Chapter 1: Where Do We Start?

I grew up reading a lot of apocalyptic science fiction, so I feel like I’ve always been primed to think the worst is coming. The meteor is on its way, the containment protocols have failed in the lab, and the bombs are already falling! And the media stands ready to stoke these types of fears. We’re constantly being told to be afraid. Of the avian flu, the swine flu, SARS, the West Nile virus, Ebola, and a countless number of other things are precariously poised to end the world. I even remember talking to Jen about putting off having more children until the Zika virus was under control. I think for many of us, the most surprising part of the last four months has been that for once many of the predictions have come true. N.T. Wright opens his book by exploring the exact phenomenon.

So why is this happening, and more importantly, why is it happening now? Of course, as Wright points out, “In the old pagan world of Greece and Rome, the assumption [when disaster struck] was that you hadn’t offered the right sacrifices; or you hadn’t said the right prayers; or you did something so truly dreadful that even the old amoral gods on Mount Olympus felt it was time to crack down on you.” And of course, we don’t have to look far in the church to see some of this thinking still at work. It’s not hard to find people of all faith traditions announcing that God’s judgement has arrived in the form of the Coronavirus.

Wright explains that even in the ancient world, philosophers pushed back against this type of thinking. Broadly speaking, three ways of thinking emerged to try to help make sense of it all. Stoicism, he explains, is rooted in learning to accept that “you can’t change it.” Epicureans take a random world and learn to “[m]ake yourself as comfortable as you can.” And finally, the Platonists say that we’re all heading to something better, so when bad things happen we can derive comfort from the fact that “we are destined for a different world.” He argues that most of the west is nominally epicurean. As long as we can distract ourselves, we are mostly okay. But as the impact of this virus grows, some questions demand an answer.

And there are so many questions, but they are mostly rooted in two main questions: Why? and What can I do?

With all that we know now about the coronavirus, the second question is a little easier to answer. For now, the scientists generally agree, we can wear masks in public places, make sure we keep our physical distance from each other, wash our hands often, and refrain from gathering in large crowds. This helps contain the virus, but it has other implications on people’s employment, their finances, their mental health, and their sense of community. Of course, at St. Timothy’s we’re trying hard to help with managing all these things, fed by a long tradition of Christians caring for the sick and poor. We receive this mandate not only from the inherited Jewish tradition but from Jesus Christ himself. We're working through this question together because doing nothing isn't an option!

The first question is a little trickier. Because we believe that God is sovereign in all things, it comes down to one fundamental truth. As Wright states, “When bad things happen, it must be God that’s done it (because he’s responsible for everything), so that must mean that he is angry with us for some reason.” There are many verses in the Bible we could use to prove this point. Wright uses Amos 3.6 as an example:
     Is a trumpet blown in a city,
         and the people are not afraid?
     Does disaster come to a city,
         unless the Lord has done it?
Of course, we could just stop there, but Wright argues that the Bible has a lot more to say about this question. The chapter ends here, and I presume that we’ll be looking at the tradition of wrestling with this very question before God.

Personally, I found the first chapter gave me a lot to think about. I’m not sure which of the three philosophies that I default to, but it’s probably more epicurean. I think I want to be as comfortable as possible in the midst of calamity. I certainly have packed on some extra weight over the last few months! I think I’ve noticed a lot of Platonism in my friends and family. That would be the idea of whatever happens, I’m going to a better place. Is there a philosophy that you feel more aligned with? Do you see a different philosophy playing out in the world?

You can use the comments to weigh in. You can also ask your own questions or engage with the material however you’d like. Comments are moderated, so it may take a little while for your comments to show up. I don’t have a set schedule for posting the updates, but I hope to have chapter 2 up before the end of the week.

Comments

  1. The church I grew up in would have leaned heavily on this being God's judgment for a world more fallen than that of their youth, their parents, Biblical times, etc. The fear of God's judgment was heavily stressed. My father was not a church-goer, probably because he thought all churches preached this same message. When I would come home from church, he'd want to know what the message had been and then he would make a great effort to talk about the God and Jesus he knew (Holy Spirit didn't get much air time in my childhood) to counteract any angry God message he was worried was overly stressed. So, I grew up in this sort of diverse situation of going to church and getting one message, going home to my father and getting another - both able to point to the Bible to make their points. I've got family who will make no bones about COVID-19 being punishment. Where is my thinking? It might be - I can't speak for God. However, I prefer to think this is a challenge we are facing that, with God's help, we will get through, learning new ways to help each other and be better Christians along the way. I'm very thankful that He's shown us the ways in which to mitigate contracting the virus. Admittedly, I had a moment early on where I wondered if this was the answer to all those prayers for cleaning up the planet and global warming. Seems I can't get away from my childhood church entirely:)

    I'd love to say I'm a straight-up Platonist in N. T. Wright's three options, but in all honesty . . . I'm toe up Epicurean in the sense of wishing to be as comfortable as possible during this time, but dosed heavily with pray hard at the moment because prayer can change a situation (that last part is not very Epicurean). This first chapter sets a stage, so I'm anxious to dive deeper because N. T. Wright has yet to fail me in bringing the Word of God into sharp focus in times when I'm feeling a bit fuzzy.

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    1. I'm right there with you on the ambivalence of God's judgement. It *might* be, for sure! I'm still digesting chapter 2, but I like some of the things Wright says that gives us clarity on this!

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