I am a theologian by training and by temperament.
Reared in a home where God was constantly present in both our hearts and our minds, it was only natural that conversations about God would happen almost daily. As a family, we were always wondering (and asking out loud) what God was doing in the midst of what was happening around us in the world. I didn't know it at the time, of course, but I was being prepared for what would come later in my life: theological training at a wonderful seminary. When I arrived there many years later, I had the opportunity to study with creative and godly scholars who poured heart and soul into the holy work of shaping young minds.
I'm pretty sure that nobody's mind got shaped more than mine.
Though I don't formally teach theology in an academic setting now, theology is still my life. It seems unnecessary even to make the case, but every part of our lives grows out of our understanding of God and God's ways. Which means, of course, that our theology comes first - and then that theology informs our relationships, our behavior, our attitudes, our decisions, our ethics, and even (and especially) our politics.
I would argue that we are all theologians - that, as human beings, seeking to understand God is something we simply cannot avoid. That drive is probably part of our being made in God's image, and we really can't stop thinking about God even if we try. So even if you have never had formal training, you are a theologian too.
And because that's true, maybe you will appreciate something I have been struggling with not just during this pandemic season . . . but pretty much my entire life. It may be that you wonder about this as well:
When tragedy comes, how does God decide what to do?
Most of us would affirm that God can do anything God wants to do.
But if that's true, why does God not intervene and stop the suffering?
And if God does that sometimes, why does God not do that all the time?
More specifically, as the current pandemic rages,
could God simply stop it?
And if God could stop it, why does he not?
My apologies: but this is what happens when a theologian has some time on his hands . . .
I knew Frank Tupper only by name and reputation. I knew that he was a beloved theology professor at a seminary in Kentucky. I knew that he wrote a book in 1995 that garnered a lot of attention. And I knew that, after his book was published, he was told by his seminary administration that he could either resign or face a heresy trial. Frank Tupper died a few weeks ago, so I've come across a number of stories about his life and theology. And his quote that is keeping me up at night these days addresses the questions I listed above.
Try this on for size:
In the givens of a specific historical situation of desperate human need -
with the particular limits and transforming possibilities intrinsic within it
as well as the transcendent possibilities available only to God beyond it -
God always does the most God can do.
It's that last phrase that I've been chewing on: God always does the most God can do.
Just for context, Tupper is suggesting that, in making the world that God made, God chose to limit himself. And given this kind of a world, we can be sure that God, in every case, will do the most that God can do. I have no idea exactly what to do with that - but I am compelled to admit that I find it terribly fascinating. And, honestly, I think Professor Tupper was on to something. It makes no sense to suggest that God would do less than God can do. And while it sounds like the good professor is putting limits on what God can do, he is more accurately suggesting that it is God alone who has imposed those limits.
Professor Tupper's book grew out of the excruciating pain of watching his beloved wife struggle with cancer. More to the point, the book grew out of the excruciating pain of watching God not heal his wife. That experience convinced Tupper that, while God does not always promise (or provide) rescue, he does promise his presence during our pain.
Even as he watched his wife die, Tupper thought of Jesus on the cross. Though resurrection would come, of course, that marvelous intervention of God was only anticipated on Good Friday. Resurrection was not present on Good Friday. And before resurrection happened . . . there would be death.
Clearly, theology isn't for the faint of heart. Tupper was accused of calling into question the power of God to do anything God wanted to do. But that wasn't his point at all. Instead, he was trying the tell the truth about the world that God had decided to make. Even more, he was trying to tell the truth about how God had determined to relate to that world. (One example, among many others, is God's relentless commitment to the freedom of human beings even as God remains sovereign. There's a mystery for you!)
Tupper's book was appropriately called A Scandalous Providence. The book itself was a scandal and it led to the professor's resignation. Tupper left to teach at another school . . . where he continued to demand that his students grapple with the strange ways of our beloved God.
Here's the crux of the matter: could God simply stop this pandemic today?
According to Frank Tupper, God is very much at work today.
According to Frank Tupper, God is with us today.
According to Frank Tupper, God loves us relentlessly.
And according to Frank Tupper, God is doing the most God can do. Even now. Because that's what God always does.
If thinking about that keeps you awake tonight, go ahead and text me. I will already be awake thinking about these things as well.