Where Is God in All This?
Early on in this pandemic and experience of social distancing I took a crack at what some regard as the domain of crack-pots. I explored whether this social and health crisis might have some theological meaning, or more crudely, is the pandemic God’s will?
Because such questions are so often the realm of mean-spirited and self-righteous, it may seem wise to avoid them altogether. After all, Job’s erstwhile friends were the ones who had clear answers about the meaning of his suffering. But in the end they — and their “answers” — were all repudiated by God.
Still, we seek meaning in suffering. Abandoning the theological field leaves it to the crack-pots. So I was grateful for Ross Douthat’s considered attempt to explore these questions in a piece that came out on Easter Sunday. Noting that several estimable theologians had limited themselves to saying that questions of ultimate meaning are best avoided at this time in favor of solidarity and compassion, Douthat demurs, writing, “There is a need for something more than solidarity as time goes by; there is a need for narrative, for integration, for some story about what the pain and anguish meant.”
On one hand, there is the classic question of theology known as “theodicy,” or the problem of suffering and evil. Given such realities, does it make any sense at all to believe in a good and sovereign God? Many tomes have been devoted to theodicy. But they have often felt to me like a dog chasing its tail. In the end, Christian faith doesn’t give a rational, philosophical answer to the theodicy question. It gives us a man on a cross. Suffering embraced by the Holy One. Degradation and de-humanization of the worst sort inhabited by God incarnate.
A different angle of approach, that taken by Douthat, is to ask is there some larger meaning to be found in suffering? He notes that there is no one Christian answer to that question. Scripture and tradition offer multiple answers, which is appropriate, as the experiences and nature of suffering vary widely. But in all of them there is an attempt to hold the chaos of life and history in tension with the notion that there is ultimate meaning and purpose. That it’s not all, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth said, ” . . . a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
In his classic study, The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter argues that what qualifies a written work like the Torah or the Psalms, the Gospels or the Letters of Paul, as Scripture, is that they hold a tension, “Between the divine plan and the disorderly character of actual historical events,” that is, between disorder and design. Holding that tension means you honor both, take both seriously. To do that, in the current circumstance, is to ask with reticence and humility, what ultimate meaning or purpose there might be in this remarkable world-wide pandemic?
Here Douthat turns to the Franciscan, Thomas Joseph White, writing in First Things. The first part of White’s article is a near total repudiation of an earlier piece on the pandemic written by that journal’s editor, Rusty Reno. But deep in his essay White poses a series of questions that get, for my money, to the heart of the matter.
“What does it mean that God has permitted (or willed) temporary conditions in which our elite lifestyle of international travel is grounded, our consumption is cut to a minimum, our days are occupied with basic responsibilities toward our families and immediate communities, our resources and economic hopes are reduced, and we are made more dependent upon one another?
“What does it mean that our nation-states suddenly seem less potent and our armies are infected by an invisible contagion they cannot eradicate, and that the most technologically advanced countries face the humility of their limits? Our powerful economies are suddenly enfeebled, and our future more uncertain.
“Priests and bishops are confronted with a new obligation to seek interiority over activism as their sacramental ministry is rendered less potent, and laypeople have to find God outside the sacraments in their own interior lives, discovering new ways to be grateful for what they have rather than disdainful in the face of what they lack. We might think none of this tells us anything about ourselves, or about God’s compassion and justice. But if we simply seek to pass through all this in hasty expectation of a return to normal, perhaps we are missing the fundamental point of the exercise.”
White discerns in this moment a classic call to repentance (a radical, 180 degree, turning around) and awakening. Our ways of living have become, in so many respects, heedless. We have, as an old friend liked to say, been, “Majoring in the minors.” The pandemic forces us to ask, “What matters? What matters ultimately?” And, “Have we placed out trust in false gods, idols, of consumption, armies, technology and the GDP?” Are we, in this time, “Discovering new ways to be grateful for what we have rather than being disdainful in the face of what we lack?”
And, finally, as we contemplate at least another four weeks of sheltering in place and self-isolating, “If we simply seek to pass through all this in hasty expectation of a return to normal, perhaps we are missing the fundamental point . . .”
We all know someone — we may be that someone — who has survived a life-threatening cancer or heart-attack and was fundamentally changed — spiritually, emotionally, relationally, even vocationally — by the experience. For many it is not too much to say that they were “born again,” to use an often mis-used phrase. Might God be calling us to such a profound re-orientation in and through this historic moment?