Religion is a contact sport, but recently, with COVID-19, we’ve had to social distance. Our tendency to congregate and touch, in keeping with our respective faith persuasions, has no doubt suffered.
A little less than a year ago my wife and I traveled to the West Coast for the bar mitzvah of the son of our close friends there.
At one point during our festive dancing friends and family formed several concentric circles and moved forward in a crush around this boy — a sort of convulsing group hug. In and out then in again we went as we held hands with perspiring strangers and acquaintances to affirm young Ryan. As we did I remembered the Hebrew Scriptures he’d read in temple earlier that day to announce publicly his acceptance of his role as an adult member of his Jewish community.
Today we would not attempt such close communion, but struggle to imagine how else we might confirm our shared humanity with our youth as well as with each other.
We might need to discover new ways to communicate such connection. But must the Internet now bear, not only the weight of our work and education, but of our faith as well? Virtual Church? Tune-in Temple? Media Imams? Will these become our options going forward?
For years I resisted Facebook, because, let’s face it, it's a faceless connection. A photo is not a face and a post is not a conversation. Still I reluctantly joined largely to maintain contact with those of my extended family and congregation.
I’m often post too much — to express too vehemently my reaction to a world that feels more and more out of my control. Because I’ve been a recovering alcoholic for more than three decades, I’m aware that my rage, my need to joke or reach out for response can become as addictive as a drug.
Each Lent I therefore go dark. I resist pressing the azure "F" square on my I-phone for 40 days. At first, it’s difficult, but soon becomes manageable. In fact, Easter Sunday comes and goes before I once again indulge in Internet interaction.
I wonder will it become the same with tactile familiarity in my house of worship. This context is after all the place I’ve allowed myself to become handsy for Jesus. Will congregational life mean as much without it?
My well-founded fear is that this might very well become our new normal. Virtual Worship might not necessarily become the wave of our future but something will have to give. The virus that wears a crown now rules and how long it’s reign will last no one can convincingly say.
The feel of our faith might frankly become less warm and intimate — even less humane. We have, after all, often coped with our sense of divine distance by turning to closer human proximity. What then will less touch portend for our systems of belief?
In my late teens, I prepared for monastic life. The 1960s and early 1970s proved tumultuous and I found myself ready for escape. My reading of Thomas Merton compelled me toward the so-called "contemplative life" away from the fray.
In preparation for this vocation I spent more time in silence and alone — even while living in a Christian commune. I even refrained from conversation at shared meals.
Long story short, I never entered the cloister. Instead, an active life of pastoral ministry became my world. My fellow clergy and I often found ourselves complaining, "We' might get our work done, if it wasn't for all these people interrupting!" We'd then laugh at ourselves, recognizing of course that "all these people" were "our work."
I, a predisposed introvert, as a result became a professional extrovert. As I’ve aged, my wife tells me, I’ve become even more so.
As I consider the prospect of renewed religious isolation, I can only offer in response what I believe Robert Frost’s shortest poem:
"Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee
and I’ll forgive thy great big one on me."
Terry Dawson is an ordained Presbyterian minister and former adjunct faculty of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Dawson’s essays, short stories and poetry appear in several print and on-line journals.