Acts 1:6-11; John 16:12-15
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”
“In God we trust” are words printed on every American dollar since1956. They may not be the official US motto, which since the 18th century has been “Out of many, one” (e pluribus unum), but the cynical among us say might say the god in whom the US trusts is the dollar. That aside, the question we need to answer is: who is the God we trust, not least during this Covi-19 pandemic? And, therefore, who is God working through and in what ways? Put differently, who do we trust to help us deal with the pandemic: politicians, economists, scientists, pastors or even a theologian or two? Who is telling the truth, whose word do we trust, whose guidance do we follow? Who do we believe are God’s agents?
We are moving into Stage 3 in our lockdown strategy to get the economy up and running as much as possible under the circumstances. But we know that the virus is still rampant and infecting increasing numbers of people. We also know that it is going to be with us for a long time, so testing and tracing, social distancing, hygiene, and medical preparedness remain vitally necessary. And while scientists are hard at work developing and testing vaccines, these will not be available for months. So, who do we trust to see us safely through the coming months? Can we trust the scientists? Are they God’s agents?
There are many Christians, especially in the US, who are skeptical about science and blatantly disregard scientific advice believing that God will protect them. But that is NOT what St. Paul meant when he said that we must be “fools for Christ’s sake.” It is just being and acting dumb. To claim that when we go to church God will protect us from infection because we believe in God, is misguided. If that were so, why does our faith not protect us in the super-market, taxi, or office where many infections take place? If faith alone can save us from the virus, why are we practicing hygiene, wearing masks, and praying for a cure? Why, have people of faith been infected and died? Faith in God does not make us immune any more than prayer prevents people from dying in a plane crash. Surely, we all prefer travelling on an airplane designed by scientists, rather than one built by priests and pastors, and prefer medicine tested by scientists rather than recommended by presidents?
The word science means knowledge, and natural science (what we commonly call science) is knowledge based on empirical evidence tested according to strict procedures. That is how science works. But scientists are not God, and like theologians, they don’t know everything, so we trust neither absolutely! Because people are good scientists does not mean they are also an authority on philosophy, art, sport, gardening, politics or religion, or a great partner, parent, or friend. Scientists are human like the rest of us. But what makes science trustworthy is the scientific method which enables scientists to get at the truth, solve problems, improve the quality of life, and respond to a pandemic. They may sometimes get it wrong, but I put my trust in them rather than in some politicians or pastors who reject their findings for their own ends.
So, what about our trust in God? Christian faith and science are not opponents or enemies, they are both gifts of God. But faith is, of course, a different way of knowing and arriving at the truth of “the mystery in which we live, move and have our being.” Faith in God, like hope and love, cannot be proved true or false by science. Hope is not based on scientifically derived economic data which reflects a rise in business confidence; hope is a way of being in the world despite the Corona virus, despite suffering, despite failures – it is a way of living that enables us to resist despair and overcome fear as we struggle for a better world. Likewise, love is beyond scientific proof. When you fall in love you do not explain what has happened to you as a neuroscientist might, you write a love poem or letter, sing a song, and prove your love by caring for the other. In the same way, faith is not wishful thinking, a clutching at straws, or what neuroscientists call confabulation. It is a way of seeing the world differently, a way of knowing based on the experience of the mystery we name God. Such faith is not irrational even if it cannot be empirically verified. It is affirming that there is a meaning and purpose to life beyond that which can be proved or disproved by science.
But if you want empirical proof, you may find it in self-giving love that is daily expressed and demonstrated by nurses, carers, doctors and many others at this present time. They may not be Christians or believe in God, but their self-less compassion and commitment to those in need demonstrates a profound truth that cannot be proven in a laboratory any more than it makes sense to many in our self-centered, greedy and individualistic world which puts its trust in the dollar. This is the truth we grasp by faith, the truth into which, as John’s Gospel tells us, the Spirit leads us. The truth that has been disclosed in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
On Ascension Day we celebrate the Lordship of Christ in and through whom, we believe, the whole creation and all of humanity find fulfilment and restoration. Central to the message of the Ascension is that the Jesus of Nazareth who embodied God’s redemptive, suffering love for the world and brought healing and wholeness to people, is the cosmic Christ who is present with us today. And we believe that through the Spirit God not only leads scientists deeper into the truth through their research, but also leads us deeper into the truth of faith, keeping hope alive and empowering us to love one another, especially those crying out for compassion. This is not a scientific claim, but an acclamation that the world is saved by the suffering love of God in Christ expressed in human solidarity and compassion. This is the God in whom we trust and these are God’s agents.
If cynics and skeptics think this is foolish, so be it. Maybe we are “fools for Christ’s sake”, but it is our witness to the “foolishness of the cross” which is God’s wisdom at work in the world. And it is this faith expressed in hope and love that we so desperately need, not only during this pandemic, but also as we rebuild our society once it has been overcome. So, let us trust the Spirit to lead us all deeper into the truth. At the same time give three cheers for those scientists medics and others on the front-lines who are working so hard and honestly to help us through the pandemic — our prayers are with you, as they are for all people whose compassion brings hope to those in need and who are suffering so much. In them we see the Spirit of the ascended Christ at work in the world.
John de Gruchy
Ascension Day 21 May 2020