For theology to make a difference, it must be all-season. It must relate to concrete situations as well as abstract doctrines. Meaningful theology must address the headlines as well as encourage quiet moments of prayer, meditation, and worship, making it both heavenly minded and earthly good. Isaiah goes into the Temple during a time of national crisis, looking for a spiritual respite, and then encounters the Living God and receives a vocation to challenge the injustice and idolatry of his nation.
Today, we wrestle with the theological challenges of the Coronavirus. We see the volatility of the Stock Market and the uncertainty of our pensions and congregational stock portfolios. We hear of panic in grocery stores as hand sanitizer flies off the shelves and families stockpile canned soup and other non-perishables. We ponder the novelty of this virus and wonder if we are at risk as we move from handshakes and hugs during the Passing of the Peace to fist bumps, peace signs, and elbow nudges.
Good theology must always follow the admonition of the Hippocratic Oath, “first, do no harm.” It must also take into consideration Socrates’ confession that the Oracles of Delphi asserted that the was wisest of Athenians because he recognized his ignorance and did not claim knowledge he didn’t possess. Wise theology does not assume to speak God’s thoughts but follow God’s vision.
I believe that process theology provides insights, cautions, and practical guidance for responding to the current concern about the Coronavirus. With Socrates, we begin with recognizing our limitations and fallibility. Theology is always concrete and relational. Though we may soar to the heavens in mystical experience, our spiritual experiences are always grounded in our specific place, time, and culture. No mortal receives a God’s eye view. Our theological treasures, even those we are willing to live and die for, are in earthen jars, fallible, despite illuminating, guiding, and inspiring our lives. With Hippocrates, our quest leads us to challenge harmful theological speculation such as:
• The Coronavirus is God’s punishment for our nation’s – our other nations’ – immorality. Surely our acts have consequences, but God is much more graceful than we are. Those who see plague and virus as divine punishment for expansion of human rights to include the LGBTQ+ community, same sex marriage and abortion have to remember that others might see climate change denial, willful focus on profits above earth care, traumatizing of children at our borderlands, or economic injustice as equally immoral and worthy of punishment to others. The One who seeks abundant life (John 10:10) is not a party to unredemptive suffering.
• Health and illness are multi-factorial in nature, including not only God’s aim at wholeness, but also environment, lifestyle, economics, accessibility to health care, diet, and many other influences.
• God does not have a bias toward the United States over other nations. God loves the world not specific nations. Surely God loves the Chinese as well as us and wants both nations to prosper, congruent with God’s vision of Shalom.
• Prayer alone will not halt the Coronavirus. Prayer is not an excuse for passivity or inaction. While it is important to pray for others and may have an impact on our health condition, we are called to be responsible stewards of our personal lives and medical interventions. We can take our medications in a holy way. As Isaiah discovered, mysticism calls us to mission and prayer calls us to action.
In contrast to inadequate and downright dangerous theological reflection, Process theology asserts that good theology involves both trust and action. God is at work in the world, seeking healing and wholeness, inspiring physicians, researchers, nurses and other health care givers, first responders, and compassionate friends. God’s work involves us. God needs us to be companions in responding to this crisis. As St. Teresa of Avila affirms: “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.” We are God’s agents in healing the world. God is alive and active, but God will not – and cannot – do what is I in the power of creation. God inspires and energies our quest to heal the sick, prevent illness, and comfort the dying.
What then can we say positively that will inspire a healthy theological response to the Coronavirus? Here are some aspects of a healthy theological vision in a time of pandemic:
• We live in an interdependent world. Following the spirit of “ubuntu,” we must affirm “I am because of you.” There is no solitary or isolated person or nation. We are all part of an intricate fabric of relatedness, as Martin Luther King asserted. Our joys and sorrows are one. What happens in China affects what happens on Cape Cod where I live, and vice versa. Accordingly, practical theology balances localism with global concerns, and evaluates economic and technological decisions in terms of the common good as well as personal gain. Our responses to the Coronavirus must include larger and larger circles of community, focusing on other nations, as well as our own.
• God is at work in the world. We need to discern where God is moving in our lives and in the current pandemic to bring healing to vulnerable, prevent future illness, and join God’s arc of morality, spirituality, and healing.
• We make a difference, most especially when we work with others, letting go of our independence to join in healing relationships. What we do can tip the balance from death to life. We need to both take precautions and act deliberately to bring healing to as many people as possible.
Healthy theology in a time of Coronavirus has practical implications:
• God’s presence in the world challenges us to hopeful action and not panic.
• God’s action in the world challenges us to novel responses, to be creative in our personal and communal behaviors, to explore new ways of responding to one another for the greater good. God wants us to be creative in relationship to the current threat.
• The reality of the pandemic and the equally significant reality of interdependence challenges the philosophy of independent national life, enshrined by the political doctrine of nation first. Nation first policies ultimately destroy both the nation and the planet because they go against the grain of reality. Our nation -first approach in the USA is a factor in the current crisis. We assumed our borders could secure us from all harm. We focused on our own health and eliminated global infectious disease initiatives. Our “go it alone” approach has put our nation at risk, whether in terms of climate change or the Coronavirus.
• We must as persons go from self-interest to national interest and then beyond national interest to world loyalty. The Coronavirus has shown us, along with climate change, that we need to see our national interests, including national sovereignty, as part of a larger planetary vision. We cannot be safe as while others are at risk. We cannot secure our borders while other nations are mired in poverty and violence. We cannot ensure the future of our children and grandchildren if we assume climate change as a global phenomenon won’t harm our nation.
God is at work seeking our wellbeing and enlarging our spirits. While we need to take care of our own kin, we must look beyond our own immediate relationships and our nation’s good to the largest circles of planetary care. Then, as we eliminate the Coronavirus, we will begin to eliminate the equally dangerous virus of personal and national individualism and balance our self-affirmation and love of nation with an equally powerful love of nation. We need to explore a new kind of patriotism in which our love of family and nation inspires us to love the whole earth and seek solutions and even sacrifice for the common good not only to respond to this pandemic but to heal the planet.
Bruce Epperly is a Cape Cod pastor, professor, and author of over 50 books including, “The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-filled World,” “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job,” and “Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel.”