Seven lessons we should learn about theology in a new normal
In an exclusive extract from his introduction to Doing Theology in the New Normal, Jione Havea considers what global theology might look like in a post-pandemic world.
At the outset, Covid has been somewhat epoch-making – it instigated the setting of the ‘old normal’ and the dawn of the ‘new normal’. The global community decided early in 2020 that, across the board, we need new ways of doing things – at home, in community and across public, domestic and national borders – so the primary response to Covid was to (pur)chase the essentials of life (which turned out to include toilet paper), and according to those – define the new normal that the pandemic has ushered in. The new continued to be essentialist like the old, and the ghost of Kohelet sighed over the global community: ‘Vanity of vanities. All is vanity’ (Eccles. 1.1).
As with the Millennium or Year 2000 bug (Y2K), Covid hiked fear around the world. But whereas the Y2K scare was related to computer programming expected to crash (but did not happen as proclaimed) when the calendar moved from year 1999 to year 2000, Covid was caused by a biological bug (SARS-Cov-2, Covid-19) that spread in human populations across the world from year 2019 to year 2020. Both ‘bugs’ incubated fear, but Covid-19 made real people (compared to real computers in the case of Y2K) sick and killed many of them. At the dawn of year 2000, Y2K proved to be superfluous; at the dawn of year 2020, the Covid-19 virus began to mutate into several strands and to go strong, sickening and killing real people. And the rampage of Covid will continue for several years into the future.
The infectiousness of the disease – reaching over 860,000 reported new cases worldwide in one day, 7 January 2021 (Statista 2021) – hastened the turn to the new normal. In haste, driven by fear, the global community turned to embrace the new normal without first assessing the old normal. Many people were pushed to the new normal with the expectation that at some point, whenever Covid eases up, the world will return to the old normal. Behind their expectation is the assumption that the old ways and old practices were ‘normal’ and thus acceptable.
However, so much in the ways and practices prior to Covid were unhealthy and unhelpful, sickening and deadly. Covid is one pandemic among many, and it has not (at the time of writing) reached the devastation and pandemic proportion of, for example, the HIV/AIDS pandemic. This is not to say that one pandemic is worse than the other, but in order to see Covid in the frames of the old normal. By the end of 2020, seeing that the number of Covid deaths was disproportionately much higher among poor black and ethnic minorities (even within white societies), Covid began to appear very much like an endemic (disease found among particular people).
Of course, the virus does not discriminate on the basis of race, colour, gender, class or sexual orientation. But providers of protection and services do discriminate, and minorities do not have much of a chance with those who discriminate. At the beginning of 2021, with the rolling out of vaccination campaigns, whole nations of black and ethnic minority people face covid-discrimination – they are not counted among the
essential or vulnerable people to receive the vaccine first. Sadly, they may not even get in the queue before the end of 2021. In these regards, Covid shares the same endemic temperature as HIV/AIDS.
There are many ways in which the old normal was discriminating, unhealthy and oppressive. We should not want to return to those kinds of situations (see Chapter 21 in Doing Theology in the New Normal by Anthony Reddie). But then, did we (in the new normal) really move away from the old normal? Is the new normal not the old normal with a mask, or in a different skin? Could Covid be an opportunity to also look back in order to see what might still be useful from the old normal? In terms of theology, the hope expressed in the last question can take place in several ways.
First, it can involve interrogating problematic theologies of the old normal (see Chapter 11, Hadje Sadje) and reengaging theologies meant to assist recovery from pandemic-like crises (see Chapter 7 by Gerald West).
Second, it can also involve rereading and problematizing the normality of some scriptural texts, and old readings of those texts, favoured in the old normal (see Chapter 2 by Sung Uk Lim, and Chapter 23 by Juliana Claassens).
Third, it can also involve reinvigorating methodologies belittled in the old normal, such as indecent (see Chapter 16 by Christine Pae, and Chapter 27 by Wanda Deifelt) and liberation (see Chapter 14 by Sithembiso Zwane) criticisms.
Fourth, it can also involve affirming the teachings and voices that were marginalized in the old normal (read: modernity), maybe because of their sublime non-scientific (see Chapter 6 by Wei Huang) or spiritual (see Chapter 17 by Michael Mawson) overtones.
Fifth, it can also involve learning from communities on whose shoulders the old normal have stomped (see Chapter 4 by Angelica Tostes and Delana Corazza, and Chapter 18 by Upolu Vaai).
Sixth, it can also involve encouraging emotions such as grief (see Chapter 24 by Tat-siong Benny Liew) and rage (see Chapter 25 by Dorothea Erbele-Küster) that are usually judged to be unacceptable in so-called civil societies.
Seventh, it can also involve accepting that in the worldwide web of life human beings are insignificant (see Chapter 20 by James Perkinson), vulnerable (see Chapter 13 by Kuzipa Nalwamba) and destined for the graveyard (see Chapter 28 by Tinyiko Maluleke).
It can also involve other approaches, but i suggested the seven above in order to locate the voices in this collection within the frames of the old normal. While this collection is intentional about suggesting ways of doing theology in the new normal, the contributors also engage with and interrogate the old normal. Put another way, Covid is somewhat epoch-making – but epochs inter- and over-flow. As with mutations and rites of passage, for all organisms and across all communes, there is something old and something new in every ritual, in every epoch, in every pandemic, in every movement, and in every theological imagination.
Jione Havea is a Methodist pastor from Tonga and research fellow with Trinity Methodist Theological College (Aotearoa / New Zealand) and with the Public and Contextual Theology research centre of Charles Sturt University (Australia). He is the author of numerous books, most recently Scripture and Resistance. Theology in the Age of Empire.