Reading the thoughts of many of the highest profile Christian writers and leaders, we are led to believe that God must have very little to do with great and calamitous events like the COVID-19 pandemic. N.T. Wright’s encouragement to lament instead of advance to explain might have come as welcome pastoral advice if it was not for his closer: “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.”
It is one thing to advise against presumption and fire-and-brimstone opportunism. But it is bewildering in the extreme for a Biblical scholar as eminent and prolific as Wright to decide that it is “no part” of the Christian vocation to read the times as signs. Wright seems to think that any musing on God’s purposes in the pandemic are working out of an idolatrous “rationalism.” Certainly this would be the case if anyone would reduce this calamity to one or another single cause. But he is either misinterpreting or misrepresenting the many Christians who earnestly search for God’s purposes in allowing calamity as constructors of full-fledged theodicies. It has been part of the very grammar of our faith to see in calamities God-appointed tests of faith, trials, calls to prayer and yes, punishments. Something else seems to be afoot.
Pope Francis has added another strange comment to the rush to absolve God of responsibility for the present crisis. Though he has not opined on God’s possible reasons for allowing the pandemic, he has been very happy to do so with Nature. He said: “I don’t know if these are the revenge of nature, but they are certainly nature’s responses.” It seems that what must not be ascribed to God may be safely ascribed to Nature. Leaving aside the complications of ascribing a retributive will to some archon called Nature, the takeaway here seems to be: fear Nature, not God.
What is most puzzling about this line from the Pope is that he might have made the very same point from the Bible, if only he had been more comfortable searching for God’s purposes in the pandemic. From his church’s own holy scriptures, it ought to be quite clear to the Pontiff that God acts, sometimes severely, on behalf of nature. One only needs to look to the book of Leviticus to see that God has had the natural world in mind when he has wrought calamity on his own people. Topping a long list of truly terrifying warnings against deviating from divine law in Chapter 26 is this one in verse 16: “I will visit you with panic, with wasting disease and fever that consume the eyes and make the heart ache.” And the result in verses 34-35: “Then the land shall enjoy its Sabbaths as long as it lies desolate, while you are in your enemies’ land; then the land shall rest, and enjoy its Sabbaths. As long as it lies desolate it shall have rest, the rest that it did not have on your Sabbaths when you were dwelling in it.” This is no novel, progressive interpretation of scripture. Biblical scholars pretty well agree that God’s system of sabbath rests on the 7th day and the 7th year was for all of creation: people and also animals and fields. Even for someone like myself, for whom the natural environment does not top my list of waking concerns, to see the heat-mapped cloud of pollution over Wuhan clear up overnight makes me think a little bit about the effects of this pandemic, and what God might be working through it.
But according to the voices above, such thoughts must be part of the problem because they are musings on God’s reasons for the plague. Apparently, I ought to be thinking of anything else: of other people, spiritual disciplines, public health–all the proper and healthy responses–even apparently of a personified Nature. In all fairness, Pope Francis has also commented that the pandemic has made the world ripe for conversions, or as my Dean has said “a good day for the gospel.” But to whom are anxious seekers to convert if Christians are the first to leave God so wholly out of such great events? I wonder whether the nonbelievers who have been alerted to spiritual questions by the pandemic would find the idea that God has allowed this to happen for some purpose unacceptable.
No, I rather think these cries against ascribing judgment to God echo within our own sanctuaries and hearts. It is we churchgoers and Christian public figures, academics, and clergy whose faith in God cannot survive our own moral opprobrium. Our God must act palatably for us to follow him (after all, we’ve staked our careers on it). But if we decide that it is doubtful that the Judge of all the earth shall do what is right, then we will lose our faith and therefore the livelihoods that we have built around it. I suspect that Christian anxiety lies behind the distancing of God from the pandemic, and not a zeal for his goodness, mercy, and wisdom.
There are much better reasons to ignore the provocations of self-appointed prophets of doom. And the heretical idea that God positively wreaks evil on his creation, instead of only allowing it to happen, is to be corrected. But really, why lend the televangelists all of the oxygen when there have been more satisfying responses that offer alternative, provisional pictures. It is a good time to remember what our Reformed brethren like to constantly remind us: that God is God and we are not. Presumptions from a single pulpit as to the meaning of a global crisis are to be avoided. But this is a far cry from deciding that God can have no reasons discernible to Christians for allowing calamities to happen. If we decide, against all Biblical evidence, that this cannot be, then we have taken up worshipping a God who guards our emotions and feelings and taken leave of He who commands the wind and the waves.