences in denomination matter less than differences in religious personality. This is true across religions and it is also true across Christian denominations. Thus, answers break down according to personal disposition, rather than according to theological adherence. Let me illustrate this with reference to the two Orthodox voices. Both of them address the question of God as the author of COVID-19. Patriarch Daniel speaks of it as a test from God, by means of which our love and faith are tested. By contrast, Metropolitan Ware refuses to see the pandemic as something brought about by God. The God of love, he claims, could not cause the suffering of innocent. God, therefore, allows the pandemic, but does not bring it about intentionally. This is a significant theological divide and we see two noted theologians and churchmen of the Orthodox world taking different stands on the matter.
The Archbishop of Canterbury takes the side of Metropolitan Ware, while Bishop Sorrentino seems to be more comfortable with the perspective of Patriarch Daniel. I cannot see these differences as stemming from denominational divides.
Perhaps there is one point at which one could suggest a divide, but it may stem more from the social context in which these leaders are situated than from their denominational theology. There are two basic orientations in response to the guiding questions. Some of the leaders offer answers that are more spiritual, highlighting the benefits of solitude along more monastic lines, invitation to prayer and cultivation of a more intense spiritual life with God. In this camp I would count Patriarch Mashalian, Metropolitan Ware and others. The alternative response profiles the human solidarity and more practical, psychological responses. Archbishop Antje Jackelen and the Archbishop of Canterbury are closer to this orientation. I have asked myself whether it is their responsibility for nation-churches that leads them to concentrate on more practical-psychological responses, or whether this also says something about their own religious orientation, which in turn speaks also to their denominational context. Mind you, both also speak of the importance of prayer, so that no one offers a purely human-psychological response.
Christian Responses and Interfaith Awareness
Zenit: Is there nevertheless a particularity to the message of Christian leaders?
Rabbi: As I said, the messages of all religious leaders across religious divides tend to be very similar in responding to the challenges of the pandemic. One does notice two features that characterize most, if not all, Christian speakers. First, there is a strong emphasis on love. I am not suggesting that Christian leaders are the only ones to emphasize love. In fact, an earlier feature in Zenit profiled Maria Voce in relation to Imam Abdul Rauf and both of them consider love an important response. Still, across the board, the love-response is much stronger among Christian leaders, suggesting the centrality of love to the Christian experience and spirituality. For many, this is the test, or the outcome, or the means of expressing oneself during the pandemic.
Related to this is also the emphasis on prayer. I think all Christian leaders, without fail, speak to the importance of prayer during this period. I am sure prayer is important for all religions, but one notices a very central role allocated to prayer by Christian leaders. Love and prayer definitely come across as central features in the life of Christian leaders.
There is one additional very important element – self reflexivity. While this is not relevant to all Christian leaders, it strikes me that the greatest percentage among project participants who share doubt, struggle and a personal spiritual process during COVID-19 comes from Christian leaders. Cardinal Schoenborn shares his struggles of faith. Metropolitan Ware shares how he deals with doubt. Elder Holland shares how his view of others has changed radically due to lockdown and how he has discovered new dimensions in his spiritual life; Archbishop Welby shares his own self-examination and his learning to gain deeper trust in God. Clearly, there is something in Christian formation and education that allows for a great degree of self-reflexivity. The group of people featured in Coronaspection are all highly evolved and self-aware, but I would consider nonetheless that this is one feature that is very characteristic of Christian participants.
Zenit: To what extent are the messages of Christian leaders of universal nature and to what extent do they draw on the particularity of Christian faith?
Rabbi: This too is a very interesting fact. Something in the situation of COVID-19 draws out the universal dimensions in teachings offered by project participants. Most of them frame their message in terms that speak easily across religions. Bishop Sorrentino appeals to the story of St. Francis, but that is the particularity of personal example, not of faith. I think the only case of affirming faith in Jesus as a prominent part of the message occurs in the message of Patriarch Daniel. It may be the very fact that his was a message for the project, rather than an interview, [but it still] led to affirming the particularity of faith. It seems that in an interview situation, leaders are able to extract a universal message from their particular faith. This has been true of leaders across the different religions.
Echoes of Pope Francis’ Teachings
Zenit: Does the teaching of Pope Francis find an echo in the messages of other Christian voices in the project?
Rabbi: I’d like to suggest two points in which the teachings of Pope Francis provide a framework by means of which we can appreciate the teachings of other Christian leaders. First, the question of judgement. One of the great “temptations” is to consider COVID-19 a punishment for some transgression. Almost all project participants avoid this view. To claim it is a punishment raises serious challenges in terms of identifying the sin and proportionality of the punishment, what we call the problem of theodicy. Pope Francis has made a brilliant reversal by stating: ““It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others.” This approach is reflected in most teachings, even if they are not directly indebted to the Pope. One seeks to make the period one of spiritual growth and proper choice, and not to “hide” behind the notion of punishment.
A second, and very beautiful, way in which he is present in the project, is through some of the metaphors and framings he provides. He speaks of this period as a period of night. This is then echoed in the teachings of others. Cardinal Schoenborn offers a wonderful homily on night and awaiting the light, as a carryover of the Pope’s teachings.
Takeaways from Coronaspection
Zenit: What have you, as a Rabbi, learned from the messages of Christian leaders who have participated in “Coronaspection”?
Rabbi: I have learned something from each of the interviews. A full version of lessons learned from the project and analyses of what each of the interviews teaches us will appear in a book scheduled for publication next week. Cascade Books will release Coronaspection: World Religious Leaders Reflect on COVID-19. I would like to share three insights from that forthcoming book, without in any way diminishing from the many others.
The first is Patriarch Mashalian speaking of the need to build a storehouse of spirituality as a means of dealing with the challenges of the moment and how our entire lives are a preparation to build up such a storehouse. I resonate deeply with this approach, as I do with his emphasis on the Psalms as a means of prayer in many circumstances. Strikingly, he is the only teacher to have made explicit appeal to the Psalms.
The second is when Bishop Sorrentino was asked: what would St. Francis tell us now? And he replied: he would tell us to sing the Canticle of Creatures. I am a great admirer of St. Francis, and this eventually also led me to my friendship with Bishop Sorrentino. I love this answer. To sing as a response to hardship, and to affirm the goodness of God in all.
The third is Metropolitan Ware speaking of seeing the face of the other person and learning to appreciate the value of every person as his takeaway from this pandemic. A similar idea is voiced by Elder Holland. I think at the end of the day it all comes back to our ability to view the other person and to find God in the face of the other.
Zenit: How can readers view these interviews?
Rabbi: Simple. If you type www.coronaspection.org you will be taken to a page with a wall of images. Click on the image of the person and you will find long and short forms of the interviews. Or go to the link of Christian leaders, and you will find all Christian leaders listed there.
And don’t miss the project trailer. It tells the story of how close and how united we all are
Zenit: Thank you Rabbi.
Rabbi: I’m grateful for the opportunity to share.