Hans Boersma

Courage During the Plague

Fear may be powerful, but courage is called for all the same. During a pandemic, we are to keep our eye on the soul, for pandemics can harm the soul even more than the body. Perhaps more than anything, we need to recover a sense of horror at a culture that allows our fears to trump every sense of obligation to the dead, the sick, and the elderly.

I’ve often wondered how medieval Christians dealt with the plague, and how it compares to the way we deal with the coronavirus today. The three volumes of Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, set in 14th-century Norway, don’t answer the question. This is a historical novel, not description of fact. Still, the way Undset imagines medieval Christians responded to the plague is instructive and moving.
The high point of the novel, I think, is the last few chapters, which depict Kristin traveling to take up religious life in Rein Abbey near Trondheim in Trøndelag, halfway up the coast in Norway (some spoilers to follow). Shortly after her arrival, the plague breaks out. Undset’s descriptions of both fear and courage brought tears to my eyes.
I have long thought our reactions to COVID to be mostly cowardly. We have left elderly people isolated for months on end in long-term care facilities; we have let them languish and die there. Many of our elderly parents must have wished they were dead already, to avoid being left to die alone in their old-age hovels. Our hospitals have refused family access to people with COVID. Priests were unable—and sadly, often unwilling—to visit the sick. Many died without last rites or final prayers with loved ones and pastors, because we were too cowardly to allow visitation. We even denied people dying with COVID decent funerals for fear we might catch it ourselves.
So far, I have read few reflections on our moral failings—as individuals, as pastors, and as policymakers. We seem to think that fear of risk, no matter how minimal, always and necessarily carries its own justification.
Here’s how Kristin Lavransdatter ends. One of her sons, Skule, is visiting the abbey where his old mother has settled. Kristin overhears him talking with the abbey’s priest, Sira Eiliv. Skule explains to Sira Eiliv that one of his seamen died when his ship put in at the wharf. Kristin realizes what this means and utters “a little involuntary cry of fear.” Skule then admits to her that five of his men have already died. Kristin suggests that he should stay in town rather than go back to his ship. But Skule recognizes this won’t make a difference. “Oh, I think soon it won’t matter where I am. It’s useless to be frightened; fearful men are half dead already. But if only I was as old as you are, Mother.” Skule refuses to cave in to fear, while at the same time lamenting his short life.
Two weeks later, two fishermen come to the convent, carrying a dying man in a sail. “The lay sisters and servingwomen all had fled into the buildings, but the nuns—a flock of trembling, terrified, and bewildered old women—were clustered near the door to the convent hall.” Despite the fear spreading through the abbey, the abbess herself knows what’s demanded by her faith.
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Turning From Calamity

The beauty of Psalm 85—as a psalm of Advent—is that it not only makes God’s turning to us conditional upon our turning to him, but it also makes our turning to God conditional upon his turning to us. Turning as a purely natural human accomplishment would be an impossibility. The psalm, therefore, explains that our turning to God and God’s turning to us coincide. They are one and the same, for they occur in salvation—which is to say with Augustine: They occur in the God-man, in Christ himself.

Psalm 85 has long been linked to Advent. Saint Augustine makes clear why. Commenting on verse 7—“Show us thy steadfast love, O Lord, and grant us thy salvation”—the African bishop explains that the word “salvation” simply means “Christ”: “Grant us your Christ, let us know your Christ, let us see your Christ.” It’s a bold and direct identification: When the psalmist desires salvation, he is longing for Christ.
Let’s take Augustine’s interpretive move—salvation equals Christ—as our starting point. How do we make sense of the rest of the psalm if Christ is the salvation for which we long?
The psalm’s context is national calamity, namely, exile to Babylon. The return in 539 b.c. yielded a new set of difficulties—enemies at the gate and harvests that failed. The Promised Land wasn’t the paradisal salvation that people had longed for.
Two things stand out. First, the psalmist links these perduring troubles with sin (and their end with forgiveness of sin). Second, he links Judah’s return to the return of God himself. The result is a poem that pines for salvation’s advent in Christ.
The first point is obnoxious to us. The psalmist views exile as the result of sin. The first three verses depict the returns from captivity as forgiveness of sin:
Lord, thou wast favorable to thy land;thou didst restore (shuv) the fortunes of Jacob.Thou didst forgive the iniquity of thy people;thou didst pardon all their sin.Thou didst withdraw all thy wrath;thou didst turn (shuv) from thy hot anger.
We could translate the first verse slightly more literally as “thou didst return (shuv) the captivity of Jacob.” In other words, God has returned his people from exile—something directly tied to divine pardon. The implication is clear: Exile itself resulted from divine anger.
Back in the Promised Land, the psalmist asks God to relieve the difficult new situation and turn around his people’s plight. He makes this plea in the next section (85:4–7): “Restore (shuv) us again, O God of our salvation, and put away your indignation toward us.” God’s people may have returned from Babylon, but the new disasters are evidence of sin, while forgiveness would lead to a greater and deeper (re)turning to him.
The psalmist’s quid pro quo theology—the result, likely, of extended reflection upon books such as Deuteronomy and Jeremiah—is disturbing to us. We don’t typically share the poet’s confident attribution of calamity to sin.
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Why I Am a Conspiracy Theorist

Conspiracy is hardly restricted to evildoers or powermongers. Christians conspire together—at least, if they’re prudent and alert to the signs of the times. Calling to mind Psalm 2, the outnumbered group of disciples in Jerusalem appealed to God for help, knowing that he is the ultimate conspirator, that his hand and his plan are present in all things (Acts 4:28). After they prayed, “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (4:31).

