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#TheologyinIsolation 20: Finding God's action in the midst of a pandemic

07:17 30/04/2020
#TheologyinIsolation 20: Finding God's action in the midst of a pandemic

Brett Gray on why we need - carefully - to remember that the world is still a theatre of divine glory.


I was struck some weeks back by a prayer, Tweeted by the Church of England, for the Covid 19 outbreak.

 ‘Keep us, good Lord,
under the shadow of your mercy.
Sustain and support the anxious,
be with all those who care for the sick, 
and lift up all those who are brought low;
that they might find comfort
knowing that nothing can separate us from your love
in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

What struck me was this prayer’s difference from an earlier prayer written for similar circumstances; from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, a prayer for a time of any common Plague or Sickness. It expands on an earlier, similar, prayer from the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.

‘O ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness.’

These are two very different prayers. The latter emerges from a very different social imaginary. Drawing upon Biblical narratives, particularly from the Hebrew Scriptures, it envisages God as an active providential agent, even the agent of sickness. It envisages the possibility that such sickness might be a providential act of discipline, either for communal wrong-doing, or (as in the Davidic plague) a failure of leadership. The world it inhabits is one where God intervenes in history in direct and particular ways, and circumstances such as an epidemic are an invitation to communal self-reflection and penitence; to see what occurs as a sign, and to act accordingly.

All that is missing from the first prayer. Something has changed in the transition from early to late modernity. No providential agency is discerned behind this latest plague. No penitence is called for, and the mercy sought is on the merely suffering, not the sinful.

And our first reaction might rightly be — ‘Well, that’s all well and good’. But I am not sure that our first reaction is completely adequate. There are good reasons for this change. But, there are also some obscure losses. To begin to think through those losses, we could turn to the great theologian of active providence in early modernity, and the surprise best-selling theologian of Elizabethan England, John Calvin. I’m comfortable doing so, as an Anglican, because the Church of England began its life (in Edward VI’s and Elizabeth’s reigns) self-consciously within the same broad Reformed tradition. It was that tradition which inflected Cranmer’s prayer book, and sustained the post Marian Protestant revival.

There are problems with Calvin’s rendition of providence — that every individual happening is by the direct will and plan of God, and towards God’s purposes — problems which needn’t be rehearsed here, but several things are worth bearing in mind:

  1. For Calvin, God’s providential action in creation is a mode of radical divine presence to that creation, through particular involvement in every particular creature and creaturely process. It is this which, in part, undergirds his vision of creation as a ‘theatre of God’s glory’. That old canard that Calvin disenchants creation is precisely that, a canard.
  2. It is a doctrine which, for the Christian, is supposed to be a source of immense existential comfort. Even when divine providence is experienced in its darkest mode, through adversity, it is still the action of a loving God — even if that love takes the form of discipline. This, to Calvin, is a source of calm, a counter to a world of apparent anxious chance. And, it’s worth remembering, Calvin was a refugee, ministering in a city swollen with the displaced, in a time of frequent epidemics, and political danger.
  3. At his best, and he wasn’t always at his best, Calvin emphasised the importance of the abyssal inscrutability of divine action to us as creatures. While the experience of adversity should throw us back into self-reflection and, potentially, penitence, it is not for us to know cleanly God’s purposes in any one act of providence, especially in terms of the actions of others. The worst pastoral outcomes of such a doctrine tend to occur when we assert ‘X is happening because Y sinned in this way’. Calvin himself could do this. Many Christians, before and since, have. But we, if we attend to the best of Calvin’s theology, probably shouldn’t.

That’s Calvin, but we don’t live in his world. Even the stars above us mean something different now. And there’s something to be mourned in this, as well as significant gains. The world, to us, is less a theatre of glory, and more a realm of chance. And, that calm comfort is something I miss and desire. And that desire seems not wrong — especially in the face of the apparent randomness of a viral illness that gives one person the sniffles, and puts another in intensive care. And, I thirst, I think not wrongly too, to discern God’s actions in all this, despite their abyssal inscrutability. I want to look for the signs of God’s work, God’s providential care. I want to reopen, tentatively and with great care, that register of our theological language.

And I think of the work of a gentle modern Calvinist, Marilynne Robinson, in her novel Gilead, where the protagonist John Ames, a pastor, a local theologian, faces the ravages of an earlier pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918. He sees the bodies of young soldiers from a local camp stacked like cordwood, and in this vision Ames sees a sign. For, to him, ‘if these things weren’t signs I don’t know what a sign would look like’. It prompts him to write a sermon against the war, to discern that God, in his merciful providence, had saved those boys from becoming murderers. But he loses courage, and does not preach that sermon, while still suspecting it to be his truest.

But maybe, while his homiletical reticence might be salutary, his striving to discern God’s providence in that earlier epidemic should be so too. Ames is every one of us who seeks to faithfully discern God’s ways in our world, who suspect that this is — however obscurely — still a theatre of divine glory and divine action, but who also know we must speak carefully and chastely of the ways of the Living God.

The Rev'd Dr Brett Gray is Chaplain and Fellow in Theology at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge