Dr. Watson’s Meditation Wednesday April 15, 2020
Because this pandemic is dominating our lives more than anything else ever has (in my lifetime), most of my thinking about God and scripture, most of my theological imagining these days is done so with the pandemic in mind. Whatever we think of God, God in Christ, or God the Holy Spirit, out theology is being tested against this new reality. Rabbi Harold Kushner’s groundbreaking 1981 book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People is more relevant than ever because the view that “only bad people” are being punished, or will be punished, is nonsensical. Christians who want to hang on tightly to that premise have misread the room.
Now, I will be the first to admit that theology is difficult. Most people, including yours truly, are not even aware of all the categories or theological systems that have been proposed and developed for millenniums. That’s why I have very little patience with people who have their theology all tied up in nice little bow, because, well, there are hundreds of “bows.” In fact, a theologically trained friend told me recently that my theology could accurately be labeled “scat-theology.” That is, it’s like singing along with jazz music. If I do have a consistent theological system, only the most trained ear will hear it when it is discernible.
Nevertheless, I do like to think theologically, and because of the mess we’re in, I have been thinking about a wonderful theologian named Sallie McFague. Dr. McFague passed away in November of last year. She was an American feminist Christian theologian who is best known for her view that theological thinking is, by necessity, metaphorical thinking. Now, before you turn your phone or I-pad off because I used the word “metaphor,” let me try to explain that in simple terms. A metaphor is a word or phrase that is not literally true, yet it speaks to something important about the object in question. McFague’s point is that all thinking about God (which is what theology is) is metaphorical thinking because that’s the best we can do.
So, we speak about God using categories and words that are familiar to us, such as “father” or “mother,” because God reminds us of a parent, the “great physician” because we see God as a healer, a “shepherd” because we believe God looks out after us, and a “king” because we like to emphasize that God is sovereign in our lives. We even use objects from nature as metaphors to help us understand God, such as “rock,” “water,” “wind,” and “fire,” because those natural things have qualities that help us understand divinity. Again, we don’t mean any of this literally, but it’s the best we can do with human language.
So, this brings us back to Sallie McFague. She was writing at a time when concern for ecological issues was growing. Famously, she came up with a rather unique metaphor for God. She encouraged us to see “the earth as God’s body.” Again, this is not true literally (if it were then the millions of other planets in our galaxy might get jealous), but given the ecological concerns of the late 20th century, this became a very helpful image for many Christians who were trying to connect the Creator to the care of God’s creation.
Dr. McFague said that the “trick” of a successful metaphor is that it is can generate a theological model that can give life to an overarching concept or worldview. “The World as God’s Body” is a very successful metaphor to be used in a climate crisis context. Dr. McFague has inspired me to think about how to understand God, using metaphors, in what I am calling our “corona context.” In this case, the “world” is not in as much in trouble as humanity is. In fact, as I mentioned Sunday morning, the “world,” that is, the earth’s environment, is actually “catching its breath” (which is a metaphor, by the way) because there is less human traffic on the earth’s surface and in the air. (Have you seen the recent pictures of downtown Las Angeles? The air is as clear as it has been in decades.)
Rather than using Dr. McFague’s metaphor of “the world as God’s body,” I propose that we use the metaphor of “humanity as God’s body.” This has a biblical connection. You might hear echoes of the Apostle Paul where he talks about the human body as a “temple” of the Holy Spirit. Again, a great metaphor. Because we are all so fearful of this pandemic, we don’t need a lot of encouragement to add more importance to the fate of humanity. Earlier this morning I was lined up, six feet apart, waiting to enter a grocery store. Almost everyone was wearing a mask and gloves. It was surreal, and it was a vivid reminder of how seriously we are taking this—and for good reason.
We might not need a lot of help taking this pandemic seriously, and yet, for me at least, it helps to imagine that every time a human body is infected with the virus, God’s body is also infected. When I see the yard signs that say, “We are in this together,” I like to think that the “We” includes a power and a presence larger than any us. As Christians we are the “body of Christ,” but as human beings, we are God’s body. Let us remember that in the weeks and months to come. Amen.
Dr. Watson’s Meditation Wednesday April 15, 2020