World’s Leading New Testament Scholar On How The Church Should Respond To Pandemic

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Posted: Jul 21, 2020 11:07 AM
World’s Leading New Testament Scholar On How The Church Should Respond To Pandemic

Source: AP Photo/John Minchillo

How should the church respond to the pandemic? N.T. Wright has written a book which searches the depths of Scripture to answer this question. Our challenge is that we do not yet understand the pandemic, at least not with any degree of consensus. We don't know whose fault it is, or even if it is anyone's fault. We don't really know how much it has spread, because rates of infection are based mostly on models and actual confirmed cases vary with rates of testing. We don't really know what the death rate is, since even official estimates are often inconsistent with one another. We don't know if there will be flare-ups and if so, where, and we don't really know how to balance the human toll from the disease against the human toll from various forms of quarantine.

As of this writing, we think that roughly half a million people in the world have died from it, but even something as tangible as death is still somewhat shadowy because there are disputes about the distinction between people who have died WITH COVID-19 and people who have died OF COVID-19.

And even if there is some public health expert at one of the agencies or universities who actually does know the answers to those questions, the rest of us don't know which of them is the one who knows.

Different policy shops are saying things which are different from one another, and often different from the things they themselves were saying a short time ago.

All this amounts to a situation in which people are suffering, and they don't know for certain why. We are in a moment of suffering and confusion. And when you have simultaneous anguish and ambiguity, there is a gold rush of people who are anxious to tell you exactly what is going on (even though they don't really know), and even worse, you have a different kind of gold rush of people who are anxious to tell you why God is doing this, whom He is punishing, and for which specific sins.

'Not so fast,' says Bishop Wright, who may well be the most influential New Testament scholar alive today.

Wright points out that we actually have quite a lot of Biblical material about situations like this one, when we are confounded and grieving, and that the Biblical material centers on something called 'lament.' He shows that lament is not a sidetrack in the history of redemption—it is one of the main tracks along it. Or, better put: lament is right there at the crossroads. This year we will see many insta-book, quick glosses on the big story of the year. But Wright’s God and the Pandemic doesn't gloss over the surface; rather, it penetrates to the center of things, because if we take pain and unanswered questions seriously, we are led all the way down into the heart of God's purposes in the world. That heart is found at the cross itself. You can't really deal with the pandemic without dealing with lament, and you can't really deal with the question of lament Biblically without taking it to the Gospel accounts of the cross and to the Pauline material which explicates the inner meaning of the cross.

That's what God and the Pandemic does, and it does so in a short 96 pages. I suggest you use that shortness to read it a second and third time. It's worth it.

Bishop Wright spent a generous 40 minutes with me recently talking about his book and pretty much whatever else came up, and you can listen to it here.

Below you can find a lightly edited transcript of a portion of that interview:

Jerry:

Hi, this is Jerry Bowyer, and I'm talking today with one of my favorite thinkers, NT Wright. I'm not going to go through the introduction. You know who this gentleman is if you listen to my interviews and if you read my columns, but you might not know that he has a new book, God and the Pandemic, the title of which speaks for itself. Tom, thanks for being with us today.

Tom:

Oh, you're very welcome. It's good to be with you.

Jerry:

This is not the book I wanted. When I heard that you were writing a book about this, I expected and wanted something different. And so, I thought, “I'm going to challenge him because he should have written the book I wanted.” And then, as I was going over my notes this morning,  … meaning the parts of the book that I highlighted, I thought, “Well, he's making a good point here and maybe I was wrong to react the way I do.” So, let me tell you what my problem was. My problem was that the Tom Wright that I've been reading for 25 years is more aware than any other thinker that I know the degree to which Jesus is engaged in a practical, prudential cause-and-effect world, as opposed to a highly "religious" world. This is a Jesus Who says that if you keep fighting the superpower Rome, your towers are going to get pulled over and blood is going to be mixed with the sacrifices,-[while] most "religious" readings of the gospels are that God will smite thee in a way that has nothing at all to do with what you're doing,—so that there was a kind of human agency and responsibility that you brought in and I thought we're going to get a whole book about that, about what we did do to bring this pandemic on ourselves, and that's not the book you wrote. So, tell me why you wrote this book rather than the book that Jerry Bowyer wanted you to write.

Tom:

It's partly, Jerry and I hear what you say, it's partly that I listened early on in the pandemic before I even thought of writing a book about it.

I listened to various people saying various things. So, “this is obviously because this is God's way of solving the ecological crisis,” or “this is God's way of rebuking, some people were saying, America for certain particular sins, like permitting gay marriage,” or whatever. We heard extraordinary things being said and I wrestled with that because there are many passages in scripture and the passages you quote in the gospels, absolutely the same thing. We do find the prophets and then Jesus himself saying, “If you do X, Y will follow or if Y has happened it's because you did X,” or something like that. So, I started to think about that and about how you then could judge and what the other traditions were, as well which you have to take into account. And so, I naturally did ask myself, “Hang on. How do we put all this together?” And then I was doing various interviews because colleagues in various places were saying, “Our congregation or our students want to know some reflections on how we should be thinking about this.” So, people were pushing me and asking questions and I found myself saying, basically, that there are two traditions in the Old Testament (actually it is 22 traditions), but two particularly which are relevant here. One is the one you find in Deuteronomy, in Amos, in Daniel 9 et cetera: Israel sinned. God sent her into exile, X equals Y. Go pick up Lamentations: it is full of them. But then at the same time you find some classic passages like Job and like Psalm 44, and so and so on, which say bad things have happened, but this isn't because we have done wrong. It's despite the fact that we haven't done wrong. And then I gradually realized, “You know what: those two traditions come together, finally and only in Jesus himself”. Yes, the this is a kind of exercise in hermeneutics really, in how to read the Bible when faced with these questions.

Jerry:

That's fascinating to hear the process, because there's a kind of a Wrightian thing that I think is much needed, which is to bring prudentia back into the Christian conversation, rather than moralism. So, we had flooding under Katrina in New Orleans. Well, it must be because they had a gay pride parade planned, right? But of course, every big city had one planned, so it doesn't make sense. So, maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with any judgment. Or, here's my Wrightian answer: maybe it's in some sense a judgment on poor levee construction. In other words, there's a kind of a relationship between the foolish behavior and the flood that comes.

Tom:

That's the sort of practical thing that if somebody wants to say, “So what was causing this pandemic?” I'll say, “As far as we can tell it's because of either the food chain or the medical chain in certain parts of China.” Now that may be wrong. We haven't got a full investigation a full inquiry at yet. But the best guess at the moment is either because people were eating pangolins or they were using them in medicine or something. And so, there was some mix-up with pangolins. Nobody quite knew …was lost in a market in Wuhan and the thing leaks out and also it looks as though—and I'm not being anti-Chinese about this, I am just reporting what I what I see in various newspapers, etc.—it looks as though people tried to cover it up and pretend there wasn't anything happening. And by the time it was out globally, and some people reckon it was actually out globally as far back as December, it was too late then.

So anyway, those are the sort of questions … that need to be asked and to try to say, “What was God doing in that?”, I think is much harder and we may just never know the answer to that and maybe we're not supposed to know the answer

Jerry:

So, it is the overly theological thing—it is the putting words in God's mouth issue—that you are partly pushing back on in this book.

Tom: 

Yes, partly because I've seen some of the words which people are putting in God's mouth and I think, “No, no, no, let's [don’t] go there.” I wrote a little piece you probably know for Time Magazine. Time Magazine got in touch with me because I've done some stuff with them before [and] they said, “Can you write 800 words on what [we] should be doing, what we should be thinking? Because people around the country are saying all sorts of odd things and we'd like to know what you think about it.” So, I bashed out 800 words saying very cautiously: Hey, read the book of Job. It's not just Amos and Psalm 1. It's also Job and it's also Jesus saying in John 9, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents. It's so that the works of God may be manifest,” and then particularly, it's Paul in Romans 8 saying that we are called to be in the midst of the pain of the world, not to stand on one side and say, oh we know what this is all about. It's that we, if we are believers, should also be groaning inwardly and that's how God the Holy Spirit comes to lament within the heart of the pain of the world, and that's a very profound New Testament insight which I think was being lost sight of, and so …that's really in a sense the climax of this book.

Jerry:

It read that way to me, as the exegetical core and as the intellectual core of the book: to go back to the prudence versus lamentation: There's something you say: "We need to resist the knee-jerk reactions that come so readily to mind so everybody seems to think that this crisis is due to the thing that they already hated and already had a strong opinion about and luckily enough, you know, COVID came along to show that—fill-in-the-blank—we never should have been eating meat or we never should have had travel with China or we never should have whatever. Whatever somebody thought before, this is proved to them right all along. In Bayesian terms: their priors were always reasserted.

And but then you say something. This is what changed my mind this morning: "Not jumping to solutions. These may come, God willing, but unless we retreat from our instant reactions, we may not be able to hear them," i.e., unless we lament and have a moment of Christian Socratic ignorance, then we can't get on with the prudential reasoning that helps us prevent things like this in the future. Is that a fair way of describing your view?

Tom:

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, and it's at that point in the book that I quote from T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets where, you'll know the passage, when he says, writing this during the second world war, and he says you have to go by a way which is a way of ignorance.

"…wait without hope

For hope would be hope for the wrong thing...

