Monthly Archives: June 2020

God and Covid-19

In recent weeks we have seen many publications about the role of God in the current Covid-19 pandemic. Some say that we should not blame God, while others ae sure God is guilty for the Corona misery. Their argument usually is that, if God is omnipotent, he can ensure that disasters like the current pandemic do not happen. The very fact that he does not use his power to prevent such terrible things makes him guilty. And who would want to worship a God who has so much blood on his divine hands?

In recent weeks I have become more intensely acquainted with a different view of God’s omnipotence than is common in Protestant theology. At the request of the independent Adventist journal Spectrum, I wrote a review of a new book by Dr. Richard Rice that is to be published shortly. For many years Rice has served as a professor in the Divinity School of the Loma Linda University in the place with the same name in California. Rice is one of the best-known and most creative Adventist theologians of our time, and has also become widely known outside the Adventist Church. The Dutch Adventist church published two of his books, namely the dogmatic standard work The Reign of God, which provides an excellent overview of Christian doctrine, from an Adventist perspective, and the fascinating book about the importance of the church: Believing, Behaving, Belonging.

Richard Rice’s new book is entitled The Future of Open Theism: From Antecedents to Opportunities. In the first part of this book Rice gives an overview of some of the forerunners of the theological movement that is now usually referred to as Open Theism, and explains what this school of theology believes and what critics have brought against it. In the second part of the book Rice discusses the impact of Open Theism on a number of crucial Christian dogmas. You have to know some theological terminology to be able to enjoy the book. But for those who are theologically interested and have a good command of English, reading it is a recommended adventure for the mind and for the heart.

The defenders of Open Theism, of whom Richard Rice is one of the most important, say that God is not omniscient in the sense that most theologians think he is. God is omnipotent, but he cannot do some things when these things are contrary to logic. He cannot make a round square or a square circle. And so, God’s omniscience is also limited. It does not include the things he cannot possibly know, namely how our free decisions will turn out. In his unspeakable love, he has taken the risk of creating people with a genuinely free will. And (this is a key facet of Open Theism) man’s will is only truly free if the result of his decisions are not predetermined and therefore already known by God. Rice and other advocates of this view believe that this approach does most justice to the biblical image of God. God is not the unchanging God of classical theology. God can undergo profound changes in his interaction with us. He rejoices when we make the right decisions, but is sad when we choose the wrong options. God can regret certain things and sometimes he changes his plans or opinion. As a result, also things that have been prophesied may in the end turn out differently from what we would expect!

This is a very concise and over-simplified representation of Open Theism. I intend to read more about it in the near future and perhaps also discuss certain ideas (and pose my questions) directly with Rice. But based on this view of the being and character of God, we must conclude that God’s decision to give man a genuine free will has led to so many wrong human choices and has messed up so much in our world, that eventually wars and pandemics and other disasters have been the result. That’s the high price God paid when he decided in his love not to make robots but beings with a free will. But he doesn’t let his plans go completely awry. His original intentions for man and for the world will eventually be realized. In the meantime, God is intensely involved in everything that happens. He supports us and is close to us. And when we suffer, he suffers intensely with us. Also (and especially) in times of this world-wide Covid-19 pandemic!

The Grain Republic

This week my wife and I spent a few days in the province of Groningen. From our hotel near the Martini church we explored parts of the province. Yesterday we drove around in a region that had remained virtually unknown to us: Oldambt in the far northeast of our country. Among the principal places in this relatively sparsely populated and economically challenged area are Winschoten, Zuidbroek, Heiligerlee, Scheemda, Beerta and Finsterwolde. But for the most part, this region consists of extensive farmland.

