‘We are creatures of dust who cry out to God’: Ephraim Radner on pandemic and apocalypse

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David pleads to God for mercy as the angel of the plague prepares to ravage Jerusalem (2 Samuel 24:17). Image: Wikimedia Commons

Within the Anglican Church of Canada, the Rev. Ephraim Radner has become known for giving voice to positions that some find controversial, challenging or, in his words, negative. His public opposition to same-sex marriage in the church, for example, came into focus prior to General Synod’s 2019 vote on the marriage canon. He is also known as an advocate for the unity of the Anglican Communion; the vitality of Anglican and Christian mission; and the human, ecclesial and religious value of the poorer churches of the world.

Ephraim Radner. Photo: Wycliffe College

More recently, however, he has attracted attention for concerns he has expressed about the COVID-19 pandemic and the spiritual response of North American Christians to it. Radner’s musings include a series of recent articles for First Things, a U.S.-based religious journal, as well as commentary made in March and May on The Living Church’s blog, Covenant. In a May 6 video call, the Anglican Journal asked Radner to share his thoughts on the church in this time.

Radner, an Episcopal priest who has been teaching at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College since 2007, holds a doctorate in theology from Yale University, and has performed teaching and other ministry in places as diverse as Burundi, Haiti, Singapore and Egypt, and in various communities across the United States. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, A Profound Ignorance: Modern Pneumatology and Its Anti-Modern Redemption (2019).

This interview has been edited for length.

What do you make of this pandemic theologically? What can Christians make of it?

There’s a $50-million question. I don’t make anything of it right now. I think that’s one of the things that I find personally frustrating. I can have all kinds of personal ideas, but theology isn’t about personal ideas. It’s about, “Where does something fit within the broad life of the church’s faith that we share?”

What I find frustrating, and have found frustrating, is that there’s nothing that the church has been able to say in this common sense of our life together, as it’s been called forth by God in Christ. My sense is that the church as a whole—and obviously that’s going to include me as a church member—has faced this like a deer in the headlights. And so what we come up with is just sort of what we’re used to saying about all kinds of difficult and troubling things. I don’t think there’s any particular kind of specified discernment that has happened.

In an essay published earlier this year, you asked why it is that Christians “have so little to say in formal prayer” about the pandemic. Is this what you’re talking about?

Well, in some way that would assume, of course, that I think I know what should be said, and it should be something that’s informed by a vision of disease and so on, specifically. And I don’t want to assume that. But I think you’re right—the church has a rich tradition, if you want to put it that way, of witnessing, ministering, articulating the gospel in the midst of the specific experience of disease. We have a long set—not a single tradition, but a set—of traditions, and that includes, interestingly enough, [traditions from] outside the West more recently—it’s not just in the past. There are churches—and we’ll stick to the Anglican church—Anglican churches in West Africa and Central Africa and East Africa and elsewhere, not to mention parts of Asia, that have had to deal with these things in the last 20 years, and far worse things, by the way—far worse. And they have things that they can say, that they have said—they’ve had approaches to these matters that are fairly straightforward in terms of being concrete and focused. We haven’t heard much about any of that.

You know, the AIDS epidemic certainly was a real one in the West, and a horrendous one (although it was very confined, as you know, to certain demographics). But it’s been going on for years since then in places like Africa. And you would have thought that OK, what do our African brethren have to say, living with a pandemic? I haven’t heard anybody ask that question.

There’s a kind of disconnect that has taken place very clearly around all of this. There’s the contemporary church’s life, which is detached from these experiences in the West, and then there’s the church’s life in the past—the larger communion of saints and so on—and there’s a lot of experience in that. And people have gone back to that, you know. If you go on to Google and different sites—people are mining the Black Death and what folks have written about it, and the Plague of London in the 17th century and so on. But it’s all more of a little bit of a historical curiosity than a living witness.

Should we talking about it in those terms? Surely in some way we should. One of my main feelings is that what the virus has done is to expose any number of problematic realities about our lives as Christian communities in the West (and let’s just stick to North America). It’s exposed our detachment…from the past, from other parts of the world. It’s exposed our very limited vocabulary now, theologically and spiritually. We’ve been dealing with the same kinds of tropes for years now about who God is, about what parts of the Bible are comforting, or helpful or challenging. So we don’t even know where to go in the Bible. When was the last time anybody read the end of 2 Samuel and [about] the great plague of David at his census? And yet it was one of the great plagues of the Bible. We know about [the Biblical plagues in] Egypt, but…. It’s repeated again in Chronicles. And it’s a fascinating one, because there the angel of death, who is actually spoken about—it’s one of the few places in the Bible where there is an angel who is in charge of the plague—is brought to a cessation of his work there on a threshing floor David buys in Jerusalem, which becomes—very clearly and deliberately—the building spot of the temple. The plague is actually central in this sense. One of the most important aspects of the whole Old Testament—and the New Testament, for that matter—is the temple of Jerusalem.

