Joshua Steely on Yes, Christianity Has Some Answers About the Coronavirus

Congregants pray in Nashville on March 8, 2020.
Max Gersh/The Commercial Appeal via USA TODAY

At the end of March, Time published an essay by distinguished New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, with the rather brazen title “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To.” The title is wrong, and the essay is strange, to say the least. But it serves as an interesting catalyst for asking what answers the Christian faith does have regarding the present pandemic.

Dr. Wright reflects on the privations we’re experiencing, which are indeed painful – not to mention the many who are sick and have died. He notes that a pandemic makes for an unusually severe Lent, “And this Lent has no fixed Easter to look forward to. We can’t tick off the days.”  Then he begins to muse about the Christian response:

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?

For Wright, those who try to offer explanations are silly, rationalistic, and acting in a pseudo-Christian manner. Now, I don’t doubt that some of those offering explanations for the coronavirus are silly, that some of the motivations for offering answers are pseudo-Christian, and maybe even that rationalism has some onions in the soup. But I hardly think that a charismatic preacher declaring coronavirus is the punishment for x sin is showing heavy rationalistic influence. Nor is it really the case that the desire to explain a pandemic is a sign of the Enlightenment’s footprint; the search for answers is a characteristically human trait, and can be found in similar circumstances in other times and places. Rationalism is an ideological bogey-man in this situation, and Wright’s conjuring of it is significant.

Wright doesn’t think that offering an explanation is the appropriate Christian response; nor does he think that offering concrete hope is: “What if, after all, there are moments such as T.S. Eliot recognized in the early 1940s, when the only advice is to wait without hope, because we’d be hoping for the wrong thing?” Instead, he exhorts Christians to embrace lament, and in the strongest part of the essay, he points to sections of lament in the Psalms. He then turns to theology proper, and is apparently no friend to classical theism and the doctrine of divine impassibility.

Having noted Jesus’ grief at the tomb of Lazarus and the testimony to the Spirit’s groaning, Wright drives home his main point: “It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what’s happening and why.  In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead.”  As the title says, Christianity offers no answers.

Now, there surely are bad ways to offer answers in a time of crisis. People do offer trite and unhelpful words to those who are suffering. People go well beyond what God has revealed, and declare that the disaster is a punishment for x sin, and will go away if people do y.  Lament is certainly a part of the Christian response to the suffering of the world, and at times it may be the only response: “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15, NIV). But has the church really no answers, no hope to offer?

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Joshua Steely