Riffing on Richard Beck and Why God Matters
In a recent post at the always excellent Experimental Theology blog, Richard Beck opines that the most important question facing Christians and churches today in this pandemic is why God matters to us.
He gives two examples of Christian reactions to the Covid-19 crisis that he has observed. The first involves Christian people taking a stand for and promoting common sense health and safety measures. He welcomes this as a legitimate expression of wisdom, but far short of the kind of theological thinking that involves God in what we’re thinking about, praying about, and talking about. The second is the impulse to serve. Once more, this is a necessary and noble reflex for those who follow the One who came to serve, but again Beck suggests that doing benevolent work in our communities still doesn’t necessarily force us to face the God question.
The big question I’ve been thinking about is this: How does God matter in our lives?
It seems to me that this is the most pressing question facing churches today. Two places where this thought has occurred to me.
First, when you look at progressive Christian Twitter the spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don’t really need God for any of this. Just follow the recommendations of the CDC and listen to your therapist. When this is the content of Christian speech during crises–#selfcare and #medicalprofessionals–God isn’t adding anything to our lives, or to our ability to cope with challenging times. During pandemics you don’t really need God. All you need is science and self-care.
Second, I was on a call with some pastors recently, invited to share some thoughts and encouragements during this difficult time. During the call, one of the pastors lamented how he wished his church had more and better ways to meet the needs of his community as we wrestle with the world of COVID-19. Specifically, there were so many good community organizations already in full swing and doing great work this pastor couldn’t see the niche for his church. And without that niche, he felt that the church was useless.
I totally empathized, and encouraged his church to find some place to serve or support the community, but I also offered a caution or, perhaps, a question.
Specifically, the church doesn’t primarily exist to do benevolence work in the community. The church should do this sort of work, and I’m even comfortable in saying the church must do this work. But the church can’t be reduced to this work.
So I shared with the pastor, you’re right, there’s lots of good work being done by community organizations. And they often do this work better than the church. But a pressing challenge for pastors is to boldly articulate for your congregation why God matters independently of social work.
My point in all this, again, is that Christians and churches need to articulate why God matters, beyond science, self-care, and social work.
This, I think, is the theological labor of our time.
The first thing I would say in response is that crises tend to limit our imaginations by necessity. Pressed to respond to the immediate situation, we tend to lock in on a few actions we deem appropriate and helpful. We may not have time for much in the way of reflection or theological discussion.
However, this pandemic has afforded a different kind of opportunity. We are not all fulfilling roles of health providers who work to exhaustion caring for Covid-19 patients in addition to carrying their normal load. In fact, for a lot of us, life has slowed down and given us ample opportunity to read, think, pray, and have conversations via various ways of connecting.
With regard to the two responses Richard Beck writes about, I would hope that we would not only practice common sense wisdom and works of helpfulness, but also go deeper in our theological reasoning as to why these things are important. Though he urges us to think of why God matters independently of these responses, I prefer to start there.
This virus gives us an optimal opportunity to think about the nature of God’s creation, the importance of our bodies, and the vocation God has given us as this good world’s stewards. God matters because “We believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” That’s why my attention has gone back to the first pages of the Bible and I encourage us all to reflect upon why a good Creator God matters in the midst of a pandemic.
One complaint I’ve always had about evangelicalism is that I’ve seen a lot of shallow activism without a corresponding amount of devotion given to serious study, attention to history and tradition, and spiritual practices. But I would never criticize the impulse to serve. Nor does Richard Beck, though he notes correctly that our faith cannot be reduced to good works alone.
When our work pauses, there is ample time to let the experience of serving our neighbors (and being served by them) lead us into a deeper love for Jesus, the servant of all, and a more profound grasp on why he matters to us and to the world. Let’s not miss this chance to develop a more Jesus-shaped theology and spirituality.