Why God Matters: The Warrant of Love?

In a recent post I shared that the theological labor of our time is to explain why God matters during seasons of a pandemic independently of science, self-care, and social work. I wrote:
First, when you look at progressive Christian Twitter the spiritual counsel being offered is, well, not all that impressive. It basically boils down to wash your hands, social distance, and practice self-care. All legitimate bits of advice, but you don't really need God for any of this. Just follow the recommendations of the CDC and listen to your therapist. When this is the content of Christian speech during crises--#selfcare and #medicalprofessionals--God isn't adding anything to our lives, or to our ability to cope with challenging times. During pandemics you don't really need God. All you need is science and self-care.

Second, I was on a call with some pastors recently, invited to share some thoughts and encouragements during this difficult time. During the call, one of the pastors lamented how he wished his church had more and better ways to meet the needs of his community as we wrestle with the world of COVID-19. Specifically, there were so many good community organizations already in full swing and doing great work this pastor couldn't see the niche for his church. And without that niche, he felt that the church was useless.

I totally empathized, and encouraged his church to find some place to serve or support the community, but I also offered a caution or, perhaps, a question.

Specifically, the church doesn't primarily exist to do benevolence work in the community. The church should do this sort of work, and I'm even comfortable in saying the church must do this work. But the church can't be reduced to this work.

So I shared with the pastor, you're right, there's lots of good work being done by community organizations. And they often do this work better than the church. But a pressing challenge for pastors is to boldly articulate for your congregation why God matters independently of social work.

My point in all this, again, is that Christians and churches need to articulate why God matters, beyond science, self-care, and social work.
In the comments to that post, and as these reflections bounced around social media, I noted a common response.

The response basically took the form of God as warrant. (Warrant isn't a typical word, but it basically mean to "justify" or "authorize" a course of action. Thus, the "warrant" of an action is your justification or reason for doing what you're doing.)

Specifically, God "matters" because God is the "warrant" for listening to science, self-care, and social work. By far, the most common response I saw to my post was that calls to social distance and wear masks are acts of care and love for our vulnerable neighbors. God calls us to love, and so we love through following the medical recommendations in how to not spread the virus. That's why God matters.

That seems like such a clear answer to my question, but it's missing the point of my critique.

Let me be clear, of course God is our warrant for love, which during a time of pandemic includes social distancing and wearing masks. But the point of my post was that our answer to why God matters can't be reduced to God being the warrant of love. Again, to be very clear, God is the warrant of love, but God can't matter solely for us as the warrant for love. God has to matter, to use the words of my original post, independently from being the warrant for love.

Here's why it's a problem to reduce God to being the warrant of love. There are two parts to the problem.

First, when God is reduced to warrant God is being used as means to an end. God is some moral or psychological prod motivating me to act in prosocial ways.

There's a host of problems when God is used instrumentally like this. For starters, when God is reduced to means the end we're aiming for becomes paramount. For example, if the loving end we're aiming for during a pandemic is social distancing and wearing masks then we each can reach that end from a variety of different paths, from a variety of different warrants. You, as a Christian, might appeal to God. God is your warrant for social distancing and wearing a mask. But non-Christians will have different warrants, their own and different reasons for taking care of the vulnerable. And since the end goal is caring for the vulnerable, these warrants aren't really all that important. The important thing is doing the right thing in social distancing and wearing a mask.

Does God matter in that scenario? Not really. What really matters is social distancing and wearing a mask. The social ends. The means you get to that end are various, and you can get there however you want, but its the end that matters in the end. Which means God doesn't matter.

Sure, God might matter for a few people, but not for most people. Which means God is optional, by definition not necessary. God doesn't really matter.

So you see how we're right back to the point I made in my original post. Commenters who responded with some version of "Well, God matters because God is my warrant for loving the most vulnerable" haven't even started to answer my question.

And those who responded "What does it matter why you do it, just do the right thing." are also just restating the point of my post: Does God matter? Apparently not, for these commenters.

(To be clear, the question "Does God matter?" is meant for people, like me, who think God matters. If a reader doesn't believe in God I don't really care what they have to say about the question.)

Which brings us to the second part of the problem.

The theological concern in reducing God to a warrant is idolatry, using God in the service of some higher value or purpose. In our discussion, this higher value and purpose is social distancing and wearing mask to care for the vulnerable. We see that good and use God to justify doing that good.

The trouble here is that when God is put in the service of some higher good that higher good becomes our god. So when that good shifts or changes, God is redeployed to provide the warrant for that new target. In such a system, where God is the warrant for the good, there's nothing that stands in a critical relationship with our vision of the good. God simply serves whatever we call good.

That's idolatry, and it's also dangerous. To be sure, it's not dangerous to wear a mask or stand six feet away during a pandemic. Just the opposite. For now at least. I don't want to cede total moral authority to doctors and scientists. Doctors and scientists can give us facts, but those facts don't come with values and morals attached. There must be a locus of moral reflection and authority that stands in a critical relationship with doctors and scientists.

So my point isn't that social distancing and wearing masks as an act of love is morally problematic. Not at all. It's the right thing to do. What's dangerous is a particular habit of thinking about God, where God is only useful to us when God gives us a reason for doing something we want to do. The examples abound, historical and current, about the disasters that occur whenever we use God to justify the good as we see it. Reducing God to a warrant is hugely problematic. Perhaps not in the case of social distancing, but the issue here isn't the social distancing but the habit of thinking going on about God during the pandemic.

In fact, I would argue that the greatest threat facing Christianity, among both progressives and evangelicals, is this habit of thinking, using God instrumentally, as a means to an end, as a warrant for something we want to do.

On the one hand, this habit of thinking promotes atheism. Because if you don't need God to be good then God doesn't matter. And on the other hand, this habit of thinking promotes idolatry, God becomes the religious tinsel we sprinkle over whatever we call good. And you see this playing out everywhere. Most progressive Christians are functional atheists and most evangelicals are idolators who use God to justify MAGA nationalism.

Asking why God matters is trying to get down under that rot.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply