We may grieve for the world, but we must have hope

Lament may be a worthy way point at which to rest, but it is not a fit place to reside, writes Dr Mark Burton

PHOTO: 'Boer War, 1900-1901 - Last Summer Things Were Greener', 1901. Artist: John Byam Liston Shaw, via Birmingham Museums Trust

By Mark Burton

Dr Mark Burton, former Assistant Bishop of Perth and Dean of Melbourne, responds to Bishop N.T. Wright’s piece, published in Time in March, “Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It’s Not Supposed To”.

Tom Wright counsels us (where “us” seems to denote the English-speaking Christian world) to abandon a quest for understanding of the times in which the collective “We” find ourselves, and to take up the neglected tradition of lament. We are also encouraged to have regard to the insight of T.S. Eliot, and, where it is warranted, wait without hope.

Wright impliedly scolds Rationalists – and their Christian counterparts – in company with the Romantics, who want cogent (or at least, poetic) answers to questions. The recovery of the “great biblical tradition of lament” is, on Wright’s view, the proper way through the incomprehensible mess that is the present.

Wright suddenly renders the world, the creation, an impenetrable admixture of accidental triumphs and seemingly irresistible defeats, into which questions – even genuine, pious questions, asked in humility by the faithful – are ruled inadmissible. Enough, it seems, that we declare the terror that has seeped into our very bones; or that no word of God is heard, even as a whisper. Enough, it seems, that we settle for God’s being the Great Fellow Sufferer ‘[who] also laments’. The divine passibility overtakes the divine power: God grieves over ancient Israel in its partial, historical apostasy; Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus, his friend; the Holy Spirit groans.

It is “no part” of the Christian vocation (in Wright’s opinion), the call to life and action, “to be able to explain what’s happening and why”, not only during a season of pandemic, but also presumably in all times and places, whether the questions are great or small. To express this negative more emphatically, Wright would have it that, “[i]n fact, it is part of the Christian vocation not to be able to explain …”.

Wright, properly, anchors the source of the beginning of any understanding of the presence and work of God in the world “in the tears of Jesus”. Tears are part of the basic stuff of embodied life: they are protective, functional, antiseptic and communicative. Hence, they are properly representative of the fully human experience that we hold was that of Jesus. But as tears are physiologically fundamental to that which is truly human, so, too, are questions and the search for meaning and the restoration of order proper in the exercise of the human mind. A sweep of the variegated and multi-faceted biblical story reveals order, meaning and purpose at its heart. The emergence of creation and its evolution over vast swathes of spacetime is the imposition of greater and more complex layers of order. Inhabiting a pre-Copernican universe by choice – which would require the discarding or ignoring of questions about God’s action in the world – would seem to amount a wilful retreat into a lesser light. To retreat from legitimate questions is to step closer to the observed experience of a dying body, whereby a once properly-functioning body is marked by a rise in disorder to the point that none of its systems integrates with the whole. Similarly, making a vocation of ignorance and shoulder-shrugging, however flippant or hopeless, consigns the human mind to chaos, and imbrutes its incarnate expression.

There is a profound irony, here. A common thread that runs through the canonical gospels is that, on the face of the narratives, the disciples (however we may seek to determine and limit that number, but meaning at least the Inner Circle) were reticent when it came to asking questions about God’s action in the world. Well-meaning, to be sure; passionate, certainly; but, individually and collectively, remarkably frustrating from Jesus’s point of view. Had these “common, uneducated men” (according to some of the ruling religious elite of the day) been dissuaded from asking questions of God, in an apparent swimming against the tide of tradition and in denial of a nature meant to reflect the divine? Had they been convinced that the putting of questions to God was the province only of the religiously qualified?

Parables – those apparently delightful, agrarian illustrations of birds of the air and lost sheep and weeds – were (according to at least one gospel writer) crafted and employed in order that hearers were deaf to meaning and remained for ever in the dark. Deaf to the meaning until a question was asked of Jesus, that is, and the enquirer exercised her mind and put pride in her pocket and went to the source of meaning. Then, as much explanation as she could bear would follow – pressed down, running over and all the rest of it.

