By MATT SEDDON
The last thing the world needs right now is bad theology. We need theology that gives us hope and shows us how to be good neighbors in scary and uncertain times. Theology is not God, nor is theology God’s words. Theology is like a finger pointing at the moon. It is not the moon, but it helps us see the moon. And when we get a glimpse of the moon, or of God, we can learn to become better people — people who help to heal. Good theology, I believe, helps guide us to be good, and that is what we need in a world of fear, suffering, Covid-19, and all that plagues us. We don’t need bad theology in hard times.
Mexico has been hearing a lot of bad theology. Some faith leaders are blaming the virus on our sins. The particular sins noted have been abortion, assisted suicide, increased acceptance of sexual diversity, crime, corruption and violence.
I will say this for these leaders — you can find support for that theology in the Bible. A portion of the Bible was influenced by a theology that Biblical scholars call “Deuteronomistic Theology” because it seems to have been developed by the author(s) and or editor(s) of the Book of Deuteronomy. This theology lays the suffering of this world completely at the feet of human sin. According to it, if you avoid sin, nothing bad will happen to you; if you do sin, you will be punished. So, by this way of thinking, the suffering caused by Covid-19 can be laid at the feet of our sins, or at least at the feet of the sins that particular leaders decide are relevant.
There are many problems with this theology. One is that once you start identifying particular sins as a cause of God’s particular judgement, which sins do you pick? Which ones do you ignore? Many have immediately the appalling record in various churches of sexual abuse and cover ups here in Mexico and worldwide. Why isn’t that the cause of God’s punishment? There are lots of terrible things that people do all the time. As some mentioned, crime, corruption and violence are among them. But these are old evils. Why would we be experiencing God’s wrath now and not at some other time? Once you go down the path of equating sin with God’s wrath, it quickly becomes impossible to figure out which sin caused what wrath.
Secondly, this theology isn’t the only theology in the Bible. The Bible holds a wide variety of theological perspectives, and not all of them are in accord with Deuteronomistic Theology. The Book of Job has a very different perspective on sin and God. The Book of Ecclesiastes has another. The notion of God’s patience with us, forgiveness of us and great love toward us (the Hebrew word used most often is “hesed,” usually translated as grace, or mercy, or loving-kindness) is prominent in the Bible as well. Much of what Jesus preached in the Gospels is centered on God’s love and forgiveness. This, I think, forms a better lens through which to read other texts in the Bible.
Furthermore, as an Anglican, I think we also have to use reason to interpret the Bible. We know exactly what causes Covid-19: a virus. We know the biology of viruses, and we even now know an incredible amount about Covid-19 itself. The theology expressed by many of these leaders ignores science. And I believe God gave us science too, and we should use that tool alongside the Bible to understand God’s purposes for us.
Although I could provide additional arguments against this theology, the biggest problem with it is that it blames the victim and encourages hate rather than healing. Many leaders lay the blame for a biological event on the heads of women, those suffering from disease and the marginalized. There is no scientific evidence for this, and it runs counter to any sense of human decency. And I don’t think it is particularly Christian or, as noted, necessarily Biblical. Jesus cared particularly for women, the sick and the marginalized. He commanded his followers to do the same. He did not preach hate. He did not blame the victim. He healed.
As an Anglican priest, I was taught in seminary that good theology is using the resources of scripture and tradition and reason to help us understand and constructively address the challenges of the world today. I believe this wholeheartedly. I believe that interpreting the Bible is not a simple task, and that the Bible is not a simple set of rules. The theology offered by other leaders directs us to hate when we need love more than ever. It directs us away from the marginalized when they need love more than ever. It does not inspire concrete and healing action, which is precisely what we need right now.
Not all religious leaders espouse good theology just because they are religious leaders. There’s a lot of bad theology out there. The danger is that when a religious leader uses his or her pulpit to preach bad theology, theology that motivates people away from love and toward hate, they have tremendous influence. We don’t have to accept this theology though. There are other ways of thinking about God, other theological traditions, other philosophies that can guide us toward the healing the world desperately needs right now.
Fortunately, there are other choices for people of faith, or even just for people interested in theology and philosophy. If you find the theology espoused in a sermon of hate offensive, you are not alone. You can choose to explore the rich diversity of ideas in the Bible, in religious traditions, and you can even find churches, temples, mosques, etc. that will guide you, feed you and make you a person of love and healing. Hateful voices are out there. We need a theology of love and healing to help us through these times. Choose that theology, it will serve you and the world better.