Podcast: The Public Discourse

Episode 2: The Power of Religion

On this episode, we talk with Hannah Marazzi, Esther Maloney and Eric Farr about the ways in which religion and spirituality are shaping responses to the coronavirus health crisis, and how we can emerge from the crisis with a new consciousness. Marazzi works with Cardus, Maloney leads the Illumine Media Project, and Farr is a PhD student in religion.

Read the Transcript

The transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity

Delaram Erfanian (Communications Manager, Office of Public Affairs): I am so happy to have with me today Hannah Marazzi, Eric Farr and Esther Maloney. To start us off, I wanted to ask you each to introduce yourselves and share a little bit of your background with us. So, if I can start with Hannah.

Hannah Marazzi (Stakeholder Officer, Cardus): My name is Hannah Marazzi and I am a stakeholder officer at Cardus, which is Canada's only faith-based think tank. I'm also a board director at a local refugee shelter and furniture bank called Matthew House Ottawa.

Eric Farr (PhD Student, University of Toronto): My name is Eric Farr. I'm a PhD student at the University of Toronto's Department for the Study of Religion. I'm also involved in a number of educational initiatives that the Bahá’í community organizes.

Esther Maloney (Director, Illumine Media Project): My name is Esther Maloney. I'm a mom to an active 3-year-old and I'm the founding director of Illumine Media Project, which is a grassroots initiative working with youth in Toronto neighborhoods thinking about narrative content that can be uplifting. We draw our inspiration from the efforts of the global Bahá’í community.

Delaram: Wonderful. Thank you all for taking the time today and to start us off. I wanted to start with Hannah. I know you have worked in the area of community building with faith-based organizations, most recently with Cardus. How do you think religion is helping people to approach this crisis?

Hannah: It's a great question. As a think tank, we've recently done some research with the Angus Reid Institute on how COVID-19 is affecting Canadians, particularly from a faith-based perspective. Just before our call I took a look at the research, and it was very interesting to see that one in five Canadians say they personally or someone close to them has been supported by a faith institution since the coronavirus began spreading. Among Canadians who pray, which is about 59% of the population overall, more than one in five say that they are turning to prayer more since the pandemic gripped the country. For those who are steeped in faith, prayer has been a very important source of relief and comfort in dealing with feelings of isolation, depression and uncertainty.

I know, personally, I've noticed that the people around me are revisiting what it means to be human. So, when I look around me, when I listen to those that I have phone calls with, I'm beginning to see a return to really important questions like: What do I put my hope in? What responsibility to I have towards my neighbour? How can I reorient my life according to what deeply matters?

Delaram: Esther, you work with a media project that helps young people produce narratives that relate spiritual concepts to their daily lives. How are you seeing religion and spirituality help people close to you – your neighbours, your friends – to live in this new reality?

Esther: When I think of the work around Illumine, one of the things we were doing before COVID-19 was to be in schools and in contexts where we could have meaningful conversations with young people about their lives. The content that we've been sharing is rooted in spiritual themes. One of the things we always kind of championed is that we wanted to sit and have a face to face conversation about media content rather than be isolated on our screens as we tend to be when we're taking in narrative content.

When COVID-19 hit, there was a real surge of people saying: "We need uplifting content, we need media that's going to help connect us, that's going to support our mental health, that's going to bring us together." We had the content, so we were able to say: “Why don’t we come online together and watch something and have a meaningful discussion?”

For example, one of the first episodes is about this idea that humanity is at a critical point in history where we are going through our collective maturity, even though there are so many signs of suffering and crisis. It felt like a very rich conversation to have with young people. I think in that way, spiritual concepts allowed us to go a little bit deeper than you know: How are you guys doing? Are you scared? Are you washing your hands? Being able to access something a bit more profound about: How do we understand the trajectory that humanity is on?

In terms of my own neighborhood or my own community, there's a group of friends that are also mothers, and I think many of us felt initially quite overwhelmed with being at home with our children full time, and also managing responsibilities at work. It's wonderful as a gift to be with your family so much, but of course it brings new tests and challenges. So, a few of us felt like we were wanting to come together. After the kids go to bed, once a week, we just gather over an online platform and have the chance to say some prayers together.

