By The Rev. Paul S. Tché
Have I been to Mars? Of course not. I understand no one has yet. We—by which I mean human beings—have sent robots to explore the aerosphere, atmosphere, and surface of Mars, so we have some limited information about the overall environment, which doesn’t seem perfectly fit to be a “colony” of the Earth. Our unlimited imagination, however, has already taken many of us to Mars and has established hundreds of human habitations there. I understand that in our fantasy worlds of Mars, we can do whatever we want and overcome treacherous living conditions. But the reality on Mars in the near future doesn’t seem that rosy. We wouldn’t have the freedom to roam around the neighborhood for a walk or go jogging or biking unless we build everything inside of a gigantic dome. We are probably able to put one community in a dome, but not the entire Mars colony. It is bigger than the Earth, remember. Under these circumstances, I have absolutely no idea about what people would do for religious life. If I cannot find my Christian tradition in my sector, should I take my airship and travel through the red dust of Mars every Sunday?
I am confident COVID-19 will bring radical changes to our lives. But the difference after COVID-19 would not be as dramatic if we were to colonize Mars . . . or would it? Well, even if our lives would not be as radically different as living on Mars, it may be helpful for us—especially many religious folks like me who lack imagination because of our long tradition—to simulate religious practice on Mars to stimulate our creativity and inspire more unique adaptations of post-COVID-19 faith life.
Let us imagine that a bunch of dedicated Christians decide to emigrate to Mars. What would we do first as we commissioned them to establish our religious communities there? If you are a Catholic, then you must figure out how your parishioners receive the Holy Communion. Would the Church allow good Catholics to receive the elements virtually via hologram? Would the Church encourage members to go to any liturgical church to participate in the Eucharist? Asking these questions has already made my head spin even with the light gravity on Mars.
How about my own faith community, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)? Do we need to establish a Disciples congregation on Mars? Why? As a church born out of the desire for Christian unity, why on Earth do we need to create divisions once more on Mars? Oh, I guess we must promote Christian unity there too.
How about my beloved Lutheran friends? I think you should found the Evangelical Lutheran Church – Martian Mission District (ELC-MMD) because it would add another cute acronym to the list of the universal Lutheran communion. But seriously, if you must establish a church there, what would be its calling? What would be the purpose for founding a church on Mars?
You may find these questions silly to even contemplate, so let’s return to Earth for a while. I am certain you have imagined what the next year or two may look like. Donald McNeil, the New York Times reporter who has covered the stories about different infectious disease for two decades, has given some primary answers to the question. Here are his points: a) there is enormous uncertainty; b) social distancing is still vital; and c) it’s unclear how well the U.S. will cope with the next phase of coping with the pandemic. (The New York Times Morning Briefing, April 20, 2020).
There is enormous uncertainty about our future. Inevitably, collective life for each religious community will not be the same as six months ago. Each faith community is asking questions to prepare itself for the post-COVID-19 spiritual life.
What are we asking about now? Do we still ask about things that only matter to each communion, or do we ask questions about our collective Christian life after the tempest of this pandemic subsides?
I want to point out that what we are currently asking is not as crucial as we might think. We must reflect on the current situation with COVID-19 as if we are facing the circumstances of living on Mars. Only that radicality will help us imagine religious life on Earth after or still under the threat of this virus.
It is said that some have come “back” to religious life while facing uncertainty. I hope that we do not fall into the trap of false hope because of this belief. It is not evident that the numbers of churchgoers will significantly increase and that each communion will have more members in pews after this pandemic. Instead, I have a grim prediction. This pandemic will accelerate the adoption of post-institutional religiosity all over the globe. This is because we will probably have to live with COVID-19 (or similar infectious diseases) rather than overcome it. Thus, our life of social distancing will not go away soon.
Under these circumstances, I cannot help but be worried about the future of the Church and the ecumenical movement. Here is what I am deeply concerned about—our Christian faith has so much depended on our institutional memories and traditions, which keeps our way of thinking in this pandemic confined within those parameters.
When was the last time you remember Christianity portrayed as if it were alive? I personally believe that it was when the ecumenical movement was vibrant and leading. It was the time when we thought we could be one Church of God together beyond our denominational lines and institutional boundaries.
We are standing at the crossroads as one Christian community, not as a single denomination. The fate of Christianity will be decided in response to this pandemic. With COVID-19, if we ask only how we can be a church of one particular tradition, and if we focus only on reestablishing our own traditional way of faith and life, then we may not have another chance to be one Church of Christ soon. Consequently, we may disappear one by one.
Let’s go back to Mars. What would we do in terms of religious life on Mars? Would that radical difference of lifestyle challenge us, Christians, to be one Church together? I understand there will always be skepticism about being one church, even on Mars. Personally, however, I believe there is a way for us to bring visible unity of the Church while maintaining our diversity of traditions.
To be one Church, we do not need to immigrate to Mars. We can be in unity here and now. So here is the irony for the Church at this time. We have an opportunity to serve every follower of Christ in the way Jesus has asked us to serve one another. Of course, it requires each of us and each faith tradition to make tremendous sacrifice. But is it what Jesus asks us to do?
As our people face death from this disease, what do we discuss as a church now?
The Rev. Paul S. Tché, President of the Christian Unity and Interfaith Ministry of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the Untied States and Canada.