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The parable of the mask, and why science and religion must co-exist

By Edward Buri | September 26th 2021

Nyeri Deputy Governor Caroline Karugu masks up Hassan Mangota aged 102, when she distributed Eid Ul Fitr goodies to over 100 Muslim families in Blue Valley slums within the Majengo area of Nyeri Town, May 13, 2021. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

Interpreting history is what makes history. Records of occurrences are as good as the meanings accorded to them. The Covid-19 pandemic has grabbed the world’s attention and its disruption has united humanity everywhere. Academic disciplines, religious faiths, countries, institutions, local communities and individuals are racking their minds seeking to render an effective interpretation concerning the pandemic.

In the midst of these interpretations, the mask code is a useful parable. It carries more meaning than a health cover over the mouth and nose. Though its purpose will gradually fall off as the pandemic ebbs away, it has critical lessons that would light up a path to a better world. On one hand, history will talk of the mask in the language of once-upon-a-time, but on the other hand the future can point to dimensions of life derived from reflections on the mask.

A friend without a mask can be lethal. A stranger with a mask can be a saviour. The stranger is no longer given distant treatment. The friend is no longer received casually. The wisdom in “love your neighbour” has jumped from just lines in the Bible to literal actions and expectations on the ground. People are super-conscious of those around them. More than any other time in recent times, everyone is receiving neighbourly attention. We hope they love us enough to wear mask as we purpose to do the same. Masking is loving.

People are carrying extra masks to share with unknown mask-free persons. Just like an employer protects their wealth by compensating workers well, you preserve yourself by preserving others.

Reckless maskless

A parent wears a mask to protect the household. In the streets, a person wears it to protect themselves from the reckless maskless. One wears it out of kindness the other wears it out of selfishness. The motives are at odds but the result is the same. This is one time when selfishness does not negate the good but rather propagates it.

The mask covering the mouth and the nose means we must now identify people by looking into their eyes. Eyes are windows to the soul. In a world where so much is invested in the face to make someone look good, the mask has caused us to go beyond face-value distraction and give people soul attention. To love your neighbour is to give–even strangers–soul attention.

Religion is fertile ground for many science deniers. Deniers are fueled by a suspicion that science has a motive to replace God. A choreographed propaganda machine fans hostility towards scientific breakthroughs. Discoveries that challenge the scriptures are unwelcome. They are attacked as “anti-God”–the product of powerful people aiming at achieving a godless world.

Public health initiatives such as mass vaccinations are speculated to have an agenda of deforming or controlling life. Such speculation has often resulted in low uptake of health programmes. While this suspicion of science may be deemed regressive, it points to the dangerous possibility of science falling in the wrong hands. The observed reluctance also entrenches the need for boundaries and ethical practices in science lest the fears of the deniers be proved true. Religion, too, does often fall into the wrong hands, as exhibited by some who remain maskless in the name of faith. A country that is religion-heavy looks up to faith healing a lot more. It takes education to deliver the revelation of the relationship between praying and vaccination. Christianity that feels threatened by science is faulty. True religion is big enough for science to be safe within it.

The good news is that a clear majority of Christians around the world are intentionally masked. In this season, most religious gatherings conduct a mask check as a license to be present. The mask constitutes a key contemporary evidence of Christian decency.

Embrace wisdom

A mask-free person in a Christian gathering is seen as insensitive to others and therefore not in the spirit. The mask has become a mark of faithfulness and witness. Importantly, the mask has silently become a mark of embracing the wisdom of the scientist preached by the priest, each playing their roles as agents of salvation. 

Religion and science must not rank each other above or below. They should not exist to extinguish each other. Both are open spaces for the Creator’s action and must stand shoulder to shoulder. Co-working of disciplines is way more beneficial to a community than competition. The mask has invited religion into science and science into religion, and in this way ignited a friendship that is essential going forward.

As the world’s best laboratories were struggling to seek headway against the virus, the textile factory saved the day. Before the vaccine came the mask. The vaccine manufacturing and approval process is complex. Comparatively, the mask-making process is maybe too simple. But none of the processes and products is to be undermined. They are both effective lifesavers. Even when the vaccines came, the mask was still valid even to the vaccinated.

The world of information increasingly honours those who hold a lot of it. Those with little information are of little value. The world then has become a knowledge race. There is a huge knowledge market with different price tags.

The categorisation of regions of the world as First, Second or Third World is a factor of the knowledge banks. The simple life of Third World countries makes them be looked down upon, and absent from the table of power. This cultural pressure leads people to hide their simplicity and instead shop for complexity.

Those rich in values but have no money are sidelined. Those who exude wisdom but lack higher education are not picked up by the radar of the successful. The sunset in a faraway island is packaged as better than the same sun disappearing behind village hills.   

Simplicity must not worship complexity, and complexity must not shun simplicity. The mask and the vaccine exist to coexist.

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