Delaram: Eric, you are a graduate student in religious studies, and you're thinking a lot about how religion informs the way we are approaching the present moment. At a time of crisis like this, this allows us to think about ourselves and society in new ways. What role do you think religion has in helping us to imagine the world in a different way?

Eric: We can think of religion's contributions in a couple of ways. On one level I think religion provides humanity with language and concepts and ideas that allow us to understand our purpose and to articulate our purpose in light of changing circumstances of history. It allows us to identify problems that we experience, to recognize injustice and call it by its name. It allows us also to identify possibilities – new possibilities – because it situates us in a context in which the immediate material surroundings that we live in are actually not the only – and not even the most important – context that we live in.

So, you think about the kind of the role that suffering plays in many of the great religious traditions of the world. Suffering is given a generative function in human beings' lives. If I think of my own life, those moments in which I experienced the most personal growth, that gave me kind of the depth of understanding that I didn't have before – it was those moments in which I went through the greatest challenges of my life.

Another thing that religion gives us is by helping us see history as having some sort of direction: some sort of moral arc or some sort of trajectory that is forward moving. And not forward moving in the sense of unending material progress, but that there is meaning to history. These crises that humanity is facing in this global pandemic – what are some of the capacities that humanity is being called to develop? What are some of the gross inequities and injustices that have been there all the time? Somehow this crisis is accelerating those inequities or revealing them in a new kind of way. So that's a powerful thing that I think religion can provide.

One other thing: in addition to ideas and language and concepts, religion also gives concrete structures to learn about these things. It doesn't just give a bunch of abstract concepts that then you need to negotiate on your own, but it gives creates communities, it creates institutions. Of course, not all religious communities function this way; this is sort of an ideal of how kind of many religious communities see their existence. It creates a space in which we can actually learn what the translation of these spiritual concepts and ideals looks like in reality.

So, these new conditions of social distancing, which include great fear of death and of loneliness, kind of expose the loneliness that has been there all the time. Religions are learning in new ways how to respond to these challenges. At its best, those are some of the things that religion can contribute to help us navigate a crisis like the one that were in right now.

Hannah: I just want to say to Eric that you put such generous parameters of language around how religion can help us navigate this time. I’m very grateful for that. As a Christian I would say: I believe I come from God and I am returning to God. I believe that God gives me all that I have, and it is never really mine, but it is something for me to steward while I am here on earth. So I can say that, but I think COVID-19 has provided me with an opportunity to embody that: to recheck in with myself to say, does my life, do my actions, do my words, do my prayers, and do my thoughts reflect what I say I believe, and what I have been taught to believe, and what I'm being invited to engage in a little deeper?

I want to return to how should we be thinking about the most vulnerable at this time. I'm on the board of a refugee shelter and furniture bank named Matthew House, which is located here in Ottawa. Our vision and mission is rooted in my Christian faith tradition. There's this verse in the Bible, Matthew 25:35, that reads: "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in.' 'So, my faith has provided me a wonderful blueprint of how to be thinking of, and serving, and accompanying and learning from the most vulnerable.

This is a wonderful invitation to re-establish a consciousness – but in reality it should be a consciousness we have all year round. It shouldn't be prompted by a pandemic. I know that this time will eventually come to an end, so I'm asking myself, I’m asking my community of faith, I’m asking my neighbours and family to think: if this is an enduring call on our faith, how can we retain and extend this consciousness beyond this pandemic?

Delaram: Yes, I think we're all asking ourselves that because it has brought up these questions for all of us and also the awareness of all of these things around us.

Esther, in your neighborhood, what opportunities are you seeing to find new kinds of connections with people? How are you seeing the role of the community emerge in response to this crisis?

Esther: I live in what is essentially an artist's co-op, so there's an awareness that everyone in this building is an artist. I have a neighbour who lives above me and the balconies overlap in such a way that our two toddlers can speak to each other from their balconies. We are thinking to install a bell where they can call each other out and just have their social moment, but at a distance.