All of that material nobody had ever paid any attention to. So it’s exposed this kind of thinness and detachment of our theological-spiritual lives.

Do you think this detachment could have to do with the rise of modern science—that maybe it’s hard for us to approach plagues and other disasters theologically because we understand them as coming from nature rather than directly from God?

Yes, I think that the naturalizing of human experience is certainly part of it. A book I wrote a few years ago called A Time to Keep had, as one of the central parts of its early argument, the fact that just in the last 100 years [happened] something that epidemiologists have called the Great Health Transition—which basically has resulted in the doubling of the average human lifespan in 100 years, literally. So the average lifespan in Canada at around 1900 was 40, and in 2000 it’s 80. And that’s true around the world, more or less—first in Western industrialized countries and now, more recently, in other places around the world. But then that doubling of the lifespan and the so-called Great Health Transition—not my name, it’s been given to it by others—was obviously not [a way of] getting rid of death, because everybody dies, so nothing has changed, really. But it has reshaped the social configuration of where we meet death. It’s now in old age.

And it’s very interesting that this whole thing about the elderly and COVID, which we’ve had sort of an ambivalent reaction to—on the one hand it’s not that important, because it’s only old people who die; on the other hand, everybody’s worried about old people; and thirdly, that old people live together. That’s one of the huge changes that have taken place with the Great Health Transition, because with the doubling, the expansion of the lifespan for so many people, two things have happened: people have fewer children—a huge difference; and people live so long they don’t live with their children any more. They live beyond what they used to do; they live alone in nursing homes, and retirement communities and so on. So the segregation of the older generation is another aspect of this. They both become more vulnerable, which bothers us, and also they’re more segregated and isolated from everybody else. So it’s a different kind of problem.

This goes back to your question on naturalization. I think mortality is something we think we can control pretty well until we hit that last whatever it is—five, 10,15 or 20 years of aging when we then go down the curve, and we’re put into homes, and we get sick. So definitely our approach to disease has changed enormously. And the church has gone along with that. I mean everybody dies, so there are always funerals. But it’s not at the centre of the church’s common life the way it used to be—no question about that. And that’s one reason why disease is so hard for us—Christianly in the West—to deal with, and why it’s easier to deal with still in other parts of the world, where even though lifespans have gone up and medical care has gotten better and so on, it’s still a big difference. It is the case that in Africa, the mean age of the population is half of what it is in places like Italy. And that’s been part of the whole demographics of the disease, right? And yet young people know about death in Africa with far more immediacy than they do here.

“Camille Monet on her deathbed” (1879), Claude Monet. Image: Musée d’Orsay/Wikipedia

So, yes, the whole medical field, the naturalizing of health issues, has had as a result a decoupling with where God is in the midst of all this. Before the Great Health Transition, which was only 100 years ago, probably if you were alive you had experienced a sibling dying in childhood, maybe many siblings. And there was certainly a much greater chance that you would have experienced a parent dying, or both parents. Now, that happens to people, obviously—but it’s not the norm and it’s not considered to be the norm.

The virus fits into [a culture] where the current, daily experience of death is no longer the norm. We don’t know what to do with that, and we haven’t been taught how to deal with that.

You also write about Christians failing to consider our “assumptions about God’s benign supervision and our ability to control suffering.” Is that what you’re talking about now, in a way?

Yes. Okay, so let’s go to the question of the character of God. I do think that’s a huge issue. I think in general, believers in our culture, Christian believers, will see God as benign: God is good in the sense that we understand goodness. He wants the best for us, he doesn’t want us to suffer, he wants to minimize problems and so on. I don’t think that was a common view of God until the late 19th century, except in certain circles.

Is it that we feel entitled not just to believe that God is good, but to see his goodness in a way that is immediately apparent to us?

Yes, the issue isn’t that people before our era didn’t think God was good. They thought that God was good, but they understood goodness differently. You know, Hebrews 12 has this thing about God punishes those whom he loves. Chastises. And that’s suffering, and that’s how you learn. [God is] like a parent, and so on. That whole framework is not one which is acceptable any longer, by and large. And so we don’t have a way of thinking about God’s goodness that can comprehend our own suffering as God-ordered.

