The first thing to say about our battle against COVID-19 is that it represents a feat of human genius and diligence. Our dash from discovering a deadly virus to administering the first batch of vaccines in less than a year is a testament to a lot of people doing a lot of hard work. Medical researchers, public health officials, doctors, nurses, and first responders have labored heroically, day in and day out.
The second thing to say about our battle against COVID-19 is that it represents an act of God. Vaccines, ventilators, hand washing, face masks, and healing are astounding gifts of grace amid suffering and illness.
There is no contradiction between these two ideas. Our work and God’s work are blessedly and inseparably entwined.
But in public discourse, we often pit human and divine causality—God’s efforts and ours—against each other. Case in point: Last April, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo explained declining coronavirus rates by saying, “Our behavior has stopped the spread of the virus. God did not stop the spread of the virus.”
In my latest book, I call this idea “competitive agency”: If human responsibility and work are involved, God’s responsibility and work are not, and vice versa.
This view runs rampant even among some Christians. In California, former congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine put it bluntly: “If you have a mask on, it means you actually don’t trust God.” (It seems this logic could also apply to wearing seat belts, driving the speed limit, or locking your doors at night.)
Finance guru Dave Ramsey has suggested that to wear masks or take other COVID-19 precautions is to live in fear. Other leaders, too, have echoed this idea. The implication is that if we really trust God, we ignore public health recommendations. God’s protection does not come through human expertise or behavior but in spite of it.
Though masked (or unmasked, as the case may be) in pious language, this logic is largely based in a deistic understanding of the world. For Cuomo, Lorraine, Ramsey, and others, God’s protection has little to do with human action.
Functionally, this kind of deism excludes God from human work, efforts, and choices. In his book The Unintended Reformation, Brad S. Gregory notes how this “competitive, either-or relationship between God and creation” departs from historic Christian theology because it “presupposes that Christianity’s sacramental view of reality is false—that if God is real, he does not or cannot act in and through his own creation.”
Competitive agency therefore leaves us either as passive players trusting God to zap the world with protection, like a wizard, or as solo actors protecting ourselves in a world devoid of God.
The idea of competitive agency has shaped faith-and-science debates for some time, but it also seeps into how we think of our daily life and work. We might look to God for healing, protection, or blessing, but we make him distant from the quotidian world of work, governance, scientific research, budgeting, or doing the laundry. This false dichotomy between God’s actions and ours helps explain why the phrase “thoughts and prayers” has become a cultural meme to express passivity and inaction.
Competitive agency not only malforms our theology and spiritual practice; it also blinds us to God’s glory in the world and to the gratitude we owe each other. By contrast, a sacramental view of the world reminds us that God uses the stuff of earth to bring redemption. This vision motivates us to say, “How kind of God to allow the scientific community insight to limit the spread of this disease. What a mercy that God made the universe with order that can be studied and understood, and made human beings who give their lives to this work so that we can make the world safer and healthier for humankind.”
The human works of redemption in science, lawmaking, teaching, and, yes, mask wearing and social distancing, are expressions of God’s protection and mercy. Our work participates in his agency and activity. His Trinitarian love is the creative power over, under, and throughout all good and meaningful human action. We trust God, so we respond to his work, actively joining in as he makes all things new.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America and the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary and Prayer in the Night (IVP, 2021).
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