Some twenty years ago the Dutch author Frank Westerman was inspired by this region for his beautiful book The Grain Republic. Anyone who doesn’t know this writer yet, has missed something. For me his book De Stikvallei (literally: the valley where the people choked) was very special. In August 1986 a village on the shore of the volcanic lake Nyos in the African country of Cameroon was struck by a mysterious disaster. Toxic fumes killed all 1800 inhabitants of the village, and the same fate struck almost all animals in and around the village. At the time, we lived in the Cameroonian capital Yaoundé, a few hundred kilometres from the disaster area, and in the days and weeks that followed, the wildest rumours about the cause of this calamity spread around. Westerman traveled to the area and went in search of the stories that were circulating among the people. It resulted in a fascinating book

But as we drove along narrow roads through the Oldambt-area, between vast fields of wheat and other kinds of grain, my thoughts went to Westerman’s book The Grain Republic. In this book he describes the turbulent agricultural developments in this region during the previous century and the socio-political history of that time. The name of Sicco Mansholt keeps popping up in Westerman’s account.. He comes from this region, and he would eventually become the famous architect of the agricultural policies of the European Union.

What particularly struck me in The Grain Republic was the enormous contrast between the wealthy farm owners and the deplorable state of their workers. The clay in this region was much more fertile than the sandy ground and peatlands in other parts of the province. The farmers in the clay areas produced far more grain than they needed for their own consumption and that brought them lots of money, especially in times when grain prices rose sharply. This created a class of wealthy farm owners who enjoyed great financial prosperity, while their workers did not share in that prosperity in any way. On the contrary, they hardly earned enough to stay alive.

This in itself would be bad enough and represents a sad example of inhumanity. But what made it much worse was that these rich farmers were generally very religious people. On Sundays they sat with their families in church in the prominent benches near the pulpit and near the places of the elders. Is it any wonder that there was a gradual, large-scale abandonment of the church? The laborers no longer wanted to look at the hypocritical faces of their bosses who treated them so inhumanely.

Nowhere else in the Netherlands did strident socialism and communism gain as much support as in ‘the grain republic’. The area around Beerta, Finsterwolde and Bad Nieuweschans was often referred to as ‘the red triangle.’ In local elections towards the end of the twentieth century, the Communist Party of the Netherlands sometimes managed to win no less than thirty percent of all votes. In 1982 the municipality of Beerta even got a communist mayor!

It is not far-fetched to assume that the radical political choice of a large number of people was directly linked to their aversion against the way the establishment was full of pious words but showed no pious deeds. They saw how religious doctrine and Christian practice had become completely separated from each other. With the sad result that many turned their backs on the church and the Christian faith. And let’s face it: something like this did not only happen in East Groningen, but it keeps repeating itself in many places and in many circles: people (and especially young people) give up when they see that faith does not translate into compassion and moral conduct!

Racism. But what about other forms of discrimination?

After the killing of George Floyd, now two weeks ago, through blatant (white) police violence in Minneapolis, a wave of protest against racism has engulfed the world–not only in the United States, but also in Europe and elsewhere in the world. We also saw numerous protest manifestations in the Netherlands, sometimes with 10.000 or more participants.
The events of the past two weeks and the underlying systemic causes are characterised by an enormous complexity. In a number of cities, peaceful protests were hijacked by hordes of rioters, who were sometimes labelled ‘extreme left’ and sometimes ‘ultra-right.’ The role of the American president was dubious, to put it mildly. He showed a deplorable lack of empathy. His words contributed to the spiral of violence, as did his embarrassing photo session, in front of a church, with a Bible in his hand. The summum of his lack of tact and empathy was his remark that George Floyd is now looking down from heaven with approval on how this “law and order” president has curbed the riots by “dominating” the streets of the big cities.

The protests in the U.S. and beyond can of course not be viewed in isolation from the past, in which the black population was treated in a degrading manner, and from the endemic problems in the police force. Mixed in with this are the sad consequences of the Corona crisis, which is causing economic chaos, with an explosive increase in unemployment. As a result many people are looking towards the future with mounting despair. And on top of this, the pandemic creates an all-pervading fear: is this going to strike me and my loved ones? Will there be a second peak in infections? And how long will it be before we can live ‘normally’ again?