Another thing that happened is that there is an opera singer in our building. She's phenomenal, and she decided to do nineteen concerts for COVID-19, for nineteen days in a row. She stood on her balcony and started singing. These are beautiful arias. She's incredible. We are living in a high-rise type of neighbourhood, and a lot of these buildings are quite new. So, you can imagine this is also a very different income bracket: the building we are facing, and then you have these artists on the other side. When she comes out, she has this beautiful poster that says: "you are not alone". It's very striking to see all of these condo owners also coming out on their balconies, and everyone facing one another on their balconies across the street, and cheering for each other. I think she was inspired by what she saw in Italy.

So, I think we can also see how worldwide, resilience is contagious and communities themselves can catch this sense that not everything is shut down and there are many ways that we can care for one another. As Hannah said, there is always that hope that this will change, it will evolve.Many people are saying: we don't want to go back to normal. What we want is a new normal, and that is such a tremendous prompt in our collective history: what should that "new normal" be? And, God-willing, this moment, this crisis we are passing through, it is shaping that desire of people in very deep ways.

Eric: Can I say something about that? It's so helpful to hear such concrete examples of this community – this small geographic area – looking into itself for the resources that it needs to survive this pandemic. In a way, the COVID-19 situation is giving us an opportunity to mine the depths of communities that we already live in. We are very used to going all the way across the city for this particular entertainment or food – whatever it is. We go all over the place to get the things we need. But often, those things that we need are right in the next apartment. And it allows our needs to be shaped less by whatever I want at any particular moment, and to be more: okay, well, what are the resources that are there, and how do I shape the things I actually want by what's available, and what are the talents and capacities of the people in the community I live in? So, there is also this interesting connection between the richness of the communities we live in in our immediate surroundings or identifying where there are huge gaps in the communities we live in.

Hannah: I would just like to ask my conversation partners: Do you feel that the needs that are being expressed are almost being released and have been held for a long time? I feel sometimes when I'm listening to people finally admit what they need, I wonder if subconsciously they have had that need for a long time and they have wanted to ask it but the conditions haven't been right. The social norms haven't allowed them to be conscious of the fact that they want to ask for a need. I'm so curious about other people and other communities, and I want to know about the nature of their requests that you are seeing. Are they immediate, are they sudden, are they onset, are they enduring?

Esther: I think it's a really insightful question. My sense is that a lot of the time these material needs we have are portals to deeper spiritual needs that are about connection. If I suddenly get to bring you your groceries every week, then we are in a dialogue, and we can make jokes about how all the milk was gone again, and whatever weekly mundane things come up around that task. I don't say that to minimize the material need. The material need is very real. But sometimes I wonder if actually when we have the guts to say I need some help, there is always a deeper need, a spiritual need for connection.

Eric: There are many elements of this society that feel like an illusion. There's the illusion of stability, the illusion of security, and you just see in a moment like this, that it just reveals how precarious so many people's lives economic lives are. It reveals how unsustainable the way food is distributed across a city. These are things that we already know. But somehow the urgency of this particular moment we are in just casts them into starker relief, and gives us an opportunity to reflect, and hopefully imagine a new normal, as Esther was saying. It's helping us to see through some of these illusory aspects of our everyday lives that are hidden for many of us. Of course, many people live their everyday lives very much aware of these challenges. But, there is something about society that paints over them for a lot of the population.

Delaram: Eric, maybe I can ask you one question as well. Can you talk a little more about how we think about the role of religion and spirituality within a context where science and medicine are seen as the primary solution?

Eric: I think we are rightly hearing from many places of authority in our society how the decisions that are being made are being guided by science, and by health experts. On one level this should give us great confidence. It is very good that we are grounding decisions about how to handle a public health crisis with the best that scientific knowledge has produced.

