Should we theologize about Covid-19?
In the early days of the pandemic, pragmatism was king. Many of us who are church leaders immediately switched into reactive mode. The times necessitated tearing up the old playbook and developing a host of new practices to care for our people. Carving out time to step back and reflect on the meaning of events was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
But now things have moved on. Many of us have systems and processes in place that are working reasonably well, subject to the vagaries of the internet. As innately curious creatures with a high view of the sovereignty of God it’s natural that our interest should wander to trying to make sense of what’s going on. Like the sons of Issachar in 1 Chronicles 12:32, we don’t want simply to survive in these times; we want to understand them. We yearn to know what the pandemic means.
The result is that theologizing is going on everywhere. I recently attended a meeting with other pastors (on Zoom, of course) in which a seasoned and much respected Christian leader spent some time developing his thesis that the pandemic is a clear instance of divine judgment. At the other end of the spectrum, Ruth Valerio and Gideon Heugh for Tearfund assert that Covid-19 is all our fault, and “any suggestion that coronavirus is some kind of divine judgement is fundamentally at odds with God’s character.”
Others speculate that the pandemic is the harbinger of revival, or preparation for a wave of persecution that’s coming to the western Church. Believers who were previously circumspect about pinning theological significance on world events have no such qualms about sharing their insights into
Covid-19. In recent years, notwithstanding a handful of notable exceptions, church leaders on these shores have held back from theologizing about events happening on the world stage, but this feels different. This feels epochal. Biblical, even.
Each time I hear someone make a definitive pronouncement on the meaning of coronavirus it prompts an obvious question in my mind: “How do you know?” Who of us can claim to be on the inside track of the divine mind? The fact that Bible believing Christians are coming up with opposing interpretations of the pandemic only exacerbates the problem. Does anyone out there really know what’s going on?
In his Genesis commentary , Walter Brueggemann notes that the first to practise theology in the Bible is the serpent. Adam and Eve were called to live lives of loving obedience before God, but the serpent engaged the woman in theologizing about God. Previously God was a Person to be obeyed and trusted; now he became an object to be analysed and interpreted. The narrative of Genesis 3 teaches us many things, but here’s a lesson we can all too easily miss: the danger of being so theologically minded that we’re of no heavenly (or earthly) use.
One of the most significant texts on the dangers of speculative theologizing is the Book of Job. Here Job’s comforters thought they understood perfectly what was going on but their theological pronouncements served only to rouse Job’s frustration and, ultimately, God’s anger (Job 42:7-9). The mistake made by Job’s friends was not to think that an explanation for this specific instance of suffering didn’t exist; it was to apply, in simplistic fashion, a theological framework that was inadequate to the complexities of the situation. All those inclined to theologize about our present-day pandemic-caused suffering, take note!
Where does this leave us? Are we really to accept the notion, following N.T. Wright, that “it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain”? Is there no way we can ever ascribe divine intention to events happening on the world stage? But is not this precisely the kind of “theologizing” that we find in the scriptures? The authors of the Bible apparently had no misgivings about calling out those instances where they perceived God’s hand at work in the world, in mobilising armies, raising leaders to power and sending plagues on the earth.
Putting aside the issue of whether any of us can claim to receive revelation at the same level as the authors of scripture, there is an important point raised here. We need to be on our guard against two extremes: overzealous interpretation of historical events on one hand, and excessive circumspection on the other. The problem, as I see it, is not with the practice of extrapolating from current events to arrive at a theological interpretation per se. It’s with moving from one to the other in a way that is definitive and simplistic. When we yearn for meaning, it’s alarmingly easy to try and explain everything in a single stroke. The result is that we place an excessive degree of confidence in our way of seeing things and closed to the existence of real complexities in the world. It’s not that we’re wrong; we’re simply holding to a framework that’s inadequate to the situation.
So, beware the dangers of theologizing. In the final analysis, it’s more important to deal with our current situation than to understand it. One old pragmatist put it well:
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)
- This is a guest post from Andrew Sampson, pastor of Grace Church Truro.