Guest post by Rachel Contos
In the spirit of “Independence” Day in the US (in quotes because we know not everyone was free that day in 1776), I’d like to take some time to examine freedom from a theological perspective and how God’s will and our own free will fit together in order to address questions of unhealthy theology around mask-wearing. As many people finally begin to peek out from their quarantines for the first time and consider whether to host a BBQ or other celebration in their backyards, it’s important to talk about how healthy theologies address wearing masks and keeping our communities safe.
This post is going to examine the ways in which different theological understandings of God’s will can excuse our lack of collective action to stop the spread of COVID-19. Particularly, we’ll explore the use of God’s will as a reason not to wear a mask, while also understanding how free will and God’s will together can move us toward working collectively. If you haven’t read the most recent Assertive Spirituality post, I highly recommend you do so, because this article builds on what D.S. Leiter said last week.
So, let’s address the elephant in the room here—who am I? The short answer is that I’m an Orthodox Christian who is working on my MA in theology at Marquette University. Before we begin, I want to make it clear that this post is written as a theological exploration from my Orthodox Christian experience and study, and because of that I use “God and us” language that is meant to express my theological understanding in the way I best know how. However, I know people experience spirituality differently from me but I hope we can still explore the toxic theology I dismantle here together, even if you dismantle it in a different way!
Frankly, I’m concerned about the rhetoric being used by conservative leaning Christians to justify not wearing masks, and their desire not to put the collective needs of society above their personal freedom to stop the spread of a deadly, novel virus. The last AS post discussed a lot of conservative Christian rhetoric in depth, but I’m hoping I can add to the conversation from an Orthodox Christian theological point of view. (OK, seriously, read the AS post first, it’s here.)
What is theologically at stake here from a Christian theistic frame?
I’ve been seeing a lot of posts and memes lately that say something to this effect: “I’m not wearing a mask because whether I get COVID or not is God’s will.” There’s a lot at stake in this understanding of God’s will:
- Does God will people to get diseases?
- Does God want people to spread the disease to others?
- Is God’s will the same as what happens to people?
- Do people have free will?
This comment, “If I get COVID, it’s God’s will, so I won’t wear a mask,” is theologically saying, “I don’t need to take preventative actions because if God wills me to get this disease and spread it to others, I can’t do anything about that.” But we know we have free will—so what’s going on here?
Now, a note that for some Christian denominations this is the theology subscribed to, where God’s will is absolute even above free will. However, for many Protestant Christian denominations and the Catholic and Orthodox theological Traditions, this isn’t the case. Free will is an important part of these Traditions, and God’s will is understood both personally, and as defining characteristic of our communal history. However, like I said before, even if you are from one of the aforementioned Traditions who see God’s will as absolute over free will, I urge you to stick this one out because I think a lot of what I have to say still applies.
Let’s start at the beginning:
In the beginning, God created the earth, stars, universe, doggos, humans—everything! Importantly, God says “Let us make humans in Our image, after Our likeness” (Gen. 1:26). In the early Church, the theologians believed that this image and likeness were two different things.** The image related to how we operated in a more static sense—how we looked, our ability to reason, our capacity for free will and choice. Those things were innate in us because of the image of God.
On the other hand, the likeness aspect relates to our process of becoming more like God, or becoming holy by loving God, following God’s will, and loving our neighbor as ourselves. This means we have the capacity to make choices and reason because we are made in the image of God, and a deep calling from the time of our creation to fulfill the likeness of God—in other words, to enact behaviors that are similar to God’s character and to collaborate with God in doing good.
Okay, but isn’t this post about God’s will?
I wanted to start with an examination of our free will because it sets the stage for our freedom and capacity for reasoning. But yes, this post is about God’s will, so let’s get to that!
First, God’s will isn’t mentioned a whole lot in the Bible—and when it is, unfortunately, there’s not a whole section about wearing masks or spreading deadly viruses. With that in mind, let’s take a look at a couple examples of its usage:
- Matt 6:10 “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (This is part of the Lord’s prayer.)
- Mark 3:35 “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (This is a statement by Jesus.)
In the Lord’s Prayer the person reciting is asking that the community (i.e.: our Father, not my Father) can manifest the will of God on earth, just as God’s will is manifested in heaven. In Mark, Jesus explicitly clarifies that God’s will is something one does, and that in doing God’s will we are brought into family with God.
We see here a pattern of God’s will being a companion to human free will. They are two sides of the same coin. However, most importantly, the relationship goes in one direction. God gives God’s will, and humans choose or do not choose to follow. It doesn’t work in the opposite direction, where a person makes a bad decision, and because it turned out OK in the end, it’s a sign the bad decision was God’s will. It only works starting at God.
