ORT & Me 1: Pandemic Ponderings

“But whoever is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” (Ecc 9:4)

How is your theology bearing up under the weight of a global pandemic that has lasted a year and half, has infected a minimum of 152 million people and has contributed significantly to the deaths of at least 3.2 million people worldwide (as of May 1, 2021)?[1] At the very least, for those of us who believe God exists, our theology (i.e., our belief in who God is and how God works in the world) has been severely and consistently tested.

The reality of the pandemic (no, it is not a conspiracy, fake news or an exaggeration) combined with my ongoing health and life challenges (not related to the pandemic) has resulted in increased consternation, discombobulation, and cognitive dissonance. These are all fancy ways of saying, “What I am observing and experiencing in the world doesn’t seem to fit with the theology that I once held as fact.” About fifteen years ago, my theological ship sprang a fatal leak and it gradually, but consistently, became unable to support my faith. This has resulted in significant questioning and continuous searching for an understanding of who God is and how God works that makes more sense for my life in the real world.

So, I’ve been writing down my thoughts, as honestly as possible, in a journal that I call The Pandemic Ponderings of a Skeptical Believer.  Since March 24, 2020, I have written 110 pages (single-spaced, Times New Roman, 12 pt. font,) totalling more than 78,000 words. Yes, I have been pondering a lot of things! Writing is my way of processing my thoughts and feelings. Somehow, seeing the words I type on my screen makes my thoughts and feelings very real, and it also helps me to begin to process and problem-solve.

When it comes to my theology, the biggest issue in the last fifteen years (brought even more into focus by the pandemic) is this: Where is God and what, if anything, is God doing? Here’s an excerpt dated March 24, 2020:

  • It seems very strange to me that the God of the Bible is portrayed as caring deeply for those who are most marginalized in society––the widows, the orphans, the poor, etc. Yet, what portions of our global community is this virus most affecting, infecting and killing? Is it not the most marginalized––the destitute, the poor, the orphans, the sick, the elderly? If God judges his people for not caring for these people, as the prophets declared, then why doesn’t God care enough to stop this virus? If God has the ability to prevent and/or cure this virus, then why doesn’t God do so? If God has the ability to determine who gets the virus and who doesn’t, then why doesn’t God infect the uncaring, selfish, egotistical, greedy rich of the world and leave the marginalized alone? There are literally billions of people praying for an end, or at least a slowing of this pandemic, yet nothing is happening. There are many wealthy people (i.e., residents of developed countries) who are sacrificing their wealth and putting their health on the line to help people who are affected, infected, suffering and dying right now. Where is God in all of this? Like the prophets of Baal who cried out to him to send down fire and were mocked by Elijah for Baal’s no show, (“Maybe your god is asleep or relieving himself.”), where is the God of the Bible right now?

Shortly after this, on April 3, I read and responded to an article by Catherine Keller.[2] Here are excerpts from my journal that day:

  • Today, via Thomas Jay Oord’s FB post, I was able to read the most amazing letter written by Christine Keller, Professor of Constructive Theology at the Theological School of Drew University. In it she asked four questions about God’s relationship to and responsibility for the current pandemic: (1) Is God punishing us? (2) Is God testing us? (3) Is God teaching us a lesson? (4) Is God fixing the world? Her answer to each of these is a resounding “No.” Her rationale is eloquently written and rationally argued in but a few short sentences for each. She voiced, much better than I could, several things that I have been thinking and sharing with my wife, my son and my Christian friends (at least those who are willing to hear such heresy).
  • Punishment is about justice, but who are the main people who are suffering, and will suffer, as a result of this pandemic? It is, and will be even more of, the poor and frail of this world. That’s not justice, but rather very “sloppy collateral damage.” If this is a test, humanity, on the large scale, with but few individual exceptions, will fail that test. And God would know that; so, again why would God bring such suffering upon so many when most of humanity will fail the test? What lesson could God possibly be teaching us and for what purpose? And even if that’s what God was doing, previous “tests” of humanity have clearly established the lessons learned are short lived and ultimately haven’t changed how humanity as a whole lives. Is he fixing the world by careless and widespread destruction of his most cherished creation—humankind? There’s got to be a better way to teach us.
  • Rather, Keller suggests, that God is working by using this crisis––though God didn’t create, cause or allow it––by calling us to account, holding us responsible for the well-being of our world. God suffers along with us and calls us to cooperate with him and each other to bring about healing. There will be no dictatorial fix from on high. We must enter into creative collaboration with each other and with God in a process we can neither predict nor control.

While I was first introduced to the concepts of Open and Relational Theology (ORT) in the Fall of 2018, it wasn’t until 2019 that I began exploring and examining it in detail, a process that started about a year before the pandemic hit us, and continues to this day. I read a couple of books, numerous articles and listened to some relevant podcasts. I also attended a week-long series of classes at Vancouver School of Theology taught by Dr. Thomas Jay Oord,[3] with whom I have, over the last year and a half, developed a solid friendship. I even do some volunteer work for his Center for Open and Relational Theology.[4]

In this series of blogs, titled ORT and Me, I will share quite openly, in a relational way, how the basic principles of ORT have impacted my faith and my life. If traditional theology has left you disconcerted and questioning, doubting and/or unsatisfied spiritually, then perhaps ORT can help make better sense of who God is and how God works in the real world in which you live.  

[1] If you’re thinking that you don’t have a theology, you’re wrong. Everyone is a theologian because every one of us has some kind of belief about whether God exists and, if God does exist, who God is and how God works (or doesn’t) in the world.

[2] https://medium.com/@drewtheological/a-letter-from-catherine-keller-1930029c4914

[3] Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books…Oord is known for his contributions to research on love, open and relational theology, science and religion, and the implications of freedom and relationships for transformation. (http://thomasjayoord.com/)  

[4] https://c4ort.com/

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