Wait without thought, for you are not yet ready for thought:…"

And that's a very striking thing. In other words, all our nervous reactions compel us, especially in the email generation which T.S. Eliot, lucky man, didn't have to suffer, one is compelled towards instant solutions and answers and people want to know an answer right now, and he's saying no, that we are just going to have to wait in silence and see and pray. And I was just preaching yesterday on an online streaming service [and] was on the end of Isaiah 40: those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. Now the idea of waiting is very counterintuitive in our society. But this goes in my mind very closely with lament and I'm aware that I too have been talking about lament for some time and its danger that I would be playing the same game as the people you just described when, okay, here's this new COVID-19 thing. What's the solution? Lament. People might say, ‘Well N.T. Wright, you've been saying that for a while,” and that's true I have, but I think this puts it into a totally new sort of focus and I think the point about lament is … it doesn't see the solution yet and it realizes that the solution isn't going to turn up tomorrow or with the click of a mouse or whatever and that maybe when we learn to lament in the biblical way, then new kinds of solutions might emerge and we might see our way and different ways of even asking the questions that we ask.  Whereas, so much of our modern life including our modern Western Christian life, alas, is all about instant solutions. But I see that in people who do apologetics, the danger is that rationalism thing creeps in and people assume, “Okay, we know that God is sovereign, He's in control, therefore if X happens, it must be because God wanted to do X or at least he was happy to permit X; therefore, if we are good Christians, it must be possible for us to see why God wanted to do that.” [But] there's all sorts of things in life, in the world, in the Bible, where we are not permitted to see that and where the biblical writers themselves tell us that's not permitted. When Paul says that “The Spirit groans within us with inarticulate groaning,” if the Spirit doesn't even know what words to use that's pretty arrogant of me if I think that I ought to be able.

Jerry:

Yes, this was really to me a very important part of the book, that even God is lamenting. If God is lamenting, then we should lament, too. I'm being pragmatic about this. Lamenting kind of shuts up the din a little bit because right now—we've talked about it before—the thinker Rene Girard's idea of mimetic contagion Is kind of coming true. There's this mimetic contagion where there are all these voices and they're voices of accusation where I point at you, you point at me, my friends point at your friends, and it goes on and on like a contagion, and Gerard said eventually some poor Gypsy or Jew or hunchback outsider…the mob says 'you know it all started around the time he showed up.' Then we kill him and we get peace based on a lie.

Tom:

Well I know the Girard theory. I'm always wary of taking that on as the template for how to do Christian theology because I think he's pushing too hard off in one particular direction. However, the instinct that he there highlights I think does happen. That is how some things are worked out and it's a classic ancient pagan instinct. It isn't, as Girard was inclined to think, an ancient Jewish instinct. They don't seem to do it like that. Although you can find one or two passages in the Old Testament which you can read that way but certainly modern Jewish commentators are quite cross when people say, “Here's a Girardian analysis, and it's all because you Jews had a sort of scapegoating thing,” and the answer is, no, that that's a misuse of scriptures.

Jerry:

Which later on, Gerard said, “Well, I was wrong about that.” He said there's a good sacrifice and he said he saw early Judaism as the first repudiation of scapegoating.

Tom:

Good.

Jerry:

That's how he reads Job: that the story of Job is an attempted scapegoat of Job. And then divine revelation comes in and says, no, this is not the way to do it.

Tom:

Right.

Jerry:

But let's leave out his theological side. Just sociologically he talks about … we have that going on and we're all accusing one another.:“Well, it's because you did something in China or it's because you eat meat or because of foreign trade or whatever is our pet thing.” And you are kind of rediscovering lament as a way to block out that din so we can think. But it's more than just so we can think, because you're saying that's what God does. He laments with the Holy Spirit Who laments with us. The Father laments with the Holy Spirit. If that's the way They act, that's the way we should act.

Tom:

Yeah. We're caught up in the work of the Holy Spirit. We are caught up in the middle of that act and unwittingly or [un]willingly, perhaps, are being shaped according to the pattern of Christ. The point of Romans 8:29 is that in this process the Spirit groans within us as we grown and then the Father, the one who searches the hearts, knowing what is the mind of the Spirit. We are conformed to the pattern of the Son, to the image of the Son, so that He might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. That's Romans 8:29 and that is such a powerful passage. It means that we are somehow folded into the inner life of the Trinity at this point. All is very much like what Jesus says in the farewell discourses in John about the gift of the Spirit and that the love with which the Father loves the Son can now enfold us as well. And of course, that was said the night before Jesus went to his horrible death. And so, although it feels very serene in the upper room, when Jesus is talking, we all know that actually this very dark shadow is hanging over it. And so that classic biblical meeting of the serene and the horrible is precisely what's going on in Romans 8 as well, and it seems to me that that's a recipe for us. I was speaking to a national church leader about this a few weeks ago - about lament - and he said he said, “You know, Tom our church is not very good at laments.” And I said, “I agree with you,” and he said, “We're not very good at celebrating, either.” He said that what we mostly do is complacency, but I thought, “Oh my yes, this man has seen too much of the Church of England. That is what it's like. We just trundle along in the middle.”