Clues to discerning God’s will for us:
Now, I’m not going to tell you what God’s will is for you. I can’t even discern what it is for me a lot of the time. That’s part of the process of fulfilling our likeness, right? Working to understand God’s will in our life–and freely submitting to it.
However, there are some clues that can help us understand generally what God wants in our lives personally and as a community. In three of the gospels Jesus, either in his own voice or by asking someone to answer about the law makes it clear that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s important to hear Jesus calling these the greatest commandments in light of our earlier exploration of Mark 3:35, where Christ invites us to be part of God’s family by choosing to act on God’s will.
Another clue comes in John 3:16, when the author says “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Christ became incarnate so that we could fulfill our image and likeness and have eternal life. While this passage could seem like an excuse to say “YOLO, going to live again anyway! #COVIDPARTY,” I think it’s better read as an example of the lengths God would go for us. Specifically, it sets a path for us toward life through God’s own sacrificial love towards us. It is an example that we should follow, that preserving life is an important part of God’s will towards the entire human race. It’s an example of how God’s will is not just personal, but communal. How can we so love the world that we work towards, not death, but life? Ultimately, following God’s will on this path is an action we choose.
What’s this got to do with masks?
Let’s recap a little about what has already been purported by right-leaning Christians about God’s will—they don’t need to wear a mask because it’s God’s will if they get COVID or not, if they spread it or not, and if they die or not, and that nothing can be done about that.
I hope it’s clear from my sampling above of the theological concepts of image and likeness, free will, and God’s will that this is a really messed up way of interpreting theology. Let’s remember the directionality I talked about earlier:
- God’s gives us God’s will–>We want to live up to image and likeness–>we use our freedom to follow God’s will.
What’s happening with the mask conversation is the opposite.
- I have freedom at all costs–>I want to feel like I’m living up to my image and likeness of God–>So I’m going to say that everything that happens is God’s will and out of my control.
People who say that it’s God’s will for them to get COVID or not, and therefore they don’t need to wear a mask are making faulty assumptions about what God is willing us to do and using God as a scapegoat for their “freedom at all costs” mentality.
God wills us to action, not diseases to infect us. God is not going into a bunch of COVID-19 droplets and saying who they should and shouldn’t infect. Diseases happen, natural disasters happen, technical failures happen, people go against God’s will and it hurts us—but we need to remember not everything that ever happens to us is God’s will. In my Tradition, we believe that in the case of the natural events they happen because we live in a fallen world. In the case of someone going against God’s will, that’s choice.
But sometimes these two things interact. Nature has given us a deadly novel virus. We don’t need to compound that by not using our God-given capacity for reason, and by ignoring God’s emphatic pronouncements that we are to strive for life and for love of God and neighbor.
God’s will, our will, and masks:
So, what do we know and how can we use our free will with that knowledge?
- We know that in healthy Christian theology, God’s will is about what we should do, not about what the virus does.
- We know from scientific research that wearing a mask can protect us and our communities.
- We know God wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves.
- Lastly, we know that this virus continuing to spread or not is based on our free choice to take preventative steps or not.
To me, that means Christians have the obligation to wear a mask to protect our communities from the spread of COVID-19. We need to use our God-given image to use our reason to see the fact, to love as God did and sacrifice (even if it’s just our own comfort), and we need to use our free will to choose this.
Following God’s will in this case leads us to freedom because if we all did this we wouldn’t need anyone to tell us to! We would be theologically, ethically, and epidemiologically in the right. Starting with God and using our image towards manifesting our likeness leads us to a loving act of communal action.
When someone says “getting COVID is God’s will, so I don’t need a mask,” they are putting their personal freedom first–above their ability to reason, above God’s directive to love our neighbors, above their own ability to manifest God’s likeness. Most importantly, by saying it’s God’s will, they are doing nothing more than taking their free will out of the equation to feel better.
It isn’t always easy to discern God’s will, and I’m not trying to make it seem like it is. There are truly difficult choices in this world where options of love, mercy, and life get confusing or messy. There are tragic situations where personal, familial, and communal needs become confused. God’s will is difficult to discern in these cases.
So please, don’t make wearing a mask one of those decisions. We know God wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves, we know that masks work as a form of communal love by stopping the spread of COVID-19, and we can make a choice to wear one or not.
Please, for the love of God and neighbor, wear a mask.
**See John of Damascus “An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith: Book II” and Origen “De Principiis” as examples. Both can be found at https://www.newadvent.org/
Rachel Contos is a life-long Orthodox Christian living in Milwaukee, WI. She is currently a Trinity Fellow at Marquette University where she is working towards an MA in Theology, with an emphasis on theology and society. Before starting her MA, Rachel worked on ending homelessness at a systemic level. She received her received her BA in Religious Studies from Hellenic College in 2015.
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