Where can we find God during a modern-day plague?

Photo by visuals on Unsplash

My friend has been battling a brain tumor these past few months. His dying so slowly has given him, his family and friends time to realize so much about God, faith, love and grace. They hope in everlasting life. Yet, so many these days succumb to the coronavirus in a matter of hours. Contemplating death in this time makes us think about how we think about God.

To trust in God today, we need to think anew. Too many of us conceive of God with medieval notions of reality. For ages, God was out there. We were here. The problem was to get from one place to the other. From a situation of suffering to a time of bliss. From earth to heaven. From where we are to where God is.

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In the 20th and 21st centuries, many theologians have been rethinking how we imagine God in the light of revelations of evolution and the revolutionary realizations of spacetime and quantum mechanics. It’s time for us to catch up.

To trust in God today, we need to think anew. Too many of us conceive of God with medieval notions of reality.

If there is no hope for a loving, creative source of life, then aspects of reality that seem unjust and painful are just the way it is. We can expect no other. But if God exists, there is a divine response. There is hope and the promise of joy.

To experience God in an evolutionary universe means upending the ways we thought about God in past intellectual ages, or the manners in which we thought about God when we were children.

First, we have to realize that God is not a thing among other things. God is sheer, utter mystery, the source of creation, the destiny of all that is. If we could fully understand God, God would not be God. God transcends us. God is both beyond change and changelessness, immanent in our experience of both change and seeming permanence.

In the same way we never see light, while light makes possible all we see, so too we never directly experience God; we know God mediated through the depths of our humanity.

Secondly, our understanding of “us” becomes immensely more rich and nuanced as we comprehend and realize who and what we are in the light of the implications of contemporary physics. We have traditionally understood ourselves as compounds of “spirit” and “matter,” but our realization of what we mean by those words is radically reoriented in our age.

As spiritual beings, we are constituted by relationships of love, memory, desire and ultimately trust that we live in a friendly universe.

As material beings, as bodies, we are really not inert matter at all, but a whirling mass of processes, of infinitesimally tiny particles in relationships going on continuously. Matter is more energy in a constant state than an immobile mass. As spiritual beings, we are constituted by relationships of love, memory, desire and ultimately trust that we live in a friendly universe. Awareness of the reality of God lets us know that the universe is on our side.

According to scripture scholar N.T. Wright, the Bible does not say we “die and go to heaven.” Heaven is a deeper dimension of a transcendent reality that exists now, the new heavens and new earth we await (2 Pt 3:13) where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Rv 7:17; 21:4 and Isaiah 25:8). When we die, we await resurrection in a new creation (Rm 8:18-39).

Third, God is not off in some galaxy “far, far away.” God is “the deepest freshness deep down things” in the words of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. And I say God is the beyond beyond the beyond. God is also as near as every breath we take, as close as our heartbeat. God is the mystery and reality of Love. Every way and every when we love, God is.

And God is manifest in nature and nature’s evolution. Paradoxically, the only absolute unchanging constant is constant change.

This God, according to Christian belief, became one of us, a human person. God limited Godself to be with us in Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. Who and what God is, was revealed to us in the life, teaching, suffering and death of Jesus. That death on the cross revealed a God who suffers with and within evil, the God who overcomes evil’s effects. The cross is the mystery of love working through weakness. The resurrection is the cosmic event portending life forever for all.

God is manifest in nature and nature’s evolution. Paradoxically, the only absolute unchanging constant is constant change.

I remember as a young man in a philosophy course at Lafayette College being struck by the absolute reality of an option. Either I would in some way exist forever, or at some time, I would go poof and be no more. The former seems preferable. But is it true? I believe it is.

I cannot doubt that something caused, and causes, me to exist. In order to have caused myself to exist, I would have had to pre-exist me, an obvious impossibility. And it is evident I cannot sustain my present state of existence forever, or I would do so. But I can’t. My inevitable physical decline is self-evident. I, and all of us, are dependent on our creator, on God.

The thought that whatever is giving me life now will stop doing so when this present body of mine ceases to function doesn’t make any sense to me. Why would whatever created me, and sustains me in being, quit doing so when my body decays?

There is no resurrection without the cross, which promises there are no crosses in life that do not contain within them the seeds of resurrection.

Fourth, a potent way to understand our existence is to take into account the reality of dialectics, i.e., the “concrete unfolding of opposed principles of change.” Think of the relationships between community and individual; progress and decline; God and creation; heaven and earth; good and evil; life and death. One does not exist without the other. Transformation emerges as the tension between the two is maintained. The fact is that we need both sides of a dialectic to understand truth. And the Christian truth is that life comes through death.

We need to maintain the tension between suffering and salvation, between death and life. God saves us from death and despair, hate and horror, sickness and sorrow. The message of Easter is that God gives life—but only in and through death. There is no resurrection without the cross, which promises there are no crosses in life that do not contain within them the seeds of resurrection.

God is at work in this coronavirus time. From these days of hunkering down, we can learn much about life and death, meaning and meaninglessness, courage and fear, hope and despair; community and isolated individualism, good and evil.

Let us take some time to be silent, to listen and to learn lessons from these days.

[Explore all of America’s in-depth coverage of the coronavirus pandemic]

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