Much unhealthy theology emerges when people face all kinds of crises. The coronavirus pandemic is no exception.
Quite soon after the coronavirus eruption, we could read online that the epidemic is a punishment from God, but also that those who believe in God can be safe because God has control. As I understand it, such “theologies” are far from what The United Methodist Church stands for.
Humanity has never found a good explanation for why there is suffering in the world. What amazes me is that so many seem to accept that bad answers are better than no answers. I also understand the bad answers as something we cling to for comfort in order to have at least something to say in uncertain times characterized by fear.
But the idea that God “allows” the coronavirus or that God created the coronavirus knowing that hundreds of thousands of people will die from it contains an image of God that most theologians have left behind, especially after World War II.
I have never had a belief that precludes bad and meaningless things from happening. Some of what I have experienced — not least losing my son Fredrik — has forced me into reflections around some of life's most existential questions: Where is God? If God is present in our world, how is God present? And perhaps more importantly: Who is God?
Is it possible to talk about God being almighty? Is God a whimsical god we can't trust? Is God a cruel god who allows accident by chance? Or is God a god who does not care about us humans, who lets the chaos forces hit randomly?
I don’t have all the answers to these questions. And I don't think the answers exist. The Bible does not have all the answers. Rather, the Bible leaves the questions quivering. For example, many of the psalms in the Book of Psalms are lamentations that are not answered. We can also read about Job throwing the existential questions toward God and asking where God is in his own suffering. Job does not get the answers, but he learns to live with God as something that can’t fully be understood.
There are two different understandings of God in the Christian tradition: On the one hand, God refers to a being outside the universe, separate from the rest of creation, somewhere out there or up there. This is an image of God as an external figure of authority, who has revealed what is right and wrong, what to believe, how to live, and who sometimes intervenes in the world. This understanding is linked to a traditional image of an almighty God, a kind of Super-God, who intervenes in ways that never make us doubt that it is God who acts.
The second understanding of God is very different. In this understanding, the word “God” does not refer to an external being, separate from the universe, but to an all-encompassing, sacred reality in us and around us. According to this, God is to a larger degree part of our world, an understanding that also allows God to have a role in what happens without being the cause of everything that happens. I think Paul refers to this when he says, “He is not far from every one of us: For in him we have life and motion and existence” (Acts 17: 27b-28a).
Where are we in relation to God? The answer is that we are in God. We move in God. We have our being within God. God is not one who is far away, somewhere out there or up there, separate from the world. God is the reality that encompasses all that is. There is no place we can be and be outside or separate from God.
It strikes me again and again when we celebrate Christmas how God is revealing himself in different ways than we often expect. When God became part of our world, he chose to come just as vulnerable to everything we humans can experience, as any other human being born.
There was no “divine safety net” for the son of God. In all human vulnerability, God allowed his son to become human. Into a very ordinary family — left to and dependent on other people's care as much as everyone else — the son of God was born.
God chose to come as a little child, and I think this tells us a lot about how God is present in the world. This is not an image of an almighty God in the traditional sense, the Super-God, the Fix It-God who makes order in everything. It is an image of a vulnerable God, characterized by solidarity with humanity. A God who lives with us.
Instead of thinking of God as a being outside the world who sometimes intervenes in the world, it makes much more sense to me to think of God as one who is the creator and sustainer of everything, but who is unable to intervene in the ways we often want him to do.
For my part, I cannot believe that God could have intervened to prevent Fredrik from dying, but that for some unknown reason he did not. Neither can I believe that God could have averted the coronavirus epidemic but didn’t. I don’t believe that God can be held responsible for other disasters that we humans experience, whether at the global, national, local or personal levels. That is simply not who God is.
Do we dare to acknowledge that vulnerability expresses something fundamental about being human, that we will never live under other assumptions, that there is no god who fixes everything for us and that the challenge is to live with this uncertainty and vulnerability without losing courage, hope and joy?
To me, this is a more honest way of relating to God and understanding God. And Jesus' words that “... no one can tear anyone out of my Father's hand” (John 10:29), have become words to cling to, as a kind of a creed when reflecting on what it means to be a human being.
We cannot fully understand who God is. What we can believe is that God is with us in all things. God became human in Jesus to be present with his love in the midst of a world that is far from good for all. As humans, we are not left to evil or loneliness. We are left in the hands of God — in both life and death.
The very basic of Christian faith is this: There is a creative God behind everything, a God who wants life and who has created humans in his image. Everyone who knows something about parents' love for their children knows something about God's love: Parents never stop loving. God never stops loving. Believing in God is therefore about living with a life perspective that says that all human beings and everything else created are embraced by God as the great power of love.
"God of Life: You hear our lamentations, you notice our silent cries, you see our crying souls. Meet us at the limits of our understanding. Meet us in our deep powerlessness. Let your love be the bond to the world as it is. Hold us in your deep care and fill us with enough courage to face life.”
Refsdal is a district superintendent for The United Methodist Church in Norway.