‘Waiting without Hope’ – N.T. Wright and the pandemic

The destruction of the temple by Francesco Hayez

N.T. Wright, the famed Anglican Biblical scholar, was granted an enormous platform by Time magazine last week. He wrote an article explaining how Christians should understand the COVID-19 pandemic. Early in the article he writes:

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? Supposing real human wisdom doesn’t mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations and say, “So that’s all right then?” 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?

Rejecting what he describes as a dual rationalist-romanticist inclination to explain the pandemic in Biblical terms, Wright argues that we ought instead to lament the pandemic. This, he maintains, is the proper Christian response:

Lament is what happens when people ask, ‘Why?’ and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centered worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world. It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?

He goes on to describe the Biblical tradition of lamentation, particularly in the Psalms: “Psalm 89 starts off by celebrating God’s goodness and promises, and then suddenly switches and declares that it’s all gone horribly wrong. And Psalm 88 starts in misery and ends in darkness: ‘You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.’ A word for our self-isolated times.” Lamentation, for Wright, resists hope and resists explanation. Lamentation observes the world in disarray and reorients the lamenters relationship to God accordingly.

The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.

God was grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures. He was devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him. And when God came back to his people in person—the story of Jesus is meaningless unless that’s what it’s about—he wept at the tomb of his friend. St. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit “groaning” within us, as we ourselves groan within the pain of the whole creation. The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.

I detect a tension in these paragraphs. On the one hand, Wright posits lamentation as the opposite of explanation. Lamentation submits to no easy narrative about the cause, effects, or rationale of a disaster. But he also emphasizes “the violent wickedness” of humankind, which is the source of God’s grief. We turn away from God in a fallen world, and the fallen world revolts with us. The result is death, disease, and suffering. In short, there is meaning in a time of pandemic. We can explain the root of our grief.

I am not arguing that God has sent the coronavirus as a direct punishment, warning, or sign. I agree with Wright that natural disasters defy simple theological explanations. But should a Christian response to human suffering be shrouded in hopelessness? Search the writings of Paul for the word “hope,” and you’ll see an entire ethic grounded in hopefulness. Search the writings of the prophets, and you’ll find famine and pestilence is accompanied, time and again, by calls for repentance. There is purpose and meaning amidst our suffering.

Where does this meaning come from? We could spend years debating the Biblical and doctrinal support for our interpretations of this plague. I have already written one post searching for spiritual meaning in this pandemic. I wrote another post arguing that the concept of apocalypse (Greek for “revelation” or “unveiling”) is relevant to the COVID-19 crisis, that this particular apocalypse should prompt repentance for our nation’s sins (greed, selfishness, &c.). Whether or not you agree with my interpretation, I think you’ll find—against Wright—that interpretation is inevitable. We are meaning-making creatures. We create narratives out of our own lives; we create narratives out of history; we tend to believe that things happen for a reason. Rare is the person who can follow Spinoza’s command to love God regardless of whether He loves us back. Most of us will continue to seek solace, hope, and meaning until we die. We cannot merely lament.

I understand Wright’s resistance to explanation. Most of the simple explanations for the coronavirus, offered by sleazy pastors with their own television networks, have been terrible. I am confident that God is not judging us for gay marriage or voting for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But I cannot endorse a vision of Christianity that accepts with resignation what W.B. Yeats called the “murderous innocence” of nature. Yes, nature is a dull, dumb, brutal force without consciousness: it blindly hurls plagues and astroids and tsunamis at us. But we create hope and beauty from all that suffering. Perhaps I am naïve, but I believe that meaning and narrative are both powerful and important forces in our lives. We cannot properly lament without purpose. Even Jeremiah infused meaning—a call for repentance—into his lamentations.

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