Last Friday, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards suspended gatherings of more than 300 people. By Sunday, the CDC had warned us to keep crowds smaller than 50. Barely 24 hours later the President urged us to reduce groups to no more than ten people.
I found myself wondering, “What next?”
You probably already know. Tons of people are now working from home. Staff members attend meetings at a distance using Zoom or similar platforms. Some states have called for at-home isolation. Major industries have halted production. Malls have closed. Acceptable personal space has been increased to six feet. And of course churches have replaced in-person with virtual worship services.
Initially, my “what next” posture betrayed my steadily rising tide of anxiety. And then a funny thing happened. I had an “aha” moment about that very question. “What next?” is the perfect where-is-God-in-that question. It’s the question to ask when you’re looking for God in this messy, beautiful, terrible world.
Jesus himself taught us to ask “what next?” Once, he and his friends met a man who had been born blind. His friends wondered aloud where God was in this. Could this man have sinned? Maybe it was his parents? His blindness could be God’s punishment for something they did or failed to do. In other words, they asked, “Why did God do this?”
Lots of people ask “why?” when confronted by sad news and bleak circumstances. Some wonder if God caused the current pandemic. But Jesus tells them that, if they’re looking for God in this messy world, “why” is the wrong question to ask.
Jesus put it this way, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day.” (John 9:3-4a)
In other words, ask a better question. Recognize how things actually are and then ask: What next? What will God’s love do about it and how can I participate in that loving response?
This lesson is especially helpful to those of us who live in a scientific age. Science explains the world in terms of cause and effect. And by “cause,” science means efficient cause. One thing happens and then another thing has to happen as a result. A rolling billiard ball strikes a stationary ball and starts that second ball moving. Something that happened in the past makes sense of something happening in the present.
Science is a very good thing and consistent with religion. But trying to understand God as the efficient cause of things turns God into a sort of chess player moving hapless, inanimate pieces around a game board. But that’s not who God is and not who we are. God is moved by love. And so are we. Asking “why” does not help us see God as our lover and friend.
The Medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas—drawing upon the Greek philosopher Aristotle—gives us a hand here. Efficient cause is one of four ways to understand. There are four different kinds of cause—different perspectives to take—for understanding our world. I’m only going to share one additional kind of cause in this context.
In addition to efficient cause, there is also final or teleological cause. While efficient cause explains things by looking at the past, teleological cause understands things in the present by looking toward the future. By asking, “What next?”
You may be familiar with the example of the acorn. The acorn is potentially an oak tree. It yearns to become what it is not yet but ought to be. It is drawn toward its actualization as an adult oak.
Let’s put it another way. A teleological cause acts like a magnet. It draws something to it instead of pushing something from behind. If I see you walking across the room toward a window on a hot day, I recognize that your steps are motivated by your desire to open that window.
So, getting back to looking for God in a world filled with sick, broken-hearted, lonely, poor, frightened, and oppressed people, those of us looking for God will ask, “Where is God in that?” And our question will bear fruit when that question takes the form of : What next?
The loving God is already actively working to heal the sick, mend the shattered, befriend the lonely, lift up the poor, and liberate the captive. God’s love for us draws us into participating in that divine work with our own hands and feet. God’s love for us—and our love for God—expresses itself in love of neighbor.
We inhabit a messy world. All around us we see suffering, grief, and want. And if you want to look for God in that, you should ask: what next?