Let’s Talk about COVID-19 Theologically
COVID-19 has been one of the major topics of conversation, to say nothing of research and confusion, for the past year and a half. (I’m writing this in August, 2021.) I first heard of it while at a conference on science and theology in Seattle. I was co-writer of a grant for teaching science in seminaries. One day I walked down to Pike Place Market during a break between conference sessions. The place was crowded. The next day, also on the weekend, when Pike Place Market would normally be as crowded, the Market was empty of visitors and customers. What happened? The night before the news hit—a mysterious, seemingly new virus was loose in Seattle, probably brought there from somewhere in Asia, perhaps China. Suddenly people were deeply worried about each other. Handshakes were rare. The atmosphere in the conference center and in the hotels was changed overnight.
Everyone thinks they know something about COVID-19, but now even the top experts seem perplexed. Recently this confusion came “home” to me when a very close relative came down with the virus after being fully vaccinated. A rare “breakthrough case” or a not-so-rare one? Reliable information is difficult to find. The “facts” seem to change constantly. Recently, in most places in the United States, people were relaxing, not wearing masks after being vaccinated. Now, we are back to wearing masks everywhere even after being vaccinated. The talking heads on the news and even epidemiologists are talking about a new wave of infections, possibly caused by new mutations of the original virus whose origins are still not known.
So what does a Christian theologian have to say about this pandemic and the virus causing it?
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Any Christian theologian worth his or her salt will want to ask whether the virus is part of God’s good creation, even if not there at the beginning, a piece of the “mosaic of creation”—planned or at least foreseen by God as belonging within his good creation—or a result of the “fall”—the terrible “bondage to decay” that somehow came about in creation as a result of defection from God’s will for it.
Surely this virus, unknown before late 2019, at least within the human population, probably even among non-human animals, is not part of God’s good creation but a result of the fall into what Paul called “bondage to decay” in Romans 8. There it is in the same category as HIV and cancer and genocide and childhood hunger and a million other diseases, sins, atrocities, and disasters.
Traditional Christians of all denominations have always looked to the future for God’s intervention to heal creation from its bondage to decay—including all of the things mentioned above and like them.
In the meantime, Christians are called by God to do all that can be done to heal creation. Its final and ultimate healing, including being freed from sin, sickness and even death, is God’s work. It will come with the appearing of a new heaven and new earth united together by God. Little is known about the details of how or when this will happen or what exactly it will be like—except that creation will be freed from bondage to decay. Tremendous speculation has been attempted—all the way from fundamentalist images of apocalyptic judgment and destruction followed by heaven on earth, ruled over by fundamentalist Christians, to French Catholic scientist and theologian Tielhard de Chardin’s “Omega Point”—a spiritualization of matter.
In the meantime, however, and setting aside the eschatological speculations, Christians of all traditions and denominations ought to be urging Christians and others to make use of the best of modern science to defeat this virus and the pandemic it is causing. And that includes making getting vaccinated and wearing masks in public places Christian practices—together with prayer, worship, the sacraments/ordinances, peacemaking, and caring for the environment. Pastors and other Christian leaders need to step up and tell their congregants to get vaccinated and wear masks in public places—to protect others if not themselves.
And Christian pastors, priests, and other leaders need to tell their congregants and all under their influences to consider science a fallible friend, not an enemy. But that is a subject for another blog essay here, so stay tuned….
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