It's time we thought about re-inhabiting the extremes, the real celebration when it's appropriate and the real lament when that's perfect.

Jerry:

Well, does it have something to do with, maybe, at some point the western church tradition synchronizing with stoicism?

Tom:

That is certainly the case and I know many clergy who might well say that faced with the ancient options, they prefer stoicism to the other available possibilities.

But that particularly comes out in the verse we haven't mentioned yet: Romans 8:28. I was looking at a Christian magazine somebody sent me just this morning and there it was, Romans 8:28 quoted according to the usual translation, which is, “God working all things together for good for those who love him,” and I've argued in the book, following a couple of recent studies of this (which I'm convinced by) that, actually, what Paul means with the Greek there, s??e??e?, is that God works all things together for good with those who love him. And that is: our suffering, our lament, our pain, our uncertainty, our not knowing, that is somehow taken up and used by God in the furtherance of his purposes. Now, that's a mystery.

We don't understand it because in the nature of the case, we wouldn't. If we could understand it [we therefore] wouldn't need it. But it's then of faith, and I think that flows directly out of Paul's theology of the cross, that just as Jesus goes to the cross shouting, "My God, why did you abandon me?" so when Christians are called to share the sufferings of the Messiah, which is what Romans 8:18 and following is all about, then somehow, in ways that we by definition can't see and understand, (which really annoys our rationalist friends, our Christian rationalist friends included) and then somehow our pain, our suffering, our tears are taken up in the way that God wants, to do fresh, new good things in His world. That takes faith to say that, you know, I because it looks as if you’re then back legitimating the awful things that have happened, and that's precisely what a Christian theology of evil must not do. We must not look at the pandemic and say, “Thank God for this pandemic because all these good things have happened as a result of it.” No! There are tens of thousands of perfectly innocent, really good people, many very good self-sacrificial people who have died, who have left families, who left widows and little children as a result of this horrible thing, and I'm not going to say, “Oh, yeah. God was doing that so that something good could happen.” I want to say that this is rampant evil. God can bring good out of evil, but that doesn't mean that the evil is not evil.

Jerry:

There's a major point … in your Gifford Lectures where you're trying to reground natural theology and apologetics in a way that I find to be much more biblically grounded, which is that almost all forms of theodicy as we've done them in the past basically attribute a high level of agency to God in the matter of human evil…. "Calvinist" version: He decrees it. Arminian version: He permits it in a way that He could have prevented. So, all those traditions have to normalize evil.

They all have to make it make sense, and the moment you're making it make sense, you're turning down the outrage against evil, when the example of God incarnate in the New Testament is that He turns up the outrage. No one seems to be more bothered by the death of Lazarus than Jesus.

Tom:

The tears of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus are very profound. I was thinking about that anyway, (and there's a footnote in the book) because Makoto Fujimura, the Japanese artist,…he's got a new book just out of Yale Press for which I wrote the foreword and it's Art and Faith: a Theology of Making...he's thinking theologically about these things as an artist is doing, and he talks about Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus as pretty central to his whole project. And Mako is somebody who's suffered quite a lot in his personal life as well as having the glorious vision as an artist of how to create a new sort of beauty which will enhance our appreciation of the gospel to the world. So, because I was reading him on Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, … that was fresh in my mind when I was then thinking through what I want to say about the pandemic. But it really it really makes a lot of sense because, on the sort of 'Calvinists' read or whatever you'd say, well, according to John, Jesus is the Word of God Who was with God at the beginning, the Word who has become flesh. So, here is this human walking about Who is God, Who knows everything, Who knows what He's going to do. He has all power. So, why does He weep?  What was that about? And if you have this vision of Jesus being totally in control just rolling around being God all over the place and then, according to our normal Western views of God, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense. And some of the early fathers would say, well, that He wept in so far as He was human, but of course He then raised Lazarus - that was divine. And I think that just cheapens it. That makes no sense to me at all.

Jerry:

It's sort of Nestorian isn't it?

Tom:

It's Nestorian. It splits the humanity and the divinity. And also, I really do want to say that actually part of the point of the cross itself is that it is God Who is there giving His own life. It's not, ‘God so loved the world that He sent somebody else to do the dirty work.’ He sent His own Son, and the logic of that [is] the love of God only works if the Son of God shares the very life of God Himself. And likewise what we call the miracles… this is what happens when you get an obedient loyal human being doing God's will and able to exercise the sovereignty over the world which, according to Psalm 8, God intended for humans from the beginning. So, the idea that He suffered insofar as He was human, and He then did powerful things in so far as he was God, I think that's a trivialization.