What the coronavirus pandemic feels like for a theology student

Books and other resources have become harder to access because of the coronavirus pandemic but deadlines remain the same.(Photo: Unsplash/Ed Robertson)

Someone once told me that students are one of the most self-absorbed species on earth. I think they could have been right. I also know that the only thing anyone is talking about nowadays is the coronavirus.

When you combine these two elements then what you get is an article like this, an excursus amidst the corona-chaos to shed a little light on the plight of students in these dystopian days.

I begin with a disclaimer: most articles on Covid-19 expire faster than that milk carton your flatmate accidentally left outside the fridge last night (a hypothetical situation, I promise). So don't be surprised if you read this one day, and an entirely different article the next.

I should also add that this situation is mind-bogglingly complex. One size does definitely not fit all. I will be writing from my own experience as a final year undergrad at London School of Theology (LST) – mainly because this is the experience I know best, although also because I understand it to be a similar situation to the majority of others.

What's the situation?

Long story short, the campus has closed down.

Last week was our final set of on-site lectures for the foreseeable future. From now on our lectures will be online – LST are using something called Zoom – and we will be attending via webcam (probably from our beds, and probably in our pyjamas – with the temptation to fall asleep reaching nearly insurmountable levels).

All resident students have been told to return home. This is awkward but okay if you live in the UK and have a place to stay; for international students and those for whom college is home, the situation is a little different. Most have been encouraged to leave but are permitted to stay – provided they throw themselves into strict self-isolation.

Access to the library has also been severely restricted (libraries are, after all, a favourite social hangout for great swathes of students). We are allowed entry to borrow and return books, but under no uncertain circumstances are we to linger.

This, actually, is incredibly gracious – but still isn't great. Reference books (core and/or fragile books) remain library-bound; even more books than before will be on loan before we can get to them (if you can stockpile loo roll then you can stockpile books – and depending on the book, they share the same purpose too); and if you thought that moving lectures online sounds difficult, just imagine trying to export a whole library. LST has the most exceptional librarian you could find on the face of the earth – but sadly even the best librarians are not above the disruptive rage of Covid-19.

And what about that most precious of questions... do we still have exams and essays? Unfortunately, essay deadlines (at LST anyway) seem to be the only things that the coronavirus has not been able to infect yet. None of our due dates have changed. Our deadlines, rapidly approaching, are impervious to the climate of panic. 

Neither have any academic standards changed. This is understandable (can you imagine St Paul skimping on his efforts simply because of a little social anxiety and upheaval?) but nevertheless it is inconvenient. Most of us work hard enough to achieve the grades that we do anyway, let alone trying to do so in self-isolation with limited access to resources.

As for our exams, nobody is quite sure yet. Maybe by the time May/June roll around then we'll be safe to sit in the same hall together? But maybe we won't. So we need alternatives. Music and worship students will likely have to record and send in all of their performances, however that's not so possible for a three hour exam on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. There is a lot of uncertainty here.

And that is an appropriate way to describe the whole student situation: uncertain. We don't really know what's going on (and I gather that this is not unique to just the student population?), although at this point why should we? These are entirely unprecedented events; you can hardly blame universities for not quite knowing how best to proceed yet.

What can we do?

That's a good question. I have compiled a quick list of five "keeps", although it is by no means definitive:

  • We can keep a sense of perspective. This is – probably – not the end of the world. And even if it is, as Christians we live with the assurance of Heaven. For sure, the situation is somewhat sub-optimal and certainly unusual, but is this still not the day that the Lord has made and should we still not rejoice and be glad in it?
  • We can keep on working. Our deadlines have not changed and neither have any academic standards. Maybe the resources are scarcer and the challenge is greater, but if we are students then it is our duty to do just that: study - however strange the backdrop.
  • We can keep on loving God and neighbour. Do you remember that part in Scripture where Jesus says to "love your neighbour as yourself, unless there is a global pandemic"? No, neither do I. Because it's not there. Love God, and love the people around you. It's not a groundbreaking idea (even if it is a difficult one), and coronavirus is not an excuse to forget about it.
  • We can keep ourselves healthy – mentally, physically, and spiritually. This could be easily overlooked but it's vitally important. Life will go on when this is all over and if it would be helpful if we were in a decent shape to continue with it.
  • Keep on praying for the restoration of creation. Romans 8:18-30 is not a bad read in this regard. While the world is in uproar, Christians are not without hope. Our God is good and His Spirit is working to renew creation. That is exciting stuff - seriously! And it gets even better because soon we won't have to live in the tension any more: new creation is coming and coronavirus cannot stop it.

So there it is. I've run out of things to say. A student's-eye view of coronavirus.

I'm sure the situation will change in coming days. If it does, ask a student you know for an update. And even if it doesn't, you can still talk to a student. We don't always bite, and I'm sure we'd be glad for a little bit of interaction.