Since March 2020, when people in the UK began to wake up to the fact that the Coronavirus pandemic was serious, concerns about the virus and its place in God’s purposes for human beings have sharpened.
As people were locked down in their homes and turned to the internet, they have asked more questions about the meaning, purpose and value of life and death. They've desperately asked for help to make sense of it all. A trajectory of panic, blame, and conspiracy has run parallel to pseudoscience, a search for miracles, spiritual experiences and a turn to prayer.
Although some have claimed that science and Christian faith are ill-matched or even incompatible, the Christian message itself - its history, theology, mission, community and care - all say otherwise. This is all the more true in times when aspects of the natural world pose a threat, as in the present Covid-19 pandemic.
Throughout history, Christian minds have helped the project of understanding nature move forward. Take the great strides in the experimental method of the 17th century, for instance. Francis Bacon, Robert Boyle and others believed that we are made in the image of God, and hoped, however fallen from it, that we might work skillfully to discover the laws of the universe that its maker conceived. The 1663 Charter for the founding of the Royal Society declares a purpose "to the glory of God the Creator, and the advantage of the human race." Many Christians today are scientists by profession, and see it as their vocation.
The Church today welcomes science as a gift from God to be used in service and humility in the pursuit of truth. Just as medicine is a gift to the purpose of healing people’s physical bodies, so science is the gift that enables a more fruitful, more understood, and less fearful, relationship with the natural world. It also provides new opportunities to act out the radical Christian life of service to others, of self-denial for the good of others, of working as the ‘body of Christ’ rather than to the glory of ourselves.
This is why there is a need for the church to support science and scientists in their work, and no place in church communities for selfish ideas that freedom is found in doing what I want to do independently of others.
Anti-maskers have protested that wearing masks counters God’s will and stifles God’s word and can even be a salvation issue. They claim that Christians are protected by their faith and need take no other precautions. Yet, we learn from the gift of science that wearing masks helps to protect others more vulnerable than ourselves from the virus. This is an opportunity to live out the Apostle’s command to ‘look after others’ interests more than your own (Philippians 2:4). It actually enhances the gospel. It does not suppress it, as some claim.
Nor is it right for us, for whom ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ (1 John 4:18), and are called to truth, to assist in the spreading of fear from those who create it, whether that is in the form of untrue conspiracy theories about deliberate foreign manufacture of viruses, or making false claims that vaccines are dangerous or sinister.
Many enquiries have been about being held to ransom by vaccination, removing choice and personal autonomy. They don’t want to die of Covid, but they fear that vaccines will contain ‘nanotechnology’, tracking microchips, barcodes or poisons. Some simply argue that there is no virus and that a vaccine is purely for the purposes of social engineering. There is no evidence of truth of any of these claims; it is part of a Christian calling to free people from the fear created by such lies.
The pandemic is a very difficult challenge to face, but it is by no means the first, and it will not be the last. What it does offer the church is an opportunity to use our talents, time, communication and other gifts, including those of science and medicine, to act wisely, love God and our neighbour, and help cast out all fear.
Professor Tom McLeish is Professor of Natural Philosophy in the Department of Physics, University of York. Dr Anne Richards is the Church of England’s national adviser for mission theology, new religious movements and alternative spiritualities
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