This past week I've read alot of "theological" statements positing ideas about God during this global pandemic. Some of them just made my head spin as the theology inherent in these statements is full of holes and presents an image of God that is the antithesis of my understanding and experience of God whose own self definition is love. For example, I read a statement from a physician a few weeks ago that said he didn't care about the lack of personal protective gear that our profession faces right now because God "won't let that happen to us." I read another statement that linked the timing of the spread of the virus to Lent as a way to increase our suffering and bring us closer to Christ. Goodness gracious.
The fact is that people have argued for thousands of years about where God is when bad things happen. And the bottom line is that there is no good, comprehensive answer.
James Martin, a Jesuit priest, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times last week. In this piece he raised the following points (to read the full article click here):
- When we address the "problem of suffering" a distinction must be made between natural suffering (such as hurricanes, cancer, and yes, this virus) and suffering that results from the actions of individuals.
- All explanations for natural suffering in the end are "wanting in some way." Most common explanations include that suffering is a test (which Martin states is an approach that can make God out to be a monster) and that suffering is punishment for sins.
- The confusion for believers comes down to the "inconsistent triad" which he summarizes as "God is all powerful, therefore God can prevent suffering.But God does not prevent suffering. Therefore, God is either not all powerful or not all loving. "
- The most honest answer to why COVID-19 is killing people is we don't know.
- Jesus' fully divine and fully human nature, biblical teachings on sickness and healing, and of course prayer can bring comfort to Christians at this time.
- Those who do not consider themselves Christians can also view Jesus' life and actions as a model for care of the sick, that we should allow our heart to be "moved by pity" in our response to how we care for others during this crisis.
Over the years I've thought alot about natural suffering. I see my patients who through no fault of their own have dopamine imbalances in their brains and thus live their lives with schizophrenia. I look at the ravages of the Paradise Fire and other natural disasters. And now this virus, the ultimate impact that we don't yet know.
While my beliefs essentially align with the above, I've often wondered about what role free will plays. In seminary our theology professor wrote out several different areas that different theologians view as a continuum for ways of conceptualizing God. For example, some see God as a master clock maker, who brought the world into being and continues to control every aspect. The other end of this continuum is God created the world and then stepped back, letting creation evolve--a more hands off approach. The professor presented at least a dozen of these different areas, but one that especially intrigues me is free will vs. determinism. Do we have the ability to make our own choices, or is God determining every step? (For a full discussion of free will click here). In my own thoughts, I've often wondered if nature itself has free will. What if free will did not only apply to people but to the natural order? Can a virus' mutation be explained by the free will of the natural order? Can ultimate neurological function be explained by the free will of the developmental process? I am far from a theologian and will leave it for deeper spiritual thinkers to ponder, but it is something I've always been curious about. Maybe we limit the concept of free will if we only apply it to humans...
For now dear readers, stay calm, wash your hands, stay at home, pray if so inclined, and care for each other with a heart driven by love...