Recently I watched with combined amazement, amusement, and horror as someone removed his mask, momentarily, to cough, and then immediately replaced it carefully covering his nose and mouth! Thankfully, I am already fully vaccinated! Otherwise, I would have been very frightened. Still, to say the least, it was somewhat disconcerting to watch someone using his mask in the exact opposite way of how it is meant to be used. Might it be that our common pandemic experience has so unsettled and unmoored most of us to the point that we have become even more than customarily mindless about what we do on a daily basis?
Worse than mindless, many otherwise peaceful people seem increasingly angry. There is, of course, much to get legitimately angry about, much of which has been exacerbated by this demoralizing pandemic experience. I use the word "demoralizing" deliberately. The customary constraints of civilized social life, let alone the restraints required by morality, normally compel us to filter our angry feelings into more socially and morally acceptable behaviors. Has so much social isolation undone some of those social and moral behavioral filters?
Fifty years ago, as a graduate student, I recall participating in conversations about ambient social breakdown. So this is certainly not all new and not ascribable only to the pandemic. But has the pandemic intensified existing dangerous emotions? And has our institutional response of socially disconnecting ourselves made this emotional mess even worse?
Traditionally, of course, churches have been the particularly privileged places where we meet one another with maximally benign expectations and behaviors. The secularization of society long predates the pandemic and can hardly be blamed either on the pandemic or on our response to it. But both the pandemic itself and even more so our institutional responses to it have even further marginalized religion and moved churches even more to the margins of society, precisely when their traditional spiritual, social, and moral functions were most desperately and widely needed.
Among the challenges as we return to ostensibly normal life will be restrengthening weakened social and moral filters and relearning how to channel angry feelings and emotions more effectively and less dangerously. If churches no longer provide sanctuaries in which to learn and strengthen such basic social and moral skills. where else will that happen?