John Schofield is a former Chair of St Mark’s CRC, and past Principal of an Anglican Ministry Training Scheme.
I have been wondering about theology in relation to the coronavirus pandemic.
There will be those who will jump in (yet again – they’ve done it before) and say that this is God’s judgement on the world for abandoning him (and it would be him!) and his rules and regulations.
There will be – and indeed, as I have seen on social media, are – those who will use this to claim that God cannot exist, as he has not stepped in to avert the disaster.
Both of these, it seems to me, are wrong-headed approaches to what is happening. For one thing, both are far too simplistic, avoiding so many of the issues.
But what then is the right approach? This is where I am tempted to start thinking the unthinkable.
I have for a long time thought that judgement is not something external. About this I have in the past written:
Judgement wells up from within. Faced with the utter purity of the love of God, with the blinding white-light brilliance of the love of God, I fall on my face at God’s feet, know that I judge myself and find myself wanting. But I also know myself picked up, put back on my feet, stood upright and told to get on with it …
This is not a wrathful God but a God whose very luminosity and love causes judgement to rise up from within me, to accuse myself, to be unable to look God in the eye until God compels me to, because God has picked me up and put me back on my feet, and sent me on my way. For me this accords well with the striking assertion of Jonathan Sacks that ‘The religious question is not: ‘Why did this happen?’ but ‘What shall we do?’’… 1.
Perhaps the answer is to be found somewhere within the recognition that the God who is the ground of my being is necessarily the ground of everyone else’s being too. Part of what it means for God to be the ground of my being is that God is also the source of my consciousness of being, and of everyone’s consciousness of being. The Psalmist may say ‘Arise O God to judge the world.’ But that judgement is not an external judgement. It is a judgement arising from the response of all those women and men who are in touch with their consciousness of being, with their consciousness of God, whose feet are stayed on the rock that is the ground of their being. It is an outcry rising up from within God’s human creatures against injustice and inhumanity, against our lack of love both as individuals and in community.
As a friend of mine, helping me think through what I am trying to articulate here, says:
I think, in simplest terms, it is exactly right to say that the wrath of God is nothing more (but nothing less) than the love of God resisted, which could only happen by virtue of the energy of that divine love which is continually, effusively bequeathed to creation but which is misunderstood, misappropriated and misapplied. Robert Capon in The Youngest Day: Seasons of Grace on Shelter Island, argues that judgment (at least as far as God is concerned) is discernment rather than condemnation. Condemnation is God's discernment refused, with the inevitable, inescapable self-destroying impact of that refusal. 2.
And humanity, I think, has been consistently refusing to listen to, yet alone heed, God’s discernment.
So can we then say, in this situation, that the coronavirus is something that rises up from the very depths of creation itself as an outcry against our refusal of God and God’s discernment, and as analogous with what rises up within me? That this is one of creation’s cries against our abuse and exploitation of God’s good creation and creatures? A disturbing article in the Guardian 3. notes that a number of researchers today think that it is actually humanity’s destruction of biodiversity that creates the conditions for new viruses and diseases such as Covid-19. “We cut the trees; we kill the animals or cage them and send them to markets. We disrupt ecosystems, and we shake viruses loose from their natural hosts. When that happens, they need a new host. Often, we are it.” says David Quammen, American science and nature writer, and author of Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic. “We are creating habitats where viruses are transmitted more easily, and then we are surprised that we have new ones.” adds Kate Jones of University College London, while Richard Ostfeld of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies makes no bones about it: “Nature poses threats, it is true, but it’s human activities that do the real damage.”
The place I keep coming back to is that God is the source and ground and purpose of all Being, and therefore all creation shares in that Being. So the universe itself is, in a sense, the body of God (as ecofeminist theologians and others are daring us to think) and each of us shares in the Being of God. As theologian Mary Beth Ingham puts it:
The incarnation is God’s presence in our world - not an event of the past. The incarnation is still going on in our lives. And our vocation is to join God’s dynamic, incarnate energy in the world and to be that presence wherever we find ourselves.
This outcry of creation itself calls on us not to put the blame on God by claiming that this is God’s judgement, but to acknowledge that in all the horrors of a seemingly uncontrollable virus, of social distancing, creation itself is saying to us: do something about this. This is the requirement of amendment, of change. We must change in the way we relate to the earth, as stewards rather than as exploiters; we must change in the way we do our economics, as sharers rather than hoarders; we must change in the way in which we relate to one another – locally and globally – as sisters and brothers, neighbours, all made in the image and likeness of God, and all of equal value, worth and respect. I heard Lord Peter Hennesey, historian of contemporary history, saying on the radio this week that “Future historians will divide post war Britain as BC and AC – ‘Before Corona’ and ‘After Corona’". I think he is right, though he may not have had my theological slant on this in mind when he said it! And if there is any mileage in the approach I have outlined here, then I find it one of the ironies of the present pandemic that the virus can be as easily spread by gestures of compassion and greeting as by any other more health related means of transmission.
But what of the wrath of God of which the Bible frequently speaks, and in which the doom mongers of judgement revel? Does an understanding that all language about God is metaphorical let me off the hook when I apply it to this biblical category? Not at all. Nor does the idea that this is merely a human projection, though we do often try to express the personal nature of God through our experience of persons. And in people there is certainly anger, wrath. But perhaps in God it is the shadow side of that overwhelming imperative, that Imago Dei, which is love. There is a complex nexus of projection and reflection in our use of love in respect of God. Perhaps we have to say that the possibility of the wrath of God is real, but that love overwhelms the wrath, and that we, observing the love, find ourselves lacking, find our lives and our deeds flawed, compromised, sinful; and this in itself is sufficient to cause grief, sorrow, amendment. God does not need to be wrathful for this to happen. It is a natural consequence of God’s love. Or, in the language of Capon, it is a failure to respond positively to God’s loving discernment.
I’m aware that I’ve addressed wrath and judgement in this much more than the God-deniers. And yet I hope that the idea of the cry of the earth and the demand for change speaks loudly of a God who is with us (Emmanuel theology), of a God who is in everything and everyone and every situation, but who is also a God who looks to us to work with one another and with God in redeeming and reconciling the world. ‘God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself … and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.’ (2 Corinthians 5.19)
This is not a definitive statement but a contribution to thinking around the subject that must be going on all over the place. If anyone reading this would like to contribute to a continuing conversation, please use the Submit a resource facility.
1. I am uncertain whether this comes from ‘The Dignity of Difference’ or from one of his newspaper columns from a few years ago.
2. Dr David Schlafer, philosopher, theologian and homiletician, in a private email correspondence.