Making Sense of Coronavirus with Reason and Faith
How can theology respond to a virus?
Theology means many different things to many different people, but here at ECLAS, we’ve been focusing on two aspects of theology — how it is informed by science and how it works with narratives. Theology can reveal the stories we tell and how they affect us. It can uncover the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, and our world. It can empower us to be better characters: more effective, more intentional, and more compassionate.
When we tell the story of coronavirus, what role do we play? We could be soldiers repelling a foreign invasion. We could be foresters fighting a fire. We could be owners or opportunists, privileged or vulnerable, wise or foolish. Even the word “we” hides hidden depths as we ask about the story. Whose side are we on, who are we with, and who are we against?
All of these stories get told about coronavirus. All of them hold some aspect of truth, but some are more helpful than others. Theology excels at asking about the impact of stories on our lives and, often more important, the impact of our stories on the lives of others.
What role do others play? A soldier must have an enemy, be they visible or invisible. The enemy gives soldiers purpose: to defend against. If we are soldiers, then we grant the virus power and agency, and we construct a border between us and it. We speak of sides and sacrifice and the organization of armies. Similarly, a forester must have a wood, a doctor a patient, and a teacher a student. These stories work because they are familiar; we know their outlines and their rules. But we must be careful that our stories do the work we want them to. We must attend to the enemy, the wood, the patient, and the student just as we attend to the hero of our story. They go together.
Christian theologians compare modern stories to Biblical stories and stories from the history of the church. They line them up, side by side, and ask how one informs the other. Bible stories are rich with characters that help us understand the many sides of a narrative. Disciples turn out to be enemies and foreigners turn out to be friends. Job’s “wise” friends give lousy advice, while “foolish” children point the way to God. Victory comes through death. By filling out the story, they challenge us to ask what is really important. Where do we place our trust, whom do we serve, and what does a good ending look like?
Scientists also tell stories. On the surface, those stories look different. Their actors are time and space, force and matter, particles and fields. They have a subtlety, simplicity, and consistency that makes them appealing, but they can also seem abstract and distant from daily life. And yet, surprisingly often, we meet more traditional characters as well: sages, inventors, and wizards; heroes and victims; hidden truths and easy illusions. And, just as in the Bible stories, science stories can surprise us. Physicists found that light was like a wave, but also like a particle. Physicians found that mouldy bread could cure the sick. Science is good at uncovering causes and telling us which distinctions make a difference. What changed and what stayed the same? And where should we focus our attention, if we want to see the action?
All of these stories get wrapped together into public narratives about the coronavirus and our response to it. Science-informed theology unpacks the stories we tell. It asks whether they make sense in light of Bible stories and science stories. It looks at heroes and villains and all the other characters and how they shape our understanding of the world. If the coronavirus is like an invading army, then who are the generals? Who leads on each side and what are their objectives? If we cast ourselves as victims, then who persecutes us? And do we think they are more powerful than we are?
Asking questions like these reveals more about our relationships with one another, with the world, and with God. It tells us about the stories we live into throughout our lives, not just in the time of trials.
At ECLAS, we’ve been paying close attention to the stories people tell about the virus and asking how they are shaped by science and theology. We’ve been asking which stories help us see more clearly, act more effectively, and care for our neighbours. We’ve been asking which stories reveal God’s action in the world. In our next post, we’ll hear from the Rt Revd Dr Richard Cheetham, Bishop of Kingston, who has proposed five useful frames for approaching the current crisis, five types of story we can tell that help us as we face this hour. Subsequent posts will go into more detail about those frames and how they have proven helpful to members of our team. We hope they will prove useful to you as well.
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A version of this article first appeared in the Methodist Recorder on 15th January 2021. Barely anyone has attracted so much recent attention for their use of language in the coronavirus pandemic as Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jonathan van Tam....