More tellingly, the meaning of the cross, the very centre of divine action, is not self-explanatory. This fulcrum of history, lubricated with the “tears of Jesus”, is attended by questions. Some were genuine, seeking an answer to the question “Who is this…?”, and a subsequent question, “What does it mean?” (often modified by a brief description of a witnessed or reported action of Jesus); others, less so.

Either way, the cross does not explain itself, but calls forth answers to serious questions asked by serious people. The questions must work back and forth in spacetime too, because a conclusion to the “Who is this?” question that falls short of the flesh-wearing, human nature-bearing Son of God (the answer to which is consolidated in great creeds and definitions, often criticised for their necessary complexity), leaves us with the despair of a bloody, human sacrifice of sorts and a distant (at best) or unfeeling (at worst) image of God.

Wright would have us press on, surely, into the resurrection of the Son of God. His own work on this unrepeatable, incomparable event is predicated on the asking of thousands of questions across generations and theologies and cultures. Indeed, his work of the same name begins with nine questions (each of them with regard to historical and geographical detail, to be sure), but built around the central question, “Did Jesus of Nazareth, they ask, really rise from the dead?” He then spends another 737 pages exploring in careful detail this primary question, a question that is fundamental to an understanding of God’s action in the world, a question that has “meaning and results”.

Wright’s apparent exhortation to abandon the search for meaning in the world, to run into a secretly despairing or dissatisfied caricature of apophatic silence without first exhausting rational argument, undertaken in the Spirit; and to reside in lament (not even wonder and adoration, which is where apophasis generally takes one) without hope, is to (unintentionally, surely) return to the pagan state that Wright critiques so hard elsewhere. We may grieve for the world, those we love, ourselves, the disorder we have wrought across the created order, but not as those who have no hope – for that would be to deny the answers given and tested repeatedly by those “billions of Christians” who, despite “perplexity and scepticism”, declare the original Easter confession as the point on which God’s action in the world pivots.

To live in an unexplored, semi-comatose dream state of lament and take to our couches (for it is ultimately an exhausting exercise) is akin to declaring that Christians now live in the imagined uncertainty of Holy Saturday (not a view espoused by +Wright), endlessly extended and attenuated, suspended between Good Friday and some yet-to-be-realised Easter Day. Unless we are deprived of the Acts of the Apostles, or deliberately choose to ignore it, then we Christians are a Pentecost people, among whom and with whom the Holy Spirit lives and acts, and in whom we live and move and have our being. Part of the constant companionship of the Spirit is the unavoidable quickening and re-shaping of the mind, such that a multitude of Emmaus-like conversations on the road (replete with questions and answers, quips and jests) takes place every day.

Wright apparently disregards honest questions which seek to determine what, if anything, God may be addressing to humanity in this pandemic moment. Punishment and warning, to cite but two, could hardly be considered ‘silly’ were they to be the conclusion of those whose suffering drove them to such insights. Jeremiah and John the Baptiser may demand a hearing on the possibilities.  So let Wright’s list of Usual Silly Suspects be rounded up, questioned and released without charge (“punishment”, “warning”, “sign”), unless the circumstantial evidence will support a prima facie case and allow a Suspect’s indictment and arraignment.

Is the world being “warned” by God? If so, of what is it being warned? Of the dangers of overpopulation? or rampant global capitalism? or over-weening national interests? or disregard for the intricate interconnectedness of the globe as a massive living thing? Is the world being punished, perhaps? For what, in particular, may one ask (there being so much from which to choose)? What is the critical mass of wickedness, the tripwire for divine action? The conclusions may well lead to a Suspect’s being discharged, but not before questions have been asked.

As to the reading of semeia, the road signs along the way, Jesus reportedly rebuked his contemporaries for their capacity to determine the seasons and the weather while remaining blissfully unaware of even the possible trajectory of God’s action in the world. Knowledge of a possible trajectory of God’s action in the world, and the end-point to which it is directed, necessarily requires analysis, question and debate – presumably with God as part of the conversation (recognising how fraught the analogies and projections of human experience onto God remain). Can we not ask whether the selfless risk-taking of health workers around the globe, the celebrated non-military “front line” of the pandemic, is located on the arc of the trajectory? The language of sacrifice, once the province of religion, then bestowed on honourable combatants, is now applied to those who dare all in the service of those they do not know. Could it be that our questions hint at the reimagining of the human spirit in an age of commodification? Could such reimagining be a small part of the divine purpose? We cannot know if we dare not explore the question.

