How Does God Matter?
I was listening to a podcast the other day and the topic of “guilty pleasures during a pandemic” came up. What are watching and listening to these days? What distractions are getting us through the days? How are we spending our time now that we have so much more of it to spend at home? Even those admirable souls who are using COVID-19 as an opportunity to take up virtuous new hobbies like building their own furniture or making quilts for the less fortunate or learning a new language must spend the odd hour or two on less laudable pursuits, right? Right? The rest of us sure hope so.
At any rate, on the podcast there was talk of getting lost on Amazon rabbit trails, listening to terrible 80’s pop and, of course, trawling around the vast landscape of Netflix. This last one I suspect many of us resonate with. I do, at any rate. The “guilty pleasure” in our household right now would probably be a show called “The Last Kingdom” which my wife and I have been picking away at for the last few nights. It’s not exactly cinematic brilliance. The acting is average, the story fairly predictable, the historical accuracy tenuous (at best). It’s a medieval tale of Danes and Saxons and conquest and adventure. It does not really educate or elevate the soul in any way. It’s basically a place to park your brain for an hour and escape. Which I suppose isn’t the worst thing in the world in the midst of a pandemic.
One of the underlying themes in the show so far is a barely concealed contempt for Christianity. It is the pagan Danes whose ways are portrayed as superior to superstitious and greedy Christians who take refuge in futile fantasy. The Danes trust their swords and the healing powers of the earth (and sometimes Odin). They do not waste time frantically crossing themselves or flailing around in misguided obeisance and penance to the Christian God. On more than one occasion, some hapless Christian Saxon has found himself at the end of a Danish sword and faced with the question, “Will your God save you now? Will your God give you victory? Is your God any use? If so, let him prove it! ” The scene usually ends with a silent God and a dead Saxon.
The question of if/how God matters is treated fairly crudely and simplistically in shows like The Last Kingdom which isn’t terribly surprising. We don’t tend to expect robust theology from Netflix. And the irony of using victory in warfare as the litmus test for the usefulness of a God who preached peace and died at the hands of his enemies is evidently lost on the show’s producers (and many Christians throughout history right down to the present). But the question is one that all of us who call ourselves Christians ask from time to time, surely: what use is God? Or, as Richard Beck put it in a recent blog post, “How does God matter in our lives?”
Beck asks the question in the context of our present pandemic moment. He doesn’t answer it, mind you, but he does offer a compelling diagnosis and a clear sense of the task at hand:
[T]he spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don’t really need God for any of this. Just follow the recommendations of the CDC and listen to your therapist. When this is the content of Christian speech during crises—#selfcare and #medicalprofessionals—God isn’t adding anything to our lives, or to our ability to cope with challenging times. During pandemics you don’t really need God. All you need is science and self-care.
Beck goes on to say,
Christians and churches need to articulate why God matters, beyond science, self-care, and social work. This, I think, is the theological labor of our time.
I agree with Beck. This is the theological labour of our time. It is one that I have felt keenly in my preaching over the last two months. I think the need has become more acute or visible during this pandemic, but it’s probably always been true across the theological spectrum. Progressive Christians often end up using God to kind provide a thin veneer of legitimation for an essentially social and political agenda. Conservative Christians often do the same to prop up their preferred views of meritocratic individualism or free market capitalism or some other thing. In both cases, God kind of recedes into the background. Useful, perhaps, but not strictly necessary.
So how does God matter in our lives? Can we articulate a vision of God’s involvement in our lives that doesn’t rely on naïve concepts of God as some kind of sky-Santa that doles out victories and goodies to those who perform the right rituals or mumble the right prayers (as in The Last Kingdom)? Do we actually believe that God makes a difference here and now? Have we experienced this? For the Christian, I think our answer can only and always be that God makes a difference in our lives insofar as God is conforming us to the image of Jesus, making us better lovers of God and neighbour, more instinctive in mercy, more generous in forgiveness, more courageous in the face of injustice, more profligate with grace (extending and accepting it), more willing to suffer and to die that new forms of life might emerge. This is how God makes a difference right here and right now.
But the Christian hope is also unapologetically future-oriented. There have been times in my life where I have been almost embarrassed to describe it in this way. Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen visions of faith that were so focused on the afterlife that they had nothing to say about this world that God loves. There have been times when I think Christians should just shut up about the unknowable future and set to work in tending this garden that God has given us. There have been times when the hope of eternity seems like wishful thinking, at best. A pandemic is not one of these times.
I have been comforted recently week by the simple reminder that even as we stretch out our eyes to an uncertain horizon, even as we are kind of daily marinating in uncertainty about the future, even amidst all that seems frightening in the world, that God offers a hope that extends beyond this crisis, beyond any other trials that will come our way in this life, beyond anything that we can endure, beyond even death.
It is the hope of being where Jesus is. Of being in the place that he has prepared for us (John 14:1-3). Of being welcomed into the Father’s house with joy. It is the hope of finally being united with the One whose way we have tried to follow, whose character we have sought to emulate, whose forgiveness has restored our souls, whose love has found, who has been our shepherd and the guardian of our souls (1 Pet. 2:25). This makes a difference, here and now. It makes all the difference in the world.