I’m not denying that there are all kinds of problems with thinking these ways, you know—God’s justice, and so on. It is complicated, but in the past, by and large, that wasn’t the issue.

Why did it become an issue now? These problems, which are real—”How can we have a good God who also has us suffer and thinks that’s good?” and, “Why didn’t he make things better so we didn’t have to suffer?”—People began to ask those questions in the 17th, 18th centuries, not before, and by and large most people didn’t ask those questions. Now, everybody asks those questions.

And believers, by and large, don’t want to ask those questions—that’s why they’re believers. I’m talking about our current day. You know, plenty of skeptics and atheists and agnostics are willing to realize the complicated problematic character of God’s goodness as we project it out of ourselves onto God. By and large believers don’t want to do that, because they’re holding onto a rather small way, as you put it, of understanding goodness that fits certain cultural patterns and so on. I mean we are a culture that believes—[Canadian philosopher] Charles Taylor wrote this—that the moral goal is to alleviate all suffering as far as possible. We don’t necessarily act that way, but that’s our ethic as a culture. There’s nothing in the Bible about alleviating all suffering as far as possible.

I think one of the things that shocked the pagans at the time of Jesus was that this was a god who suffered. That’s something they didn’t know how to make sense out of.

“Christ after the Flagellation” (after 1665), Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Wikipedia

He chose to suffer. I lay down my life—nobody takes it from me—and you’re going to have to do the same. That wouldn’t have surprised many people, because everybody knew they had to suffer, but as you said, the fact that one could sort of deify that reality—give it over to the all-good, all-powerful God, was shocking, and it remains shocking to that extent. It’s not an obvious concept. But it’s always been at the centre of the gospel. My point is that COVID now has unveiled the fact that we haven’t, I don’t think, done a very good job of holding on to that at all. I’m talking about within the churches.

Do you think part of the difficulty we might have in grappling with the pandemic theologically is that there’s less of a tendency to believe that God intervenes? It seems to me that in former times people would have prayed to God for a miracle. But now people are kind of shy about doing that.

Well, I think you’re right. There are a number of elements that come in. One is the kind of mechanistic view that if I do this, God will do that, and if I don’t do this, it doesn’t happen. And many people, I think, rightly feel that doesn’t properly express what it means to pray to God. That’s one thing.

The other thing, of course is, Is God responsible for this? That goes back to our previous question.

You know, the Great Litany in the Book of Common Prayer assumes both of those things. One is that God has it in his power to have mercy on us, to lighten the burden of what we’re experiencing—in which case, “Why isn’t he?” we would say; and the second is that by our expressing our appeal to God’s mercy we’re going to make a difference. Of course those are both simplistic ways of looking at it. They’re real and concrete, but they don’t work if they’re one-shot deals. So in other words, I think they do seem fake, or superficial or silly—superstitious—if all they are is, “My life goes on….”

“There are no atheists in foxholes”—part of that proverb is that only when things are bad do you turn to God’s mercy. If that’s the case—if only when things go bad do you ask for God’s mercy—then it does seem pretty thin. But something like the Great Litany, of course, was meant to be said regularly, not just once every ten years. That is to say, I think there is a whole character, a communal character, of the church being repentant and of seeking—being in a posture of seeking God’s mercy—that is meant to be, and can be, and has been at times, part of the ongoing life of the church—not just a “once in a while when things get bad” thing.

And when it is part of the character of a whole body—of a person but also of a whole body—that informs the day-to-day existence and year-to-year existence of who we are, that issue of who God is and what our prayers do— intercessory prayers—God’s intervention is viewed in a different way. It’s not a tool, a mechanism to be manipulated. It’s a relationship, and it’s a relationship that is lived out and breathed in and out day to day, in which case turning to God for mercy in the face of an epidemic would be almost natural to do. You cry out because we are creatures of dust who cry out to God. One of the greatest services in the older BCP is the burial service, and it links up with all kinds of things in the whole prayer book. It’s not a one-shot deal—it’s who we are as people. And that God would intervene—it’s not so much intervention, it’s that God is the person we encounter in the midst of our difficult, broken, fragile lives, and that’s how we are encountering him. We encounter him as the merciful God because our lives require mercy a hundred per cent of the time. A hundred per cent of the time.

Is it that our confrontation with our own finitude somehow makes us all the more aware of the infinite? Could you put it that way?

