Partnering Past a Pandemic

By K. E. Carver

To move forward within the context of COVID-19, we have to partner with god toward newness, not seek regression toward a normality that no longer reflects our reality, or our greatest good.

In reflecting on the past year-and-change (excuse the unintentionally ironic turn-of-phrase), I keep coming back to lessons my history degree taught me. Two, in particular.

Lesson one: the idea that history repeats itself isn’t just a flippant catchphrase. Sometimes it’s a syndicated playback: no variation, no newness, no novel value in and of itself. But at other times, it’s a remake, a reinterpretation: sometimes it brings its own creative contrasts with the last go-round to the table.

Given I speak out of a deeply process-oriented tradition, my interpretation and much of my application of these ideas is steeped in Whiteheadian constructs. That, in simple parlance, uplifts the concept of creativity, which is everywhere and in all things, and is itself valueless—it defines existence, but it lacks any moral utility in itself. What creates value from creativity-as-a-rule is change via contrast. The presence of meaning within such a world depends on that creativity being engaged and harmonized toward novelty and beauty, in other words, coming up with “reboots” steeped in experiential newness, rather than continuing to re-run what came before. It is, then, only through relationship—with any and all things, on any and all levels—that experiential significance is within reach.

In this view, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic was—and remains—more accurately a reboot of a known entity. We’ve seen pandemics before in history, at least once a century, and lesser epidemics besides. This one wasn’t necessarily unpredictable, and certainly not unprecedented in theory. However, for all the multivalent ways in which this pandemic exhibits clear novelty, one key difference is the nature of the world we live in. Our present global society is relational, interconnected and intertwined, interdependent as a rule. We’ve never had a pandemic like this because, while we have inhabited and contributed to a relational world before, the global extent of relationality was never so immense.

Here, I come to lesson two from my degree-days: reading, studying, analyzing, picking-apart-every-detail of history from every monograph you can find, is absolutely not the same as living it yourself.

It’s been a unique experience, then, living through a global pandemic in a world like this, full of Zoom calls and Teams meetings, digitized calligraphy classes, sourdough starters, and new plant friends, watching loved ones through glass, learning far more about what PPE entails than one ever could have expected—all endlessly dotted with ceaseless attempts not just to entertain ourselves, but to create in a seeming-void. To bring into our sphere a discrete element of relationship, from things living and inanimate alike, and to engineer ways to foster contrast toward novelty; to seek out beauty and some meaning from all of this chaos and pain.

With that in mind, had my circumstances been different—namely, had I not contracted a severe case of COVID—I imagine I’d have actually been well-suited to quarantine life. For instance, the pervasive encouragements to spend time outdoors (even in isolation, with clear distancing) spoke directly to the ways I personally experience any iteration of the divine. My partnering with god in silence, in solitude, is something I’d not just practiced long before COVID-19, but something I relished. I’m firmly rooted somewhere at the pantheism/panentheism/relational naturalism end of the theological spectrum, so I may well have been in my spiritual element.

But I did contract COVID. And it resulted in debilitating long-term symptoms. And given that, the question emerged every day—every hour— how could I engage with, or even merely recognize, any source of beauty around me? Any tiny contrast that could yield intensity, however small? How could I partner with any understanding of god to co-create meaning-in-relation, when relation was the very thing that I could not engage? Not merely due to self-isolating or social distancing, but also for the inability to walk steadily from my bed to my kitchen; for the brain fog that rendered me incapable of clear thoughts, let alone the ability to put them to words in the world.

Given the givens then as they were: how on earth could any of this matter?

I believe that is the core struggle the pandemic has confronted us with, and that we’re still wrestling in the now. And likely will be for years to come.

That does not, however, mean the project is hopeless.


For months, this status quo of a question came up in new ways for me, as much as it did for society at large. The missing of countless milestones. Rituals marking growth, belonging, and validation all put on indefinite hold. Grief and loss borne alone when Western culture in particular does not know how to deal with death constructively in the best of circumstances. Months of this, until science offered new possibilities for motion after such pervasive standstills, after the only progress we were generally able to make was internal and largely outside of relation. Suddenly, possibility was illuminated. Newness could be imagined, and may well be on the horizon.

