Sometime during the Covid crisis, someone wrote on Twitter: what if instead of vaccinating ourselves we could expose ourselves to a weakened form of the virus, so that we can build antibodies to fight the real virus?
The tweet’s author was congratulated. He had now run away from vaccines so hard that he had gone full circle and reinvented the principle of vaccination. Exposure to modified forms of the virus is indeed a great concept for protecting people from infectious diseases.
I was reminded of such a movement when I spoke this week at the opening of the academic year at the Protestant Theological University. The question was whether I wanted to reflect on the role of theology in a secularizing society. The field had once again started to reflect, to re-source, to soul-search, to evaluate its own position and to reinvent itself. This has now become a standard part of Christian culture. Again and again they take a seat on the sofa. What’s the matter with us?
It is perhaps a logical reflex of denominations and theological institutions that are shrinking further and further. In the meantime, the number of people who consider themselves to belong to a religious denomination or ideological movement is in the minority. But if you look around the hottest coaches, influencers and science, you wouldn’t say that. They are reinventing all kinds of rituals and forms of spirituality, whether or not in groups.
Take the popularity of gratitude. As part of the morning or evening ritual, write down three things you are grateful for. Gratitude can be practiced, made a habit, and its amazing effects on your well-being and psyche would have been proven over and over again in an entirely new scientific field, that of positive psychology.
I think the theologians are pulling their hair out. They still looked one way, where the runaway mob had disappeared from view for good a few decades ago. But now that group had almost run around the circle and on the other side they appeared on the horizon again. Some of those newly grateful ones had even considered that adding a direct object to your thanksgiving made their attitudes even more effective. They now thanked the universe. Or the creative energy.
Then you are really almost there.
The new gratitude was evidence based and had a great one return on investment. Despite that kind of new scientific and capitalist streak, it all seemed very familiar. Who knows, next year the hipsters may think they can manifest their gratitude to the universe in a brief moment of silence before each meal. They may think it’s a good idea to leave the screens behind on one specific day of the week, rest, and devote the day mostly to family, community, and connecting with the universe. Choral singing also seems to have positive effects. You score karma points with neighborly care. Spiritual cleansing is achieved by fasting regularly. Perhaps the new grateful will find a suitable vacant building to come together in.
Life sometimes seems like one big déjà vu. Time and again we look for the same solutions to the same problems.
Wouldn’t it be useful if someone did real structural poverty alleviation? If someone had a solution for the working poor, for the new underclass. Shall we otherwise set up a new party that sees this as its core task?
The PvdA raises its hand hesitantly. Have you ever heard of social democracy?
Wouldn’t it be nice if the worker got some more rights? Less juggling with people, less unpredictable on-call contracts, and unacceptable work pressure. And the deflated union says: maybe we could fill that function?
And we inevitably fail in that as well. And we run in a circle. Until twenty years from now, when we look back at that larger, more emphatic government, with support package after support package, it suddenly starts to strike you how clumsy and ineffective that government actually is. How little makeable society. How much overhead the schemes have, how slow they work, and how many Dutch people actually receive unjustified support.
And then the VVD says: gosh, what a surprise.
Rosanne Hertzberger is a microbiologist.
A version of this article also appeared in the newspaper of September 3, 2022