Yes, yes. And I think that’s one of the big issues most of the time. I’m not saying people in the past thought about it every moment of the day, but I think in our era, more than many, we do not think of our limitations and our mortality—our finitude—as a sort of ingredient of our daily existence.

I like to use the example of the word “tragedy” and how it flipped its meaning. Originally the word “tragedy” had to do with an inevitable thing that came upon people—you know, it was the fates, it was the gods, in Greek tragedy. It was inevitable you were going to come to this end, and you struggled with it, in the face of it, and it happened anyway. But somewhere—I don’t where exactly, certainly in the 20th century if not before—tragedy changed its meaning, from being the inevitable encounter with finitude, and the character that one builds up out of that, to being the completely random, inexplicable absurd—you know, like getting hit by a bus. It comes out of the blue. Tragedy [originally] never came out of the blue. The whole point of tragedy was that it didn’t come out of the blue; it was an ingredient in our lives. Now tragedy means—I don’t know what it means. I don’t know why this happened. It doesn’t make any sense. I got sick and died. This makes no sense whatsoever. I’m not saying it should make total sense. But the way the word has changed is, I think indicative of the way our attitude toward—as you put it—our finitude has changed.

Finitude is tragic. That doesn’t mean it’s pointless. It doesn’t mean it has no joy or meaning. But it means that it’s something that we can’t get away from, and that we’re going to struggle with and that will finally hurt us—inevitably. In Christian faith, it does not hurt us eternally. But it does hurt us inevitably.

I find it interesting that in that ancient sense, “tragedy” maybe meant something closer to what Christians would call “revelation” or “apocalypse”—the uncovering of the divine will.*

“Revelation,” but one could also say “providence.” Tragedy in the older sense is related to providence, because tragedy is linked to the will of the gods, in something like Greek tragedy. But by Shakespearean times, the 16th century, tragedy is related to God’s will in some way. And of course you’re right—apocalypse is that revelation of God’s will, of what he’s always been up to but we didn’t know. So the two go together—I think that’s quite right. But I think one of the things that’s disconcerting in our era of this COVID thing is that we have this revelation, but what’s being revealed is something we had forgotten in some sense or never learned maybe—which is that our lives go in this way. And so it becomes novel to us.

You’ve written that in this time of pandemic Christians might offer the world “a special sense of the times we’re traversing.” Could you talk a bit more about that?

One of the things that I would say—and others have also said this—is that with what’s happening (everything comes to a stop: businesses, work, school and so on, as well as illness), the biggest effect of the virus has not been illness. It has been other things: social distancing/isolation, no work, losing money, uncertainty, etc. Many people have said, “Doesn’t this show us that where we had placed a lot of our values and energies is kind of transient—it’s maybe not that important?”

The times we’re traversing should be unveiling what is most important and maybe what wasn’t so important, that we thought was important. And I do think that that is one of the big questions. And people have been asking that, I guess—although they tend to answer it in fairly predictable political terms still.

One of the things that I would say has come up very clearly for me—and this is just a personal reflection on this—is that what has come to the surface as being central to our lives during this time is home. We’ve been forced to stay home, many people have been forced to go home—they’re younger or don’t have a place to live, their rent money runs out, they’re being forced to live at home—and that’s been good and bad. I think it’s generally been good, but for many people who live alone, home is just them. So that has brought out loneliness.

This is a place, I think, that the times we are in should be having us reconsider and re-evaluate in a positive, constructive, creative sense: the home.

Why should we be doing that?

Because, I think, the times have shown us that that’s one of the few places we can count on in a fragile world. And of course, historically, it always has been. Only in the last 150 years has the household no longer been considered the fundamental basis of society and of common life. It’s been one optional aspect of it, but by no means a necessary one. I think we’re seeing that when push comes to shove at this point, it’s a necessary one. You don’t have a home, you’re alone. You don’t have a good home, you’re miserable. If you don’t know how to enjoy your home, you’re anxious.

That’s not to say people are bad because they find themselves in these situations; it’s to show that we don’t have the equipment religiously and liturgically and morally and socially any longer to find the riches in the place we’ve now been forced to confine ourselves to.

That’s one of the things of the times, I think, that’s being lifted up.

Unveiled, as suggested by the term “revelation”?