The last two weeks have once again emphasized that systemic racism is an immense problem. This is not restricted to the United States, although there it has some extra dimensions, partly due to the history of slavery, the Civil War and its aftermath. But it should not be forgotten that black Americans are not the only segment of the population that is discriminated against on a large scale. Mexicans, Portoricans, Chinese, indigenous peoples, and other groups are also considered by many as second-class citizens, not to mention those who have come from Muslim countries.

In the Netherlands, too, discrimination is not limited to those who are ‘black.’ Moroccans, Turks, Poles and other groups, some of whom came as far back as two or three generations ago, as well as people who adhere to Islam, and who often distinguish themselves by their dress, still experience the dire consequences of discrimination.

What about the church in general? And what about my Adventist faith community? Over the past two weeks, Adventist church leaders have (rightly) come out with statements condemning the murder of George Floyd and the grave injustices done to black people. But most of these statements do not admit that the racial problems within the Adventist Church are unfortunately still far from gone. And these statements fail to mention that discrimination doesn’t stop at skin color or ethnic descent. Discrimination against fellowmen (and often fellow-believers) with a non-heterosexual orientation, and against women, is still a shameful (and sinful) denial of the fundamental biblical rule that all people are completely equal. The words of those who protest against racial and ethnic discrimination – however appalling this is – but are complacent with regard to other forms of discrimination, will sound far from convincing.

Taking God’s name in vain

This morning I received an e-mail from someone who has a huge amount of money available for some charity purpose. The sender pretended to be an English widow. Her wealthy husband had recently passed away and she probably had only a few months left to live. They had been married for fifteen years, and neither of them had children. Now she wanted to contact someone who could help her find a good destination for their estate of 20 million English pounds. If I wanted to mediate in this, that would, of course, be quite advantageous for me.

What struck me most (and annoyed me immensely) was the pious tone of the letter. The sender knew that she would soon go to ‘the bosom of the Almighty’ and wanted me to pray for her. The epistle ended with the wish that Almighty God would bless me.

Apart from the fact that this letter is an attempt at extortion (because eventually I would have to provide my banking details), it is also a flagrant violation of the third of the Ten Commandments. Most Bible-believing Christians are familiar with the classic formulation that comes from the King James Version: ‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.’ The NIV gives this translation: ‘You shall not misuse the name of the Lord, your God, for the Lord will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.’

Often the ‘vain use’ or ‘misuse’ of God’s name has been interpreted mainly as cursing. The third commandment makes it clear to us, according to the most common explanation, that we are not allowed to use terms of force. But that is not how the Israelites understood it when the law was first proclaimed. For them it was clear that they were not allowed to use the name of God to give extra weight to a promise or an oath. Jesus would later, in his Sermon on the Mount, also underline this interpretation and tell his followers that their ‘yes’ and their ‘no’ had to be sufficient.

In the letter of the English widow the name of God was very clearly misused. We use God’s name ‘in vain’ whenever we connect God’s name to something God doesn’t want to be associated with. All too often this happens when questionable things receive a pious dressing, or when people present their own ideas as divinely revealed truths. It also happened in the (not so distant) past when weapons were blessed before the army went to war.

But the most annoying form of the ‘vain’ use of God’s name took place a few days ago in the Rose Garden of the White House, in Washington, DC. After Donald Trump had threatened to use the US army against the protesters, using words like ‘anarchy’ and ‘terror,’ and announcing with much aplomb that ‘authority’ should ‘denominate the streets’, the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to clear a path for the American president so that he could walk to St. John’s episcopal church. He didn’t go there to attend a service or even burn a candle. He was only there for a photo-op in front of the church while holding up a Bible. The picture had to show: Here’s a God-fearing president who will uphold authority and order, as from Bible-believing, God-fearing authorities can be expected. And it is in the interest of the nation that this genius will be re-elected in November!

Here God’s name was used in an awfully ‘vain’ way. Here faith, church and Bible were not used in honor of God, but in honor of DT. It was for the political agenda of a man who shows absolutely no evidence of Christian and moral principles. But DT will also have to take into account what the third commandment says to all of us: The Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.’