Hope springs eternal.

However, what I also see, and what I struggle with in the light of conceptualizing a partnership with an ultimate reality defined by relationship, is maybe the most often-repeated cliche one can currently find at seemingly every turn—from politicians to pundits, media personalities to mask-weary family and friends: Finally, we can get back to normal.

First, of course, the obvious problems with this concept: so many people will never know “normal” as this phrase seems to imply. They cannot retreat to Winter 2019 and know again their loved ones in the flesh that were victims of the virus. Those with chronic impacts from infection will never know what used to be of their lives, possibly ever again. This experience at large is one that will define every generation alive now to remember it. To ask anything less than acknowledgement, and the due that death and loss demand, is no less than violent disrespect for what it means to be human.

More broadly though, “normal” is a deeply problematic generalization. Even in its appropriate contextual settings, it’s a fluid concept. The current implications of this term, at least colloquially, point toward nothing less than regression. Denial. A coping mechanism par excellence that not only masks a festering hurt but also willfully assents to triviality—a halting of the creative advance that thus fails to create beauty and yield novelty. This is, in part, because there is no space to invite newness among long-tired experience; reruns, without the benefit of a new gaze. Because some seek actively to go back, not to make new but to reclaim the old, they begin to look very much like stagnation—a state clearly valued as an “evil”—described by process theologian Marjorie Suchocki.

Now to the opposite perspective, presence and partnership with god has been interwoven with the entire human experience of this global trauma. But I want to, finally, hone in on one point in particular. Perhaps the most important one as we take steps forward toward whatever awaits in the next stages of this global phenomenon. An alternative, and a necessary one, to desperately limited possibilities and almost non-existent capacities for meaning moving forward, encapsulated in a call to return to a “normality” that isn’t even well defined—let alone attainable.

My proposition? The newness is the point.

This is what it means to partner with god when the stakes are high but the means are limited. That’s because creativity is never absent, as it characterizes in many ways a default state of being. Even the most stringent of limitations do not negate the capacity for some contrast in relation or the availability to cultivate the creative advance. It merely changes the scope and alters the shapes the creative advance can take; what it can become.

In said spirit, we are tasked, as partners in this endeavor, with lending meaning, with sculpting value into that quintessential creativity. In the present moment, we are asked to rise further to a second essential consideration: the balance of that dynamism with safety. And even that safety is multifaceted, from protection of bodies against a lethal—if still valuelessly-creative—virus, to care in the face of both trauma and change in that virus’ wake. If god is defined by novelty and possibility, given to growth and evocation via that same creative advance, I can’t help wonder: would such a force in the universe want for us to “go back”? To “return” to normal?

And more besides: did we actually stop living, over the past many months? Did we really cease to be entirely? Or did we experience a disruption to our capacity to create meaning? The discrepancy is crucial.

Connie Schultz, Pulitzer Prize-winning author and dispenser of wisdoms both hard and soft—but always necessary, recently wrote of how she’s emerging from the most recent stage of the pandemic as a “new, previously unimaginable” version of herself. I loved that phrasing, and I think it’s entirely apt to lift up here, because that is the key: we have to accept wholly—not without mourning, and not without room to revise and grow—our new selves, and our new reality. Only then can we reach out and say yes to the ability to partner with god and creation in such a way that invites the creative advance and cultivates beauty, weaving new, likely unexpected, truly novel meaning and value.

The way forward is not to cling to what we lost, but to honor it. To embrace what we are, and what we have in relation, in order to become something novel, with a potential to mean multitudes.

Question: How does a partner god work with the human world when the human world sets itself against the novel good of the larger context of being?

Katelynn E. Carver is a postgraduate researcher at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. She earned her BA and BS from Baldwin Wallace University, cementing her ongoing and unwavering commitment to interdisciplinarity. She earned an integrated, multidisciplinary master’s degree from the Divinity School at Harvard University. She can be found with a coffee in the morning, a wee dram in the evening, and always with something in hand to write in.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Partnering with God: Exploring Collaboration in Open and Relational Theology.

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