J.M. Opal is an associate professor and chair of the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University.
I’m an American academic living in Montreal, the fun-loving metropolis of a province that takes laicité very seriously. The most common signs of piety around me are the headscarves worn by observant Muslim women, which the provincial government has banned from public schools and offices.
I’m also a historian, which means I sometimes wonder what kind of trail I’m leaving in case some future historian, with nothing better to do, decides to study me. What, for instance, would be the evidence for my religious beliefs?
The short answer is, not much. I am not a member of a church, although both the United Church of Canada and the Unitarian Church of Montreal resemble the traditions in which I was raised. The same is true for my wife, who grew up Episcopalian but has no intention of remaining so. Neither of our two children is baptized.
If the historian were careful (or bored) enough, he might note that I occasionally signed the guest register at the Unitarian Church, which, he would surely discover using some kind of Google Maps archive, was located a short drive from my residence. My scrawled signature appears on some Christmas Eves – the ones when I was able to drag along my skeptical children – and also on a few random dates throughout the year. At those times, the historian might conclude, I was feeling sad or stressed, and could not find solace in books or exercise or a few drinks with a colleague.
More likely, the historian would conclude that I was downright contemptuous of religion. The evidence here is far more compelling: several articles in newspapers in Canada and the United States, in which I claimed to trace some of the worst episodes and most toxic ideas in U.S. history to a certain kind of “religious nationalism.” I was especially hard on the Old Testament, which I accused of inspiring a racist and vindictive worldview that emerged around 1800 and remained alive and (un)well into the 2010s.
I neither deny nor regret any of this. I don't count as an observant Christian. My wife and I are raising our children according to ethical rules that rest on our sense of humanity and honesty, not on religious authority. I dislike the patriarchal and domineering nature of conservative piety, Christian or otherwise. I have special contempt for “prosperity theology,” the dulcet term for saying that God will make you rich if you want it bad enough.
And yet, in times of trial, I sometimes close my eyes and draw my hands together. I do not move my lips, but I distinctly form words in my head. I turn away from everyone, even my wife, so that I feel totally alone with my vague but powerful sense of the divine.
If I’m honest with myself, I realize that I’m recreating the prayers I heard from a pastor in the Congregational Church I used to attend with my parents. I recall the pitch of her voice when she said my favourite line, about how a gentle God wants “to feed the hungry, to comfort the lonely and to heal the nations.”
I experience these words as a perfect iteration of goodwill, and if I listen well enough to them, I feel calm and brave.
I don’t pretend that this kind of liberal Protestant humanism is the best or only answer in dark times. I don’t even know if there is a best answer. I draw from that tradition simply because I know it – because it lives in the memories that constitute me, tucked away amid a jumble of images of moving days and schoolyard bullies and loving parents.
And now a new pathogen stalks humankind, pursuing our bodies as if we were nothing but cells and flesh. Governments and economies tremble at its approach. Society goes into hiding and all the little markers of normalcy disappear. We cough into our elbows and wash our hands, hoping the coronavirus does not choose us as its next host.
I think about my loved ones in New England and New York. I worry about friends who just made it out of Lebanon, hours ahead of a nationwide lockdown. I assure our children that the virus isn’t interested in them. I think about my students, to whom I’ve promised some kind of improvised class. And I weigh my responsibilities to my colleagues, who have more questions than answers and who look to me for some kind of clarity.
I close my eyes, fold my hands and do the best I can:
Look down on us in our hour of need. Give strength to the healthy and relief to the sick. Help us to comfort the frightened and the vulnerable, to stay calm in the midst of fear and anger, and to do our part to fight this plague. Be with us, come what may, until this, too, passes into history.
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