N. T. Wright’s recently published article on the Christian response to the Coronavirus is generally good counsel built on bad theology.
After diagnosing our present situation as “a stillness, not of rest, but of poised, anxious sorrow,” Wright advises we learn to lament rather than search for an explanation for our sorrow:
No doubt the usual silly suspects will tell us why God is doing this to us. A punishment? A warning? A sign? These are knee-jerk would-be Christian reactions in a culture which, generations back, embraced rationalism: everything must have an explanation. But supposing it doesn’t?
So far, so good. I would be a little more charitable to the “usual suspects,” allowing them to fall along a spectrum from silly to sage; and I wouldn’t label every attempted explanation as a “knee-jerk would-be” Christian reaction. But I take his point. In a time like this, the better part of wisdom is to admit that we don’t know why this is happening.
Wright goes on to cite the psalms of lament as models of an appropriate Christian response:
At this point the Psalms, the Bible’s own hymnbook, come back into their own, just when some churches seem to have given them up. “Be gracious to me, Lord,” prays the sixth Psalm, “for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.” “Why do you stand far off, O Lord?” asks the 10th Psalm plaintively. “Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” And so it goes on: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever?” (Psalm 13). And, all the more terrifying because Jesus himself quoted it in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22).
No argument here. We might also consider some of the laments we find in our own hymnbooks.¹
The trouble comes when Wright explains the part God plays in our lament:
The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.
Now that’s problematic on two fronts. First, Wright essentially denies that God is omniscient, sovereign, and immune to suffering. Better we have a frustrated Lamenter-in-Chief than an incomprehensible, transcendent God who is nevertheless near to the brokenhearted. Second, Wright claims only “some” Christians view God as omniscient, sovereign, and impassible when, in fact, this is how most Christians have understood God for almost 2,000 years.²
Following N. T. Wright, some Christians will like to think of God as one of us, but the effects of that doctrinal distancing may be felt long after COVID-19.
¹ see A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Abide with Me, Be Still My Soul, Dear Refuge of My Weary Soul, God Moves in a Mysterious Way, He Will Hold Me Fast, I Will Wait for You (Psalm 130), It Is Well with My Soul, etc. etc.
² For a helpful introduction to some of the neglected and/or misunderstood divine attributes in “classical theism,” see Matthew Barrett’s recent book None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God