At the same time, it seems quite clear from this conversation that we are having, that many of the problems that this unique crisis is revealing to us are not ones that can be solved only by scientists. There are clearly moral and spiritual challenges, and moral and spiritual possibilities that we can respond to in this particular moment. In considering the kinds of problems we are discussing – things like economic inequality, and food supply challenges in our society. These are questions that we are able to think about in a particular way because of the language of spirituality and the moral intuitions that we have, and the urgency we feel about these things are brought out by our moral and spiritual senses. But, in order to solve those problems, we also need to draw on science and the best that this system of knowledge has produced for humanity. So, hopefully, in drawing on the power of religion and also drawing on the power of science, these two ways of looking at the world – these two systems of knowledge – bring us to the other one as well.

Esther: I was just thinking a little about science and religion, and I really appreciate the clarity you brought to that, Eric. I was thinking, science gives us so much that we know. It's the realm of the known. In my bad habits of scrolling news and over-reading and trying to understand, there's always this human desire that we want to understand. We have this thirst for knowledge, which is so excellent. But then, I feel this pull, this collective pull, of us all realizing that we have to get so comfortable with uncertainty right now, and all that we don’t know. That, to me, is also the realm of religion: it's the realm of sitting with something that is unknown, and at the same time having trust. That's such a tricky kind of path to walk. In a sense, saying my prayers, and thinking about my relationship with the Creator, the purpose of my life, my mortality, all of this is … goes a lot deeper than all of the scrolling and just wanting to know as much as I can know.

Delaram: Esther, you were saying that we don't want to go back to normal, but we want to have a “new normal,” so I would like to ask each of you one last question. What are your hopes for society as we emerge from this crisis, and into this new world, as you called it?

Hannah: While in no way do I want “happiness-wash” (a term I learned the other day) the immense difficulty and sorrow that COVID-19 is bringing to so many, I am also seeing this beautiful return to front-porch living, neighbourhood care, consciousness for the earth, the immense concern and care for the most vulnerable in our midst. I am seeing people check in regularly with the elderly, on our health care workers.

I hope that we can return to conversations about what we believe, and how we believe that implicates us and obligates us to care for and accompany those with whom we are surrounded, to honour and glorify God, and to remember that from Him I come and to Him I am returning. I hope that we can collectively begin to recover a sense of how our faith can provide a source of hope and purpose, and a blueprint, a framework, a scaffolding, for how we can better belong to one another.

Delaram: Thank you Hannah, that was beautiful. Esther, would you like to go next?

Esther: I think I would go back to this idea of illusion, which Eric brought language to – about how we have been living in a world that has had a number of illusions, or veils up, about what is actually going on.

It seems like this global crisis is burning away a lot of those veils and allowing us to see what was behind the curtain all along. My hope is that this collective crisis will be a burning of that veil, and will allow us to shed our illusions about what is actually going on here. I hope that all humanity can be empowered to contribute towards a civilization we would all want to be part of.

Bringing that down to a very practical, day to day, level – I think about the education of children. There has been a lot of really interesting conversations amongst communities, amongst parents thinking about young people and what it means to go to school, and how to replace that at home and what that looks like. Is true education having a child hooked up to a computer all day long and saying, “Well, they did what the teacher asked, and this is what the school board has asked”? Or, is true education to live in the rhythm of their family for that day, and discover things along the way? Is true education rooted in community, is it rooted in service? All of this is coming to light through this crisis, and there seem to be opportunities even at the level of policy, say, around education, for people to look at this and say: What illusions have we burnt away here? Whatreallyis helping young people to advance? And, to contribute, and to gain knowledge about how they can help their societies. So, I hope that those illusions will kind of dissipate and we can come home to our actual oneness.

Eric: I think my hope for society is that this crisis allows us to see ourselves more accurately as one. That it somehow brings home to us the oneness of humanity: how we are all, regardless of where we live or what our circumstances are, that our fates are bound up together, our lives are bound up together. I hope we can draw on, both individually and as a society, the resources of our spiritual and religious traditions in order to not have that just be a passing realization but to allow it actually to exercise a concrete influence on the structures of society. That would be my hope.

Delaram: It has been a true pleasure to have this conversation with all of you today. I have learned so much from all of your experiences and your insights. Thank you.