Edvard Munch, Self-portrait after the Spanish Flu, 1919
The Revd Professor Mark Lindsay
It goes without saying that 2020 has been a year unlike any other we have experienced. A global pandemic has locked us down, shut us in, forced us to transition to new ways of working, living, learning, worshipping…
Through it all, and especially since we shifted to working exclusively from home, I have felt, alternately, guilty, lucky, and superfluous. In many respects, I’ve been living the dream – and yet how nightmarish it has sometimes seemed!
You see, the people with whom I have had the most frequent and meaningful contact these last 8 months have all been frenetically busy with various aspects of the State’s COVID response – from public health professionals and epidemiologists, to ICU nurses, to policy consultants. My partner, with whom I live, and three of my closest friends, with whom we Zoom each weekend, are exhausted by their day-to-day engagement, ‘at the coal face’, with one of the biggest global emergencies in a century.
Meanwhile, I sit in my room, teach an occasional class, and…write. In any other year, at any other time, I would regard this opportunity I have as something of an unplanned sabbatical; one of those cherished, and all-too-rare occasions during which one can focus almost entirely on that book that has been in the wings. And there’s no doubt, I’ve been incredibly productive. The book is coming along in leaps and bounds.
But to what end?
There are times when the work I do feels so disconnected from everything else that is taking place in the world at the moment; so utterly estranged from all that really matters. In a world that is struggling in the crushing grip of a public health crisis; in a world that is being torn in two by the increasing visibility of racial violence…how does it help any of that for me to write my book? What use is it to teach my students about Thomas Cranmer, or John Calvin? Of what actual currency is it to learn about arcane trinitarian debates in the 4th century?
Does any of that actually help people live in the midst of this world, at this time, during this crisis?
And so, my semi-sabbatical joy is tarnished by the guilty suspicion that I’m wasting my time on things that don’t, in the end, matter.
And yet, I know that there is more to it than that. I know, in my more sanguine moments, that the very normality of what I am busy with is, in itself, a sign of hope. We can’t live in a crisis-moment for ever. At some point – a point that, at this stage, we can neither date with certainty nor even envisage with clarity – we will emerge from out of this emergency. We will recover our lives, our communities, our togetherness. COVID-19 may never disappear entirely – but it will loom less large.
And when it does, there will (I am bold enough to believe) be a need for people who, like me – and perhaps also like you – have been carrying on, in the interim, doing the same old thing. Those ‘normal’ activities of life and work, which at present seem so disconnected and meaningless, will no longer appear as superfluous luxuries, but will be vital activities that ground us as we seek to regain some sense of equilibrium.
In June 1933, my theological hero – Karl Barth – wrote that, even in the context of Adolf Hitler’s seizure of dictatorial power, there was a need to keep doing theology ‘as though nothing had happened.’ Barth wasn’t, as has been commonly supposed, trying to minimize the threat that Hitler presented. Rather, he was appealing for the grounding necessity of the ‘normal’; that even in a crisis, ‘normal life’ must continue, as a sign of hope that waits expectantly for that time beyond the crisis.
And so, perhaps, it is with what I’m doing. So, perhaps, it is with what you’re doing.
Of course, realising this doesn’t make my current work any more connected to COVID; it doesn’t make it feel any less alien to the times in which we are living. And so there is, to be sure, a discomfiture in that. But in its very disconnection, I am reminded of that hopeful post-COVID time, to which my very normal, even banal work, points in anticipation.