Liquor stores and sanctuaries

There’s no shortage of Christian advice out there on how to deal with the crisis. Some of the best is from NT Wright, one of most compelling Christian scholars today. His essay in Time last week, adapted from his upcoming book, God and the Pandemic, is worth a read.

Wright says that for the last 300 years in the global west, religion has been reduced to a private matter: “what someone does with their solitude.” Given this assumption, it’s not much of a leap to conclude that worship should have no place in public life. Hence, liquor stores are deemed “essential,” while “ancient, prayer-soaked sanctuaries” are off-limits.

If religion is simply a human construction, a system of thought like philosophy, or a guide for better living like Chicken Soup for the Soul, then churches ought to be on an equal footing with liquor stores. Both are human constructions where you go for escape.

But this Sunday, Christians observe Pentecost, the day when God poured out the Holy Spirit on the early believers.

If it really happened, and I believe it did, it means that faith cannot be a private matter. The Holy Spirit is in and through everything. People who tell you to “keep your faith to yourself” are proselytizing for their own religion. 

Religion may be a human construction, but the Christian faith is God’s construction.

Sure, many systems of Christian thought have sprung up over the centuries, but the Christian faith is not primarily a religion. Christianity is following the living God who really is loose in the world.

The living God can be found in liquor stores and sanctuaries. Neither will contain him. Tom Wright knows why:   

Church buildings are not an escape from the world, but a bridgehead into the world. A proper theology of “sacred space” ought to see buildings for public worship as advance signs of the time when God’s glory will fill all creation. Christians should therefore celebrate every way in which the living Lord whom they worship in church buildings is out and about, bringing healing and hope far beyond the visible limits of church property.

Jesus does not need church buildings for his work to go forward. Part of the answer to the question, “Where is God in the pandemic?” must be, “Out there on the front line, suffering and dying to bring healing and hope.”