Conspiracy theorists are lunatics. Such is the consensus among most people I meet. And yet, whenever the topic of conspiracy theories comes up, I think of Psalm 2:
Why do the nations conspire,and the peoples plot in vain?The kings of the earth set themselves,and the rulers take counsel together,against the Lord and his anointed, saying,“Let us burst their bonds asunder,and cast their cords from us” (Ps. 2:1–2)
David claims that the nations conspire. The early church was convinced that Jesus’s death was the result of a Psalm 2 type of conspiracy set up by rulers and elders and scribes (Acts 4:5, 25–27).
The past few years have placed the positive use of the term “conspiracy” under a cloud. In some ways, this is understandable. Conspiracy theories that claim, for example, that the September 11 attacks were the result of controlled demolition or that Neil Armstrong never set foot on the moon are worthy of nothing but disdain.
Still, crazy conspiracy theories do not preclude actual conspiracies. And it may be worth asking whether David’s words rightly come to mind in connection with the sudden rush to enforce COVID vaccination through vaccine passports and even vaccine mandates.
David uses the term conspire (rāgash in Hebrew) again in the opening words of Psalm 64: “Hear my voice, O God, in my complaint; preserve my life from dread of the enemy, hide me from the secret plots of the wicked, from the scheming (rigshāh) of evildoers.” David appears convinced that a lot of folks fail to act with good intentions. The Greek translation uses the verb phylassō. It invites comparisons between conspiring nations and proud horses: Just as the latter neigh, whinny, and prance, so the former are unruly, wanton, and arrogant.
Along with the verb conspire, the psalmist suspects the elites of plotting and of taking counsel. The Book of Proverbs takes up the first of these two verbs, insisting that the minds of evil men “devise (hāgāh) violence,” while “their lips talk of mischief” (Prov. 24:2). It is David, again, who uses the second verb when he complains to God about his enemies: “They scheme (yāsad) together against me, as they plot to take my life” (Ps. 31:14). The language conjures up the picture of a group of people deliberately getting together so as to arrange a certain outcome.
Maybe David was a pessimist. For my part, I think he just had a keen sense of human sinfulness. Our society looks to technology as the solution to nearly every problem we face. Health—one of our culture’s ultimate concerns—is no exception. Our technological and political elites tap into widespread and deeply seated anxieties about health in our post-Christian society. Our anxieties have created conditions in which actual conspiracies might just take root.
This is not to pooh-pooh either health concerns or technology per se. But the myopic focus on health, along with the knee-jerk faith in technology, makes us susceptible to exploitation by elites whose primary objective may not be our well-being.
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In Defense of The Therapeutic

Do we indwell a therapeutic culture? In one sense, unfortunately, yes: Rieff, Jones, and Trueman rightly lament the self-centered psychologizing of our society. In another sense, sadly, no: Nearly every aspect of our culture militates against true therapy. The pervasive noise of distractions hinders the gospel’s healing touch.

Talking about the gospel as therapeutic is dangerous. Not wrong, just dangerous. I used to think it was wrong, since Philip Rieff famously inveighed against the psychologizing of the self in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, his prophetic 1966 book. His critique fueled my suspicion of all things therapeutic.
Noted theologians have taken up Rieff’s mantle. Gregory Jones warns in Embodying Forgiveness (1995) that in our therapeutic culture, we are in danger of manipulating forgiveness by turning it into a self-help process: We are told to forgive others not for their sake but for ours, since it gives us psychological relief. The result, Jones rightly insists, is that we no longer “discern whether there are tragic misunderstandings or culpable wrongdoing and brokenness that need to be dealt with through practices of forgiveness and repentance.” Rather than work through the mess to make things right, we turn forgiveness into a tool for restoring our own inner peace.
More recently, Carl Trueman has turned to Rieff to trace the genealogy of contemporary culture. The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self (2020) follows Rieff’s claim that our therapeutic culture has two baleful effects. First, it treats the community as oppressive and therapy as a means to counter this. This leads to the second effect: It subverts the proper relationship between individual and society. Whereas the individual once learned to take his proper place within the broader community, the community now serves the psychological wellbeing of the individual.
Rieff, Jones, and Trueman all warn against a therapeutic culture’s dangers. In their august company, one might think twice before putting up a defense of a therapeutic culture.
Let me nonetheless give it a try. It’s not that I disagree with the famous troika. Their critique of contemporary culture is truthful, incisive, and indispensable. Still, a caveat is equally indispensable, for the gospel’s very aim is therapeutic.
The Greek verb therapeuein means “to heal” or “to cure.” The purpose of the gospel is arguably that we be healed. Metropolitan Hierotheos discusses theology as a therapeutic science and speaks in detail about how to heal the soul. His book Orthodox Psychotherapy: The Science of the Fathers argues that priests are in the therapy business: They “not only celebrate the Sacraments but they cure people. They have a sound knowledge of the path of healing from passions and they make it known to their spiritual children.”
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