N. T. Wright on God and the Pandemic
Back in mid-May, I was grateful to receive a PDF of the final manuscript of N. T. Wright’s short new e-book, “God and the Pandemic”. I shared some key quotes and a summary of the main ideas to my email list back in June. Now seemed like a good time to post it on my blog.
The book is comprised of 5 chapters:
1 Where do we start?
2 Reading the Old Testament
3 Jesus and the Gospels
4 Reading the New Testament
5 Where do we go from here?
The first chapter lays out the problem— from crazy rumors to confident pronouncements of God’s judgment to clarion calls for repentance. Our human need for patterns and purpose resists randomness, and so we turn either to conspiracy theories or to God's "being in control" in order to accomplish a particular goal. The next chapter traces quickly though the prophets, the psalms, and Job to show that though “the rumour persists that ill fortune and ill behaviour are always linked in a straightforward causal chain”, the psalmists know it doesn’t always work out like that (pg. 9, 10). The “problem” of their suffering is not philosophical or abstract; it is the shape of their story as the people of God.
"The book of Job is a standing reminder that the Old Testament operates on at least two quite different levels. There is the story of Israel – or rather, of God-and-Israel. This is the covenantal story: the narrative of how the Creator God called a people to be his partner in rescuing the human race and restoring creation. It tells of how that people – themselves ‘carriers’ of the disease that had infected the whole human race, the proto-virus called ‘idolatry and injustice’ which is killing us all – how that people themselves had to go into the darkness of exile so that, somehow, new life might emerge the other side.” (p. 13)
What is God saying ?
The meat of the book is packed well in the next two chapters— the one on Jesus and the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. I won’t give away all the glory— you should get the book. So rather than providing a summary, I’ll just reference the way Wright tackles a few key questions.
Wright argues emphatically that any attempt to interpret “what God is saying” in a crisis that doesn’t look first at the greatest sign and speech God has given—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus— will result in wrong ideas about the Kingdom of God and power. Jesus is what God is saying!
"For Jesus’ first followers, then, his death and resurrection were now the single, ultimate ‘sign’. Prophets like Amos had been forerunners. God has now spoken through the Son, once and for all. For us to try to read God’s secret code off the pages of the newspapers may look clever. We may even get a reputation for spiritual insight – but actually, we are doing it because we have forgotten where the true key to understanding is now to be found.”
All our attempts to discern the times must be done through the lens of who Jesus is, and what is revealed about God and His ways in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
"Trying to jump from an earthquake, a tsunami, a pandemic or anything else to a conclusion about ‘what God is saying here’ without going through the Gospel story is to make the basic theological mistake of trying to deduce something about God while going behind Jesus’ back” (pp. 21-22).
This centering and interpreting all of God’s future speech and action through the ultimate Sign and Word of His Son Jesus Christ has profound implications for what we think about God’s sovereignty.
Is God in control?
Yes, but not in the way you might think of control. God in control looks like God being grieved by our choices and by our pain. God in control looks like Jesus entering into our world to share in our suffering, weeping with Mary and Martha. God in control looks like Jesus healing the sick and raising the dead. God in control looks like Jesus dying on the cross, taking the full weight of evil and sin and death upon Himself. God in control looks like the risen Jesus opening His wounded hands to frightened disciples.
"A lot of the talk about ‘What is God doing in the coronavirus pandemic’ assumes that God is ‘sovereign’, and it assumes what that ‘sovereignty’ will mean. Jesus, though, was unveiling a different meaning of divine sovereignty. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he healed a leper, or as he announced forgiveness on his own authority to a penitent woman. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he celebrated parties with all the wrong people. This is what it looks like, he was saying as he went up to Jerusalem that last time and solemnly announced God’s final judgment on the city, the system, and the institution – the Temple – that had refused God’s way of peace. This is what it looks like, he said as he broke bread on the last night with his friends. This is what it looks like, he said as he hung on the cross, with the words ‘King of the Jews’ above his head. This is what it looks like, he was saying three days later to his astonished friends in the upper room” (p. 20-21).
Is God at Work?
