June 4, 2023
An article in the Christian Citizen by Curtis Ramsey-Lucas summed up a recent report by Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, with this title: “US Surgeon General Declares Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation.”[i] Starting prior to the pandemic and caused in large part by “the accelerated pace of life and the spread of technology into all of our social interactions,” we’ve edged out the messiness of real relationships in favor of efficiency and convenience.
One in five Americans say they always or often feel lonely or isolated. Only about half of Americans report having meaningful in-person social interactions. And did you know that isolation is a key factor for mental health challenges like depression and anxiety along with heart disease, stroke, dementia, and premature death?
The Surgeon General says, “Our epidemic of loneliness and isolation has been an underappreciated public health crisis that has harmed individual and societal health. Our relationships are a source of healing and well-being hiding in plain sight – one that can help us live healthier, more fulfilled, and more productive lives.” The key of course is social connection. We need communities that prioritize social connection and we need our systems – governments, work places, health systems, and community organizations – to be a part of the national strategy.
Here’s an interesting line from the article: “Referenced among those community organizations are religious groups, faith organizations, and faith-based organizations. The lack of specificity in referencing churches is appropriate in what is, after all, a government publication, but it may also suggest the diminished social standing or decline of the church as a critical institution for building social connection and community resilience.”
That’s the question, right? You would think that building community and cultivating meaningful social connections would be in the church’s wheelhouse. If isolation is the nation’s great problem the church ought to be thriving. But, of course, it is not, which leaves us all scratching our heads just a bit.
I’ve seen this clip a couple of times now. Neil deGrasse Tyson, something of a celebrity astrophysicist, is asked by a talk-show host if he believes in God. He’s gentle and tactful about it, but in the end his answer is no. He says that across the board, regardless of religion, God is presented as both all-powerful and all-good. And, if that is the god he’s being asked to believe in, he’s just seen too much evil and devastation to think that there’s sufficient evidence for this god’s existence. How could a god who is both good and capable allow _______________ to happen? (You fill in the blank.) Tyson says such a god wouldn’t and so therefore does not exist.
It’s a reasonable and thoughtful argument for sure. Theologians put it in the category of “Theodicy,” the problem of evil. There are endless reflections on it, and of course, no definitive answers. But the question itself does, to me at least, hint at a certain way of seeing God that may not be so helpful. Richard Rohr says it like this, “I think that the common Christian image of God, despite Jesus, is still largely ‘pagan’ (not that pagans are bad people, by the way!) and untransformed. What do I mean by this? History has so long operated with a static and imperial image of God – as a Supreme Monarch who is mostly living in splendid isolation from what he – and God is always and exclusively envisioned as male in this model – created. This God is seen largely as a Critical Spectator (and his followers do their level best to imitate their Creator in this regard.”)[ii]
Rohr thinks it’s time for a paradigm shift, that is a shift in our thinking about God based on that old foundational doctrine of the Trinity, which some ignore as overly technical and dogmatic and others brush off as paradoxical and too mysterious to matter. His suggestion is that these thoughts do us no favors, and he reminds us that a mystery isn’t necessarily something we cannot understand; rather, sometimes it is something we can endlessly understand. There’s no putting a cap on it, yet we can say much about it, and it can mean much to us.
Today, by the way, is Trinity Sunday. Though our gospel passage records the great commission, it’s selection for today is the lectionary’s way of pointing to God as three in one. “Go therefore,” says the risen Jesus, “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
The beauty of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the Trinitarian confession that God exists in relationship as relationship. God is not the static idol of pagan faith; God is the eternal exchange of perfect, self-giving love. God’s existence as “object” is determined by God’s “being as action,” by the constant flow of love between persons. The Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Spirit, the Spirit loves the Father, all in an ever moving exchange of communion and life. And, it is this life that animates all of life. It is the life of God that is present in all of life, such that if God were to stop existing everything would stop existing. God isn’t some distant judge; rather, God is the ever moving flow of love that flows in us all.
If I were to give Neil deGrasse Tyson evidence of God I would show him a mirror. I can’t explain evil to him except to say that in giving Self to a world with evil God enters the suffering, suffers too, and yet loves eternally in and through it. I would tell Tyson that he is the product of a good God whose power to love is all powerful and whose love for him is never hindered by his own sin or even evil, if we’re thinking in those terms.
The Surgeon General says we need community if we are to live and live well. The Trinity teaches us that God is community, endlessly alive in the exchange of perfect love. It seems natural that the Church would be a place for people to find the community they need, but maybe the church can’t be that place until we better apprehend the God we have. Maybe we’ve portrayed a God who is so “other” that we can’t help but act as “other” to one another, much the way the rest of the nation acts as it prioritizes efficiency and convenience over relationship and connection. The church needs to be different. We need to pray that the God who is communion would teach us to believe that we too are communion, that life is really about loving God and neighbor and self before its about anything else. I don’t know how the lonely people of a nation could resist the light of a people who really lived in such a way.
[ii] Richard Rohr, The Divine Dance, Whitaker House, 2016, page 36