Faith, Sovereignty and Critical Thinking
Richard K. Olsen, Chair, Dept. of Communication Studies
University of North Carolina Wilmington
To many of my friends on FB and colleagues and co-workers at my school, Christianity has never looked worse. At a time of crisis, people of faith are often the voice of calm, of perspective, of comfort. Leading through examples of selflessness and sacrifice.
But with the COVID-19 coverage, the headlines are all too full of pastors and faith communities shunning good science, good government, and gathering in large numbers for services or college classes, sharing communion cups, claiming miraculous interventions for toilet paper and more.
I have personally chosen not to post about any of it, or respond to any of it. In part because Facebook is not an ideal space for nuanced arguments about faith and reason. In part because each case is different and I don’t know enough about that specific community of believers to know if they are always misguided and arrogant in their expressions of presumption that they seem to confuse with faith, or if this is a one-off due to the unique scale of COVID-19. But, as British writer and lay theologian C.S. Lewis (November 1898 – 22 November 1963) noted, good philosophy must exist because bad philosophy must be responded to. I am attempting to formulate a good and concise response to a very complex theological and rhetorical challenge. My hope is that the use of “God can” vs “God will”–and considering the space in-between these two phrases as the stage where the human condition is played out–may be helpful in fostering discernment about how to talk about faith in the shadow of COVID-19.
Many theologians and scholars have wrestled with the broader relationship between faith and reason. It is an eternal tension. Scripture makes clear that discernment and wisdom are hallmarks of maturity and it seems clear from the lives of the prophets and even Jesus himself, that there are times for bold declarations and times for steadfast gritty faith that does not call for supernatural intervention beyond endurance. At times we are called to speak to the mountain and at other times called to our prayer closets and secret giving. All seem to be equally appropriate expressions of faith. We see a similarly wide range of declarations in response to COVID-19.
So what might these high profile stories in the news reveal about the relationship between faith and reason? For me the starkest insight has been that there is an important space between “God can” and “God will” that has disappeared from many hard core evangelical communities. That space requires wisdom, discernment, reason, and humility. Any theology that does not make room for suffering is an incomplete theology. How can one have bold faith and make room for suffering?
A marker of mature faith is paradox. We can fully trust that “God is good” and simultaneously fully expect to suffer. We can fully trust that “our God is a strong tower” and expect to experience temptations common to man. We are called to trust in the Lord and to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. And on, and on, and on. There are four main characters in the play called “The Human Condition:” God, Satan, Human Nature, and Mother Nature. God is real, evil is real; I am real and natural forces and cycles are real.
Our God is not a “snowplow parent” who removes all obstacles so we can spend our time dancing in the victory of a testimony built around the absence of suffering due to miraculous intervention. Our God is one who says “I am with you in the fire, in the valley, in the battle, in the shipwreck.” God is with us within the circumstances wrought by my choices, by natural processes, and yes, even by efforts by Satan to steal, tempt, destroy, and discredit.
Our faith is made more complete as we navigate through such challenges God’s redemptive work allows us to grow from the experience. In that process, God makes all things good for those who trust. The redemptive work is not in the prevention of suffering or challenge, but in the processing of it. In the sense-making, we grow in our understanding that God is good and He makes all things new. And should we not make it through, we trust we will experience our “ultimate healing” and see God face-to-face.
The headline-grabbing example listed in the note at the end of this column does not leave room for paradox between “God can” and “God will.” Perhaps they feel their faith will grow small if there is any space between those two statements? In fact there must be. The space between “God can” and “God will” is the space of faith. That is the space where we grow into the maturity of trusting and waiting and discerning and hoping and all the attributes and markers of a person of deep faith.