Then Wright addresses the question of how God is at work, and where the church fits in with all of that.
In Chapter 4, after providing insight from the Book of Acts about how the church supported each other during a famine, Wright turns his focus to Romans 8. The key verse, Romans 8:28, ought to be understood as saying,"God works all things towards ultimate good with and through those who love him”(p. 49).
This reading of Romans 8:28 has significant implications for the church, which can be outlined in the following ways:
God at Work Through the Church in Prayer
"[O]ur vocation is to be in prayer, perhaps wordless prayer, at the point where the world is in pain. At those very moments when we find ourselves weeping with grief at the death of a friend or family member, or at the impossibility of having a proper funeral, or at the horror of millions of the world’s poorest being at risk, or simply because being locked down is inherently depressing – at those moments, when any words we try to say come out as sobs or tears, we have to remind ourselves that this is how God the Spirit is present at the heart of the agony of creation” (p. 45).
God at Work Through the Church at Work
“...God’s kingdom is being launched on earth as in heaven, and the way it will happen is by God working through people of this sort. After all, so often when people look out on the world and its disasters they wonder, why God doesn’t just march in and take over. Why, they ask, does he permit it? Why doesn’t he send a thunderbolt...and put things right? The answer is that God does send thunderbolts – human ones. He sends in the poor in Spirit, the meek, the mourners, the peacemakers, the hungry-for-justice people. They are the way God wants to act in his world” (p. 34).
Powerful stuff, isn't it? In classic fashion, Wright goes on to show how this was always God's plan for human beings.
"God always wanted to rule his world through human beings. That is part of what it means to be made in God’s image. It was gloriously fulfilled in the human being Jesus; and the way creation will at last become what it was always meant to be will be through the wise, rescuing, restorative rule of renewed, resurrected human beings. All those indwelt by the Spirit are, like Jesus, to be image-bearers, ‘shaped according to the model of the image of his son’, as Paul puts it in verse 29” (p. 42).
Wright has several ideas in the final chapter of what our work can look like, drawing not only from the current context but also from the long history of Christians caring for the vulnerable.
God at Work Through the Church at Worship
In the Chapter 5, one of the things Wright wrestles with out loud is the tension of not being able to worship publicly. Having acknowledged that "Jesus does not need church buildings for his work to go forward” and that “[p]art of the answer to the question, ‘Where is God in the pandemic?’ must be, ‘Out there on the front line, suffering and dying to bring healing and hope’”, Wright makes a second point about why public worship matters:
"In those countries such as my own where churches (and other places of worship, including synagogues and mosques) have been shut, for thoroughly comprehensible reasons, there is a danger of accidentally sending the wrong signal to the wider world. For the last three hundred years the western world has regarded ‘religion’...as a private matter: ‘what someone does with their solitude’. The Christian faith as a whole has been reduced, in the public mind, to a ‘private’ movement in the sense that...it should have no place in public life...Worship becomes invisible. Shutting churches will appear to collude with this. By saying that we will temporarily abolish corporate worship and join with others only on live-streamed services from the vicar’s living room, we may seem to be agreeing that really we are just a group of like-minded individuals pursuing our rather arcane private hobby” (p. 68).
Wright goes on to say that he feels caught between the two viewpoints and that he is "appalled by reports of would-be devout but misguided people ignoring safety regulations because they believe that as Christians they are automatically protected against disease" (p. 69-70).
Wright's conclusion to the book is that the church needs to "think globally and act locally", and above all return to the poignant work of prayer and particularly lament (p. 74). From the place may come our work for the good of the world. His final words are for church leaders:
It isn’t for me to tell Church leaders, let alone leaders of other faith communities, how they ought to be planning for the coming months, what they ought to be pressing upon our governments. Yet those of us who watch and wait and pray for our leaders in Church and state must use this time of lament as a time of prayer and hope. What we hope for includes the wise human leadership and initiative which will, like that of Joseph in Egypt, bring about fresh and healing policies and actions across God’s wide and wounded world...
In mid-June, I had the privilege of interview Tom for The Essential Church podcast.