Who’s got the answers?

Apr 21, 2020 by

By Andrew Symes, Anglican Mainstream:

Everyone’s discussing it. Whether we’re at home with the family or in an online work forum, having to weigh up facts and make decisions or just reacting to information and decisions from others, we all have one problem on our minds. From the leaders to the ordinary people we will all approach the problem depending on various factors: our academic and professional specialisation (if we have any); our philosophical worldview; our personal experience. And whether you’re an eight year old child or a government minister the basic questions are the same: Why is this happening? What does it mean? How am I feeling? What should we do? How long will it last for? What will the world be like afterwards?

At the moment there is broadly a consensus around some key principles:

  • we can trust the ‘facts’ of science but recognise that their interpretation, and what to do with them, is open to debate;
  • we understand what the disease is and how it is spread; we fear getting the disease ourselves (and our loved ones);
  • we want to help prevent the spread and are prepared to observe the protocols for the sake of the greater good, for a limited time.

But then, outside this consensus, differences emerge around the answers to specific questions. For how long should large sections of the economy, education and other essential activity be shut down? Should government be making a difficult choice between on one hand preventing sickness and death, and on the other avoiding permanent damage being done to the fabric of society and to mental health of individuals? Or should we expect a competent and caring government to maintain complete control, minimising all risks through use of financial instruments, technology, protective equipment and far sighted planning? How should society maintain basic civil liberties and prevent dangerous overreach of state power? Or is such power, seen for example in apps which monitor movements of all citizens, or in legislation which allows policy to change without debate (such as approving “DIY abortions”actually a good thing, ensuring safety and prosperity for all?

In short, the problem that we’re all facing is complex. We have to assume that, while certainly some are using the crisis to further powerful financial, political and other agendas, most people in charge are doing their best in very difficult circumstances. While remaining vigilant about key freedoms and issues of social justice, we have to assume that the whole crisis is not part of a vast conspiracy in which government, science and media are complicit. The pandemic and its effects  can’t be overcome by medical experts alone, but needs a multidisciplinary approach which includes theology.

But what answers can theology give?

For some prominent theologians, “Christianity offers no answers”. NT Wright in an article in Time Magazine provocatively attacks the “silly suspects” who claim that God is somehow involved in the coronavirus, or that the bible can help explain what is going on spiritually. He argues that it is rationalism which demands explanations and answers; romanticism which looks forward to an end of suffering and a ‘happily ever after’. Christian faith offers neither, but provides a framework for lament without understanding, and the assurance that God is with us in our grieving. In an extraordinary retreat from any historic gospel affirmation, Wright reduces the good news to a picture of lamenting Christians as “small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell” from which acts of kindness can emerge.

For some senior church leaders, the Christian story and its interpretation is a parable to help us live our lives on earth with more compassion, purpose and authenticity. Bishop Stephen Cottrell, Archbishop-designate of York, spoke in an interview with a Christian radio station of his faith that “God will bring good out of the pandemic”. By this, he went on to say, he meant that the post pandemic world will be more environmentally friendly as people make fewer journeys, less stressful as people will work fewer hours, more from home, and more socially just, with more appreciation for low paid essential workers.

Similarly, for Archbishop Justin Welby, the resurrection of Christ, while undeniably a fact of history, is “the solid foundation of hopes for a better world”, in which Christians have been through history “empowered…to live in ways that brought abundant life” to communities. Because the resurrection is a story about life after death, so we can have hope of a transformed, more generous society after the pandemic.

But for other church leaders around the world, the Christian message is not just a way of helping us to live better in this life. It points to “another sphere of reality”, as Archbishop Foley Beach in his Easter sermon describes the spiritual realm and the promise of eternal life secured by the resurrection.

For John Piper, it’s not that life on earth with its problems is the reality, and the accounts of the bible are a shadow, an illustration; rather the other way round: God and his kingdom and the spiritual realm constitute  the reality, and brief human existence, including facing a pandemic, are a prelude to it and a powerful illustration of its principles. He is at the centre, not us.

Not for the first timePiper’s teaching on Christian hope is radically different from that of Tom Wright. In his new, short book, available for free to download, Piper insists that the Christian faith does have answers to the existential questions, as well as practical help in times of trouble. He sets out the familiar dilemma: if God is in control of everything, and at the same time morally perfect, why does he allow suffering? If the bible teaches clearly that nothing happens apart from God’s will, does his absolute sovereignty necessarily lead to a cruel God and Christian arrogance and lovelessness (Wright’s criticism)? Does it create apathy or despair, or is it the best news of all, assuring us that there is a controlling purpose to the universe and a secure hope for individuals?

Piper wholeheartedly agrees with the English Anglican leaders that God’s love and fatherly presence with us provides individual comfort and motivation to good works, and that that lament in a bitter season is appropriate. But from Scripture he also deduces that to say God has nothing to do with the pandemic in attempt to rescue him from accusations of being unloving, means we deny that God reigns. If he is not in control of this situation and orchestrating it for good, how can we be sure that he can bring us through this and any other horror, including death? – and that is not good news. The outbreak of the virus, like any other ‘natural disaster’, is a physical illustration of the spiritual reality of creation in crisis because of sin; it is a “wake-up call”, a merciful summons to repent, pray for the world and follow Christ, for Christian and non-Christian alike.

So a fully orbed biblical theology, while not necessarily giving answers on how to manufacture more masks and gowns, when to end the lockdown, why some people get more ill than others, does orient our minds and hearts to look at the big picture of things seen and unseen, and get answers to the big questions of death, life and salvation.

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