L. Juliana Claassens
Professor of Old Testament and Head of Gender Unit, Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University
An Infinite Present: Theology as Resistance amidst Pandemics
Recently, while flipping through Flipboard, an article with the title “Without Future Plans, We’re Living In An ‘Infinite Present’” caught my attention. This term “an infinite present” went viral after being shared by American journalist Helen Rosner to capture her frustration of living in a Covid19 world with “no future plans, no anticipation of travel or shows or events or celebrations. It’s an endless today, never tomorrow.” The sentiment behind this term resonated with many. Including me. One of Covid19’s side effects was that we have found ourselves trapped in the unending cycle lamented also in Ecclesiastes 1. All rivers run into the sea, but the sea never is full (v. 7). The sun rises; the sun sets, only to rise once more tomorrow (v. 5). Round and round the wind blows, only to return to where it started (v. 6). Zoom meetings. Home-schooling. Teaching online. Walk around the yard. Stress baking. Watch Netflix. Repeat. We are stuck in an infinite present with no vision of tomorrow and frustrated by our inability to plan for a future.
But perhaps even grimmer, we have been hurled into a world of Jeremiah where we are no longer allowed to celebrate weddings. Or to enter a house of mourning where we may engage in rituals of lament and comfort of the bereaved (Jer 16:5-9). In terms of the inventory of seasons in Ecclesiastes 3, it seems as if there is no longer even a time for mourning and weeping, or laughter and dance.
And yet, in both Ecclesiastes and the book of Jeremiah, one finds how, amidst a time of uncertainty and duress, there are traces of a theological response that refuses to accept the new normal. This paper will explore the possibilities of doing theology amidst a time of Covid19 in terms of the theme of resistance by fostering a creative conversation between the Sage of the book of Ecclesiastes and the Prophet of the book Jeremiah. Each of these two biblical figures has had to endure their share of trauma and travail – the prophet Jeremiah, in particular, speaking about the sons and daughters of Judah who “shall die of deadly diseases” (Jer 16:4). However, in both these biblical books, one finds valuable resources to help us consider how to continue to live amidst the infinite present wrought upon us by this current pandemic.