COVID-19, Anti-intellectualism, and Faith

At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.” (Matthew 11:25-26)

The Coronavirus pandemic has brought to the fore something which was an area of interest and investigation of mine during my time as an undergrad at an evangelical (specifically Baptist) university. I had more than one conversation with one of my history professors, whose area of expertise was North American evangelical intellectual history, about anti-intellectualism in the evangelical world. We discussed Mark Noll’s influential work The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind among other things. The Church where I was discipled was in a university city. My pastor had an engineering degree as well as his theological training, and was working on a doctorate. I was surrounded in that congregation by mainly well educated, white collar professionals; professors, lawyers, accountants, and other really well-educated people. It wasn’t until my university years I ran into this reality of anti-intellectualism in the evangelical world.  Without going into too much detail here, there does exist a current of this hostility to academia in evangelicalism, in part because of the close ties with fundamentalism which rose up in reaction to the Enlightenment. There is, in this trend, a skepticism of higher learning, science, and especially academic theological studies which include critical study of Scripture (“critical” here does not mean it is criticizing or demeaning Scripture, but a social/historical/scientific approach to studying Scripture, manuscripts, history of reception, redeactions, etc).

COVID-19 seems to have shown the world more of this trend, as churches defy directions to remain closed in many areas, refuse to follow advice from health officials (or in some cases explicit orders from law-makers) regarding closures, masks, social distancing, etc. Many have shouted aloud that this is impinging on freedom of religion, or is part of an attack on Christianity by “leftists”. Many shout we need not listen to these directions because “God will protect us”. Some seem to flaunt and glory in their defiance of the experts, and imply that this is a sign of godliness. While it may seem to some like this fits with Christ’s call to have “childlike” faith, and not trust in the wisdom of this world, I’d strongly object to that take. In Matt. 11, Jesus praises God for hiding “these things” from the wise and learned. Does this mean God is against learning, expertise, science, and we ought to not listen to experts? Is Jesus anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-expertise? Should we reject the direction of those telling us not to gather as per normal (even here in Ontario where gatherings are permitted with certain restrictions)? No. For three reasons:

  1. The greatest command, said Jesus, was to love God with our whole selves, and the second is like it; love your neighbour as yourself. Reading through the New Testament, you will find multiple instances of Christians called to place the needs of others above their own. These restrictions which have been put in place are for the protection of everyone. To love my neighbour, I should heed the directions to keep distance, and encourage people, especially the medically vulnerable to remain at home, wear a mask in case I have unknowingly been exposed and have not yet shown symptoms. To insist that people should come to Church is to ask my neighbours to take irresponsible risk and put themselves in harm’s way. This is unloving.
  2. Paul encourages the Christians in Rome (ie. those living in the political centre of the Empire) to obey the governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7) because God has a purpose for government. Does government always live up to their calling? No, of course not. The world is not a perfect place. The Roman government was hardly the ideal picture of God’s perfect justice. But Paul had a concern that the Church not make a name for themselves as disobedient, seditious, or anti-government. This was in part for their own safety (the “don’t poke the bear” approach to interactions with power structures), but also because of our call as Christians to be people who seek to make peace. Yes, we call on our government to act justly, and we owe higher allegiance to God. This may at some point put us in conflict with authority. Yes, the Church is meant to gather regularly for worship, for mutual encouragement, for breaking bread, for hearing and meditating on Scripture. But we also have alternative means of communication. No it’s not the same, but a temporary halting of gathered worship is manageable and we will be ok for a time. Since the government’s directions are in line with the command to love our neighbours, and we are under no pressure to give up our convictions, and we can still do a lot with the technology we have, we have a responsibility to heed the call. In this case, the direction to not gather in large numbers is not to prevent the spread of the Gospel, but to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus.
  3. Most importantly, there is an important exegetical point to be made regarding what could be- and sometimes is- read to be a biblical mandate to be anti-intellectual. When Jesus praises God for hiding “these things” from the wise and learned, we have to ask what are “these things” and who are the “wise and learned” Jesus is speaking of? “These things” are those noted in the immediately preceding verses regarding the rejection of the prophetic word (and John specifically) and the “woes”, the warning of judgment on Galilean towns because of the unwillingness to hear and welcome the Word made flesh. The learned and wise are religious leaders, not government officials, health agencies, scientists, etc. Jesus is not saying Christians should not listen to experts in their field. When Paul speaks of the wisdom of the world as foolishness (1 For 1), he is not saying modern medicine is wrong, and we should simply trust in God and nothing bad will happen. The Bible never makes any such promise to Christians, in fact, it regularly points out that life will have difficulties, and we ought to walk wisely. The wisdom which Paul is speaking of is not expertise in science, medicine, etc. He is speaking of a worldview which cannot comprehend a Christ who suffers and dies by crucifixion; a Messiah who is counted as a criminal and a disgrace. This is not a license to ignore the advice of the educated and trained experts in their field when it comes to safety and public health.

Centre Street has decided to take a slow, cautious approach to reopening. This is not because we lack faith in God. This is not because we are capitulating to the demands of an ungodly system seeking to crush the Church. We are doing this because we care for one another, we care for our community, and we want to do this the right way, ensuring the safety of everyone. I am very thankful for the fact that this congregation seems to be of one mind on this. There has not been any push internally to open up sooner. We do see around us some Churches opening with strict regulations in place. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of local churches flaunting anything, or being reckless. For this, we are thankful. But as we watch the news and see things from the USA, it’s disheartening to have churches and individual Christians so often at the centre of spikes in COVID-19 infections. Sadly, there is a possible exposure situation in an Aylmer church. This stems from a funeral service. Hopefully there are no further infections. But this is why churches have to be very cautious. To our congregation, I say thank you for your solidarity and patience. I look forward to being able to be together again. We will continue the live-stream after we recommence for those who are still not ready for whatever reason. We totally understand. We know some have medical conditions that make them vulnerable, and we want everyone to feel a sense of belonging to this family to the best of our ability.

Until then, I am praying for you all, and wish you a wonderful summer, and expect calls in the near future from myself or another leader.

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