Last summer I spent a few days visiting old friends and a niece of mine in Berlin. If I’m honest, I don’t have the best sense of direction, and I can’t be doing with guide books or Google Maps, but even I was surprised when I found I’d ambled by chance across the nondescript car park off Gertrud-Kolmar-Strasse which is built over the site of Hitler’s bunker.
Of course, you might say I hadn’t actually walked over the site by chance. Even if I was lost, I wasn’t wandering round completely randomly. Rather, I’d walked over the site of the Führerbunker unknowingly. We do this sort of thing all the time. But occasionally situations arise where we need to be a bit more precise in how we use words like ‘chance.’ Where we feel chance won’t serve, we demand a cause. The desire to know where we are, for answers, underlies a little controversy I’ve been dealing with the last few days.
Gerald Osborne shared a reflection in this series in which he expressed the view that ‘the coronavirus is part of God’s perfect creation.’ His claim has generated a certain amount of discussion; I’ve had a number of emails arguing that, on the contrary, coronavirus is the work of the devil.
I don’t intend to adjudicate in this debate, mainly because I actually have a problem with both propositions, and I’ll try to explain why.
A scientist will look for the cause of the coronavirus in the wet markets of Wuhan or wherever their investigation leads them. And I have no doubt their work will prove invaluable in the search for deeper understanding of the disease and potentially a vaccine for it. But causes are generally understood to be more than just beginnings. Someone fires a starting pistol, but that signals the start of the race, it doesn’t cause the race. The cause of the race could be found in any number of places: the announcement of this particular athletics competition perhaps; or it could be the prize money or the potential glory that causes the athletes to compete. Or is the original cause of the race the foolhardy words of our distant ancestor to his mate on hunting trip, ‘Hey, I bet I can beat you to that tree. Go!’
What is the cause of the coronavirus as opposed to its beginning? Bats meeting pangolins? A demand for the meat of both animals? Supply and demand economics itself? Punishment for mismanagement of God’s creation? Devilish mayhem or malice? And so on.
Causes lead us down rabbit holes. And they’re deep, these rabbit holes, maybe even bottomless. Our search for causes is always built on an appeal to past data, on the authority of our experience. The Scottish philosopher David Hume says ‘From causes which appear similar we expect similar Effects. This is the Sum of our experimental Conclusions.’ When it comes to thinking about cause and effect, we can never, for Hume, circumvent or stand outside our expectations, our habits of thought validated by past experience. And sometimes something happens we don’t expect. Miracles famously won’t cut it for Hume.
Which brings us back to chance. And actually the bible has more to say about chance than you might think.
The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favour to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all. For no one can anticipate the time of disaster. Like fish taken in a cruel net, and like birds caught in a snare, so mortals are snared at a time of calamity, when it suddenly falls on them.Ecclesiastes 9:11-12
In short, our expectations, on which we build all our Conclusions, sometimes fail us. We’re left with… why? Science is brilliant at answering ‘how’ questions, but whether we like it or not, we’re in the business of why. And adverting to the unfortunate conjunction of a bat and a pangolin will never yield the answer we’re looking for. Nor will the introduction of a somehow unbeaten devil. Both might go some way to explaining how, but neither will ever explain why an omnipotent, loving God allows devils and diseases to wreak havoc in the world.
Where does this leave us? A bit like me in search of a noodle bar on Wilhelmstrasse, ambling unwittingly across a carpark that also happens to be a site of major historical signficance: at a conjunction of myriad, myriad causes.
“Where shall wisdom be found?Job 28:11-13
And where is the place of understanding?
Mortals do not know the way to it,
and it is not found in the land of the living.
Is that a frightening thought? Perhaps it should be.
Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom;Job 28:28
and to depart from evil is understanding.
Perhaps the universe is entirely determined by God, coronavirus and all. But whether it is or isn’t, there will remain for me, for you, as for Job, questions we cannot answer, mortals do not know the way to it, just as I didn’t know the way to that noodle bar. But not knowing will take you to much more interesting places than you could ever reach following a map or a guidebook. Excuse me for saying so, but – get lost. It’s great.
If science and theology have appeared to be at odds in this reflection, they at least share a motor: not knowing, and hoping to.
We live in a world that appears to us to be full of chances, of serendipities and coincidences. And that’s a blessing, albeit a fearful one.
How unsearchable are God’s judgements and how inscrutable his ways!Romans 11:33-36
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?’
They say necessity is the mother of invention. Rubbish, it’s chance, accident.
By chance, by accident, German musician and producer Stefan Betke dropped his Waldorf 4-Pole analogue filter on the floor of his studio in 1996. It was badly damaged. The sounds coming through it now were muffled and fizzing with background hisses and clicks and pops. Scheisse!
But Betke, rather than throwing the machine away, began making music out of all the glitches and blips. The results are sublime. This is Berlin by Pole:
your ways are too deep for us,
your thoughts unfathomable;
grant us the humility to take joy
in questions unanswered,
to find a thrill in not knowing
and hope in mystery.
We give thanks for the questions
that lie behind all our answers,
spurring us on and on
as we look for the coming of your Son
our Saviour at a time
we know not when.