The apocalyptic thing, absolutely. And let’s go to another thing, negatively. And this is me—it’s not only me, but it’s me in a somewhat extreme way:

“Saint Rosalia Interceding for the City of Palermo” (1624-25), Anthony van Dyck. Image: Museo de Arte de Ponce, Puerto Rico/Wikipedia

I think one of the great failures, horrendous failures, of this whole COVID thing, morally, for our society—and, I’m afraid, for many of our churches—has been the fact that we have not found a way for people who are dying to die with their family, or with a priest in the church. I think the fact that in many parts of the world priests and families have been kept from the side of dying people is one of the most horrendous charges that will be brought against all of us in the time to come. I understand the public health issues that are a challenge, but if we thought it was important we’d have figured out a way to do it. And some people did do it, by the way—some nations, I’m talking about, and areas.

The idea that we would allow our family members and our church members to die alone—I’ve said this, I’ll say it again—it’s blasphemous. We permitted this. And as I say, it’s not true that everybody had to [die alone]. There are places where people figured out how to [be with the dying]. And I do think that one of the reasons that permitted that [failure to be with the dying] was a much larger social perspective which precisely said that you’re just an individual—you are not bound to other people, essentially, whether it’s a family or a church. And so you can die alone. That’s not an abuse of your humanity, your human personhood: You’re just a unit. And I think we are there, and the church, unfortunately, is populated by units—by atoms, religious atoms. That’s a negative view of one of the things that’s been exposed.

You’ve talked a fair bit about the weaknesses that this pandemic has exposed in much of Western or North American Christendom. Do you think it’s exposed even more among people who don’t have any kind of involvement in religion or spirituality?

Probably. It’s very hard to say though. I’m certainly in no position to speak for anybody else’s faith within the church, and even less so for anybody who’s not in there. I think a lot of non-church people, non-Christians—maybe even atheists outright—have shown enormous benevolence and self-giving at this time, as well as sort of corporate esprit de corps and so on.

I’m not sure that the issue is that Christians are being better people. That I don’t see—at all, to be quite honest. Certainly they’re doing good things; so are non-Christians. So your question would go less to the visible and perhaps more to the internal: “Does faith give one a strength?” and so on. And I think it does. I’ve heard people say that.

I try to imagine what it would be like if I did not pray every day and I did not have a sense that in my prayers I was encountering God, who was offering himself every moment in these special ways, and that there is meaning to this in that, that I can see vaguely here, and more clearly, less clearly, there. If I didn’t have that, I’d be going through motions.

*Note: The English word “revelation” comes from the Latin revelatio (an uncovering or laying-bare, as in the drawing-back a veil (velum)). Revelatio is in turn a translation of the Greek apokalypsis, uncovering.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

2 COMMENTS

  1. With what can only be described as a pessimistic Christian anthropology, Ephraim Radner hedges his bets in answering a number of the questions put to him here. There is no need to do so. Contemporary Christian thinkers must be clear on their starting point for theological reflection on the Covid 19 crisis. Viruses are not sent to us by supernatural entities be they God, the gods, demons, angels. On the one hand viruses are random naturally occurring phenomena. On the other hand, many of the conditions for the development and spread of viruses, as various international agencies point out, are related to our problematic relationship with nature, most especially climate change. Added into the mix is the lack of both social investment in, and political commitment to, robust international structures dealing with world health.

    I suggest that turning to biblical plague mythology as the first place to look is not helpful. What is required is a reflection on biblical sources in tandem with inter-disciplinary dialogue with other specialties. We are not bereft of examples on how to proceed. One excellent framework is the exhaustive papal encyclical Laudato Si issued by Pope Francis. Laudato Si has a balanced anthropology. It recognizes that we are made of the dust of the earth (#2). It also states ” The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us. Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.” (#13). Chapter Four of Laudato Si addresses an Integral Ecology. We have to relate the arrival of various diseases ( of which Covid is one) to the overarching challenges of encroachment upon nature and climate change. This moves the pertinent issues into the realm of theological ethics , demanding our response as individual and collective moral actors.

    As for tapping into ancient prayer forms like the Great Litany, I may do so; but I must do as a person living in an age of scientific insight . If one prays for deliverance from, for example, “plague, pestilence, and famine” one must be clearly cognizant, as one prays, of the politcal vectors and human social failings that result in these crises–especially the contributions of vested economic interests.

  2. I commend the Anglican Journal for including this interview with Ephraim Radner. As always he provides much food for thought in a very personable and non-authoritarian manner. He was asked what he thinks and shared what he thinks. Personally, I totally agree with him.
    Climate change, social justice, care of the environment are all very important.
    Paramount in all of this present time is our understanding of God, as best we can understand God for God is beyond our understanding. That is part of human finitude.
    Thank you for this article, and thank you Ephraim Radner for sharing your thoughts.

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