Westar Think Tank Fellow Terrance Dean, Ph.D. sat down with Victor Anderson, Ph.D. for a Q&A about Christian faith and the Bible in the age of COVID, the difficulty with the term “essential worker” and the three thinkers he’d most like to discuss the COVID-19 moment with today.
Dr. Anderson is the Oberlin Theological School Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University, the Divinity School. He is also the Professor in the Department in African American and Diaspora Studies and Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt.
Dr. Anderson, as a professor of ethics and a philosophical thinker and religious critic, what do you think about COVID-19 as it relates to the response of Christian faith leaders in America and the teachings of Jesus?
In times of widespread crises, far too many Christians turn to some of the most dangerous moods and tones uttered in, “I told you so!” pronouncements. These pronouncements usually concern the signs of the times, the end, or some prevailing doom, famine, pestilence, or all manner of evils, which include the COVID-19 pandemic. Such times also make perfect opportunities for evangelism, “Get saved! Get right! Come to Jesus moments!” These warnings and pronouncements betray the gross ignorance of far too many Christians about the wonderfully complex and interdependent processes and patterns of our globe.
One thing I know about Jesus is that he was a keen observer of nature’s complexity. He admonished his followers to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves, always watchful yet discerning, and to keep faith with God. But, keeping faith with God also means keeping faith with God’s creation, our planetary home.
We belong to a deep ecological union with nature, and that includes even its most invisible microorganisms. This is a union of interdependence that begs for respect, care, and above all due diligence regarding our own interventions into nature’s complexity. Our planet is a fragile and oft time precarious union of complexes. Jesus’ admonition is to be discerning, to exercise wisdom, to keep faith with God and God’s creation, and to exercise humility in our interactions with fellow sufferers—including non-human others—throughout this present crisis.
COVID-19 has impacted the African American community in high numbers. What insights do you feel that Black Church leaders in the U.S., are examining as they reimagine the way faith and religious practices look right now?
We know that COVID-19 disproportionately affects minorities, especially African Americans. There are many church leaders who see this moment as a test of faith in God’s providential concerns. And so keeping faith with God means staying the course, worshiping together, and to not be like the world, which is fearful, distrusting, and God-despising.
Yet, I am reassured that there are other leaders who have taken this opportunity to display divine creativity by modifying public worship by way of Facebook, online live streaming, and YouTube. They admonish the faithful to show what love looks like in this crisis; love for one another, for the community, and the public at large. This is what love of your neighbor looks like: wearing masks, observing social distancing, washing one’s hands. This is what love looks like when “safer at home” is for this moment the new “golden rule.”
Do you think that a correlation can be made between this pandemic and any historical biblical crisis or story? And if so, how can we make use of the Bible and its teachings in how we think and move forward as a country?
The Bible speaks of human crises as great as primordial floods, famine, and plagues of Egypt, drought and pestilence, and leprosy as a public health crisis. What I so admired about Jesus was his realism about such things. In all such moments, we need to ask just one question: “What does this moment reveal to us about the creator, the divine, God?”
One of my favorite theologians, Karl Barth, posed the question this way: “God is acting in all things upon us, so respond in each action as if responding to God.” (Of course, I am paraphrasing). Now, this is a dangerous proposition! If your God comes forth as the God of judgment, then you will no doubt see our present crisis of COVID-19 as a statement of God’s judgment. But I am convinced that this picture of God is not the “Father of Jesus” who meets us at every moment of crisis as the God of grace. So, we had better be asking what does God’s grace amount to in this crisis and, believe me, this too is an equally troubling question in a moment where almost 5 million people are affected by COVID-19, and there are 300,000 dead world-wide. And, in the U.S. alone, 1.5 million are affected, and 90,000 are dead.
We are urged to consult scripture for the pattern of God’s action towards us; and I still believe that God’s YES, is greater than God’s NO! I urge that we look for the pattern of God’s Yes. And it leads us to a new creation, a new heaven, and a new earth. Our responsibility is to discern even in this crisis new possibilities for keeping faith with God.
We’ve been hearing a lot about essential workers, and the important role they have during this pandemic. Can we make an argument of which the church becomes an essential place of worship in order to make sense of this moment, and could we even venture to argue that the Bible is an essential piece of literature to find solace?
Let me be very clear, this distinction between those who are essential and those who are non-essential is nothing more than a cancerous designation for our persistent “class-conflicts” in the U.S. It really is the elite’s expert class way of designating the “disposable,” and the collateral causalities of those who are underpaid, undereducated, under-protected and bear the unfortunate brunt of being now underemployed while the expert and elite class work remotely, keeping their jobs, and take minimal risk to their safety. It is about lives, and profits. If anything, this crisis ought to bring out our best angels. So, I really can’t wrap my mind around that distinction, between essential versus the elite class. As the song goes, “In times like these, we need many saviors!”
If you could be in a room with three philosophical or theological thinkers, living or dead, discussing this COVID-19 moment, including the teachings of Jesus, which three would be your conversation partners? Why? And what message would you think they would have for us on how to engage and deal with this crisis using theology, Christianity, and our faith?
Immanuel Kant would remind us “to regard and treat each one we encounter not as a means only but as a kingdom of ends in themselves!” Gabriel Marcel would remind is that to be truly human is to prioritize “Being over Having!” And that great theologian Amos would remind today to “Love God, Do Justice, and Walk Humbly with God!”
Victor Anderson, Ph.D. is the Oberlin Theological School Professor of Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt University, the Divinity School. He is also the Professor in the Department in African American and Diaspora Studies and Religious Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt. He holds degrees from Calvin Theological Seminary including the Master of Divinity and Master of Theology in Philosophical and Moral Theology. He earned the M.A and Ph.D. in Religion from Princeton University in Religion, Ethics, and Politics (1991, 1992). Anderson has published three books: Beyond Ontological Blackness: An Essay in African American Religious and Cultural Criticism (1995), Pragmatic Theology: Negotiating the Intersection of an American Philosophy of Religion and Public Theology (1999), and Creative Exchange: A Constructive Theology of African American Religious Experience (2008). Anderson has published widely in scholarly journals and chapters in books. He teaches courses in philosophy of religion, philosophical, theological and social ethics, African American religious studies, Black Religion and Culture Studies, and American philosophy and religious thought.
Dr. TerranceDean received his Ph.D. in Religion and African American Diaspora Studies from Vanderbilt University in June 2019. His research interests include gender, sex, sexuality, Black religion and Homiletics, rhetoric and communication, African Diaspora, Black Cultural Studies, James Baldwin, and Afrofuturism. In 2005, Dean was a John Seigenthaler Journalism Fellow from Vanderbilt University, and in 2014 he earned his Master’s in Theology from Vanderbilt Divinity School. Dean is a professor in Black Studies at Denison University.
He is also the author of the Essence Magazine best-seller Hiding In Hip Hop - On the Down Low in the Entertainment Industry from Music to Hollywood (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books - May 2008), including, Reclaim Your Power! A 30-Day Guide to Hope, Healing and Inspiration for Men of Color(Random House/Villard - May 2003); Straight From Your Gay Best Friend – The Straight Up Truth About Relationships, Love, and Having A Fabulous Life (Agate – October 2010); Visible Lives: Three Stories in Tribute to E. Lynn Harris, (Kensington – May 2010). In 2011, Dean made his fiction debut with his novel, MOGUL (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books – June 2011).
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