by Layton Friesen
At the one-year mark of the pandemic lock down, and with the first glimmers of dawn beginning to appear, the church can begin to take stock of what just happened to us theologically and spiritually. What are we in the grip of here? Of course, the church can’t control its own destiny. Never has, never will. We don’t get to choose which theological questions are pressed to our attention, and we often don’t even get to choose how we respond to them, at least not in the manner of an individual answering a question.
But here are some big theological dilemmas that I think this pandemic has already raised for us. They were here before the pandemic but this present plague has brought them into stark relief. Some of them have been front and centre, and others have simmered in the background. But we do need to talk about them:
- The pandemic has exposed differences over how we understand science. Not just science as in the study of nature, but Science as in the “institution” involving experts and researchers who work at universities and provide information to politicians about policy. Some fundamentally trust the institution called Science, and believe this is the best way to solve problems like the pandemic. Others have become suspicious because they see Science as an elite power seeking to subvert religion and morals. Debates over evolution and climate change have set the stage for this present situation. But the church needs much more nuance in how we understand the purpose of science, how it works, what its limits are, and what its particular idolatries tend to be.
- This pandemic has exposed dilemmas in how we think of safety. There has been a revolution in our society in the last generation over how we think of safety but the church has done very little theological work on this issue. What is safety in the biblical story? Is this something Christians should be seeking? Is there an appropriate “tension” between ministry and safety, or do we believe that the more safety the better the ministry? Churches struggle with this because, on the one hand, we are absolutely opposed to the abuse that externally imposed safety policies seek to prevent. But on the other hand, do the external forces requiring us to implement these policies really understand our mission? This is an especially urgent question for a tradition like Mennonites who have called themselves the “free church.”
- We will need more discussion about how we think of our government. What really does God demand of civil government? There are some Christians who, while they complain about some politicians, nevertheless believe that our government system is something to be preserved and defended. Others fundamentally mistrust the state and do not believe the state is looking out for the best interest of its citizens. But we are all in some kind of dance with the government. No one imagines completely separate spheres for the church and the state (all churches would try to follow building codes, for example). But where are those lines of separation? The question is not only how much the state can be involved in church, but how much the church can be involved in the state.
- This pandemic has exposed a question over what gathering as a church means. How crucial is it? It has grated some of us that society so easily declares church gatherings nonessential. Nonessential for whom? For what? Church gatherings are certainly nonessential for secular people, but how essential are they for Christians? It is actually a fact that gathering is nonessential for many Christians, and the government has called our bluff here. To choose whether this week I am going to worship Jesus or practice hockey tells us that worship has become nonessential. For some years now, evangelical churches in Canada have reported that for many, attending Jesus-worship twice a month is considered regular attendance. Is gathering for worship essential for us?
We should be quick to add that this is exactly how the Spirit has always guided the church in ages past. We are cast from one dilemma to another crisis to even more trial. As the church pilgrims through the paths of the world, it stumbles on pestilence, famine, war, heresy, and division. The Church never actually “gets it right.” Always we improvise, repent, and seek forgiveness. Perhaps what we need most as we pick ourselves up and move into the future is forgiveness. God needs to forgive us, we need to forgive each other, we need to offer the world forgiveness, and all will be well.