Yes, I’ve heard the question asked repeatedly over recent days and it’s one that I want to have a crack at answering. I’m aware that I can’t do that as anything other than what I am—a fairly simple man who grew up in a very conservative evangelical church in the north of England, but whose own crisis of faith following the deaths of nine people in a tragedy on the southwest coast of Western Australia led to a period of robust theological study in order to grapple with this very question: Where is God in the dark times?
I am other things too. I’m a journalist, so I’ve been engaged in issues of human suffering for a very long time—much of it as an observer, but sometimes as a participant. I’m an author as well, one who tries constantly to step outside the ideologies that have framed my thinking so that I can see things in new ways, aware that even that process is kneecapped by the fundamentalist context I grew up in. I’m also a practising theologian, by which I mean that I work as a consultant for people who are trying to think and live theologically in secular spaces—trying, as TF Torrance would say, to live according to the ‘grammar of the gospel’, without being pious or moralistic or even particularly Christian.
My own theological framework is heavily influenced by my friend and mentor the Reverend Dr Andre van Oudtshoorn, perhaps the most remarkable man I’ve ever known. It’s also shaped by my counselling mentors, David Michie (my actual counsellor/tormentor) and Ray Ball, my counselling lecturer—again, two quite extraordinary men. None of these mentors ever resiled from the most difficult questions concerning the human condition, and I know that none of them would be shirking the tough questions about life, death and God in the current context.
But I’m not speaking on their behalf. This is all on me.
I want to start with something about faith.
I understand faith as the way of knowing that is born of orienting our ways of thinking and living according to something external to us, and perhaps even unseen—in my case, the Christian tradition, or, more specifically, the testimony of communities of faith down through the ages who claimed that they had seen extraordinary things: evidences of not just God’s existence, but God’s involvement in human life, in actual human time and space. That ‘witness’ was culturally conditioned, no doubt, but it was consistent in its claim that something quite extraordinary had transpired; that it was worth recording; that it was worth responding to in terms of faith practices, worship, service to others, and sociopolitical differentiation and affiliation. They reckoned God’s activity was evident in Israel’s liberation from Egypt; in Israel’s occupation of Palestine; in the building of the temple, and in the destruction of the same; then in the exilic community that survived the destruction of Jerusalem and was taken to Babylon, and, even more amazingly, was liberated by the Persian king Cyrus and taken back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. The most incredible claims surface around the man Jesus of Nazareth, that he was, somehow, physically embodying the return of the ancient Yahweh to his people, a claim that they said was indicated by the miraculous things he did in their presence and then proven in the event of his crucifixion and resurrection. A very particular community of faith then forms, one that is convinced of these events, and which believes they can now orient their lives according to the hope those events have generated, and that his ‘presence’ remains among them, in the person of God’s spirit.
Let’s contextual this idea of faith. The current ‘crisis’ has no bearing on whether those events continue to shape our ways of knowing; they take nothing away from the belief that God has been involved in human affairs. Remember, the community of faith that believed they were God’s called people, the Israelites, were physically removed from their land, their temple destroyed, and their monarchy slaughtered, and they still hung on to the hope that God would liberate them. God’s eventual ‘return’ took 70 years!! What we are going through, in terms of a crisis that upends our lives, is NOTHING NEW. In fact, it’s a perpetual state in many parts of the world. It may come as a shock, but not all nations of the world live with the levels of security and comfort that we do. Faith that is contingent on things going well is not faith at all. Faith is an ongoing way of knowing shaped by the story of God’s involvement in human history, regardless of how difficult life gets—even to the point of death. Where is God in this current crisis? Where God was always was.
I want to say something about love.
Because of how those events (that are the focus of faith) transpired, I believe certain things about love. I like Karl Barth’s definition, that love is treasuring the otherness of the other. What he means by this is that as we discover the other’s otherness (in actual relational engagement, not based on some ‘idea’ of the other, but in real encounter) we begin to treasure that otherness in a way that reorients how we understand the other, as well as ourselves and the world around us. We see the world with our own eyes, as we always have; but now we see it with their eyes too—and the convergence between the two ways of seeing creates a third way, a way of knowing that is wholly born of love. If you’ve experienced this (and I’m sure you have, even if you didn’t know how to articulate it) you’ll know that it’s a powerful reality. It’s so powerful it’s addictive—when we truly connect with another, and surrender our privileges, enjoy them, see the world through the arc of love that being with them creates, we just want more of it. We safeguard it; we treasure it. We nurture it and pursue it. It generates a life of its own—it becomes something vital, creative, stimulating, energising, self-perpetuating. It’s almost like it needs no external power source—everything is powered from within the relationship, and actually spins outward, embracing others, whether they want it or not. In my understanding, the idea that God is love suggests that ‘God’s’ own life force is this creative love, the perpetually life-generating activity of relational encounter between people. The story of ‘faith’ that I described above is really just a way to put flesh and blood on this love story—to say that it has history and characters; that there are actual events in our time and space that give context and meaning to this life force. The early Christian community would say that it is actually God’s spirit—and that the spirit was given in alignment with the event of the resurrection. A rebirthing of the human race. And whether you ‘believe’ that idea or not, you have to admit it’s pretty cool. That there was a moment in history when humanity was baptised in the life force of God’s own self-perpetuating love.
How do we contextualise this in the present crisis? Well, apart from showing common sense and listening to what the experts tell us about safety and health and cleanliness and looking after ourselves and others, there’s never a more urgent time for the sort of love I describe above to be the thing that sustains us, as families and communities. There is nothing more important in these times than the experience of love—love that keeps us excited and energised and ALIVE!!! If God is love, then God is present among us as we love, as we treasure the otherness of others, and as we repeatedly bathe in the life force that is real encounter, real engagement, real enjoyment of others. Where is God in times like these? You need look no further than your partner, your children, your friends, your work colleagues … the people you treasure and who treasure you.
Finally, something about hope.
There’s no doubt that hope is paramount right now. To combat fear, yes we need faith … we need love … but we also need hope. But what is hope?
Again, in light of what I believe about the faith story, and also what I believe about love, I believe certain things about hope. I won’t go into those connections in too much detail, but what I will say is that, for me, hope isn’t some feeling that we generate—it’s the actual creation of things; the bringing into being of things that did not exist before. I believe faith and love are ways of knowing that generate life, and the life they generate has actual shape, that they actually generate the creation of tangible things, and that those tangible things then embody and resonate with faith and love, so that they physically provide us with ways of looking back, looking inward as well as outward, and ways of looking forward. It might be a poem. It might be a table. It might be a business opportunity, or a film, or an Instagram story, or a song, or a flower arrangement. I don’t think it matters what it is … but I think it matters that it is. Because we are people who need to hope. It’s part of our DNA, just as faith and love are. We are people who need to hope, but our hope is rarely satisfying when it’s abstract. But when hope is tangible … when it generates tangible signs of life beyond our present and immediate circumstances … that is powerful. That is hope that gives life, that serves the community, that generates justice, that provides a matrix for love, that gives us a way of knowing that can cast our vision beyond the current crisis and prepare us for life afterwards, as much as it does for life as it now is.
So, where is God in the current crisis? God is in the story. In our encounters. In the things we create. In us. Around us. Through us. In word. In action. In our cries of despair, in our private doubts, in our songs of celebration. So it always was. So it still is. And so it will always be.