Job, the great Everyperson of the Hebrew bible’s wisdom tradition, in this great and heroic exploration of suffering, determined upon – as a matter of first recourse – the path of deep, acquiescent piety. No questions, simply a blessed surface patience that resembles an inner lament, but this soon erupted with a violent curse. It is his friends who seek to beat down Job’s complaints and to smother his barely articulated questions, soothing his ailments with the nostrums of an ancient orthodoxy. Job’s great desire, in his quest for vindication, is actually to issue a writ against God – although he despairs of the possibility, expecting that God will not even enter an appearance.

It is a dangerous falsity to assume that, because Job’s questions go un-asked, that they are not known by God. Job is pummelled with waves of questions pressed on him by God, and his boat is swamped – but not sunk. Whether Job’s questions are framed or not (and it is likely that the conceit of the unknown author is that we ask our questions under the guise of Job), and whether God’s answers are playful or not, the answer to them all is the overwhelming divine Presence.

Job may withdraw his (unspoken) questions, but in best courtroom trial technique, he has them in the transcript; he “repents” – presumably, of his ignorance, for he is not accused of criminality by God – traditionally, “in dust and ashes”, although some have suggested that a subtlety of translation is possible here, and that he repents of dust and ashes. Unspoken or not, perhaps the poet who wrote Job intended that we supply the questions out of our own embodied time, experience and setting.

Job’s anonymous counterpart in the New Testament may be the unnamed father in Mark’s gospel, who in desperation brings his seizure-gripped son for healing, first to the disciples who turn a clumsy hand to the problem, and finally and unflatteringly to Jesus. “I believe, help my unbelief” is a contradictory residential address I can proudly share with this man. Better to live with a clutch of unanswered questions, honestly asked, and thus be a ‘prisoner of hope’, than to dismiss them and sit indeterminately in sullen silence. Could it be that resorting only to lamentation does not arise exclusively out of concern for the present state of the world, but that it is a stalking horse for the private, interior world from which questions are ruled inadmissible? If it is, then lamentation shaped by the psalms is not allowed to ask its two earnest questions, “Why?” and “How long?”

After the catastrophe that was the Shoah, the Holocaust of the Jews, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth sounded a warning that the Church would descend into a silence born of shame. Barth ventured the opinion that, after the disastrous error of the “German Christians” in hailing Adolf Hitler in messianic terms, prophecy (by which he meant forth telling, describing – even tentatively – what God is doing now in the world) would fail for generations to come. Making lament the sole action of the Christian mind in a time of pandemic will only prove Barth’s point.

There will always be a profound tension between the transcendence and immanence of God: too much of the former, and we despair in deism; too much of the latter, and we are mired in pantheism. But we are bound to neither, forced to no choice. Both transcendence and immanence must stand, and with them the dignity of the human questions, asked in varying degrees of faith and doubt, education and ignorance, but all in and to the living God as we seek (with besmirched faces bearing the divine image, as Athanasius put it) to live up to our high calling.

A danger of perpetual silence in the face even a single event of “inexplicable horror” (even while wearing the rent garments of lament), may be – as the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard mused – that the one inexplicable horror “has the power to make everything inexplicable, including the most explicable events”. There could be a great deal at stake, here.

Our questions may remain unanswered for now, or we may be blind and deaf to that which is already in front of us. Our questions may be highly coloured by the answers we seek, that seem best to fit the data to hand. Our answers, though, no matter how polished, will always be provisional. They will always have to give way to the Last Word that will be spoken – not by death or any of its agents, macro- or microbiological – but by the living God. Lament may be a worthy way point at which to rest, but it is not a fit place to reside.

Dr Mark Burton is a bishop of the Anglican Church of Australia. He was Assistant Bishop of Perth, and Dean of Melbourne. He also practises as a barrister at the Victorian Bar.