N T Wright warns against 'knee-jerk' assumption that coronavirus is God's punishment

(Photo: Unsplash/Kelly Sikkema)

Theologian N T Wright has cautioned against jumping to conclusions about whether coronavirus is a punishment or sign from God. 

Writing in Time magazine, the St Andrews University professor said that Christianity "offers no answers" about the pandemic. 

"It's not supposed to," he said. 

He warned that the "usual silly suspects" would offer theories about why God is allowing the pandemic to unfold.

"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?" he wrote. 

Instead, he suggested that "real human wisdom doesn't mean being able to string together some dodgy speculations", but instead accepting that sometimes, the only thing to be done is to let things run their course.

He did, however, suggest that it could be beneficial for people to rediscover an understanding of the biblical concept of lament. 

"Rationalists (including Christian rationalists) want explanations; Romantics (including Christian romantics) want to be given a sigh of relief. But perhaps what we need more than either is to recover the biblical tradition of lament," he said.

"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 pointed to the Psalms and explained that they do not always explain the trouble that the people of God may find themselves in, but do "provide reassurance within it". Nor do they always end on a positive note, he said, with some ending in "darkness" as the author laments that things have "all gone horribly wrong". 

"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," he said.

"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."

He went on to speak of a God who grieves at the wickedness of man, Jesus who weeps, and the Holy Spirit "groaning" within us, as he suggested that lamentation was the biblical response when circumstances take us beyond the limits of our comprehension. 

"The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit," he wrote. 

"It is no part of the Christian vocation, then, to be able to explain what's happening and why. In fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain—and to lament instead," he said. 

Nonetheless, he said that God's love was ever-present.

"As the Spirit laments within us, so we become, even in our self-isolation, small shrines where the presence and healing love of God can dwell," he said.

"And out of that there can emerge new possibilities, new acts of kindness, new scientific understanding, new hope. New wisdom for our leaders? Now there's a thought."