Recently, EPPC Senior Fellow Peter Wehner was interviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans, a religion columnist, in the aftermath of his recent New York Times column on pain, suffering and the Christian faith. The interview is below.
Was there something happening in your own life that prompted you to write your “Where Is God?” column?
I have been a person who has struggled with questions in my Christian life. It’s not a new question; it’s an ancient question. It will continue if we live on this earth.
When you get older, you are struck by the burdens of loss and sorrow people have encountered. In your own life experience, there is loss, sorrow, struggle and challenge. I wanted to think out loud. I didn’t know when I began the column where I would end up. I was genuinely interested in trying to answer the question.
For almost as long as I’ve been a Christian, I’ve been taken with the notion that we’re part of a larger story, that it has an author, a purpose and an ending, and that the ending is characterized by reconciliation and repair and, finally, glory. You can believe that you are part of a drama without being able to answer the “why” question. I believe that there ultimately is an answer, that I will be told that I am part of a larger story.
I’m wary of telling that to people who are suffering, but in terms of how I view my own situation, that’s some consolation. God is engaged in human affairs. It’s not that he necessarily relieves the pain and the suffering himself — that would be contrary to Christianity …which isn’t an invitation to a life without suffering.
God will walk with you through the journey and provide comfort and some strength. For some, that’s not enough. For me, it is.
What kind of reaction did you get to your column?
I got a lot of notes from people I’ve never met or heard of who shared their stories of grief and loss and pain. I was really touched by it. It underscored to me that fact if there is space and room to share their stories, a lot of people want to do it.
It’s a reminder that we live in a broken world, and that people are looking for a chance to share as they make their way through it.
What role can the church play?
I know enough about church history to know that the church, when it was most vital and had the most positive effect, was a place of communal care and compassion, a place that was a safe harbor in a stormy world, where people could go share their story.
In my church, (Senior Pastor) James (Forsyth) has created … within the congregation, the sense that they can come forward and talk about their struggles because of his own willingness to be transparent. It’s difficult to do unless they feel that they are in the company of those who won’t judge them and will listen to them.
I’m sure that (while) that’s going on in many churches, it’s not going on as much as it ought to be.
How does the church reach an increasingly secular society in which it appears to be less and less relevant, judging from the increasing numbers of those who don’t participate?
The major problem in American society today is a tremendous amount of loneliness and alienation. A lot of people feel that they are alone and isolated, not connected to a community.
The church is extremely well-equipped and even uniquely equipped to address that problem and provide people succor and a listening ear. I’m not sure the church really understands that well.
Lots of people think (of the church) as engaging in a culture war. There are arguments for doing that; there’s certainly a moral disorder at play. But it feels like, at this moment, what Christianity can offer is different from the old models of cultural engagement. It’s not judgment or scolding a society which isn’t Christian, but providing a helping hand to people who do feel isolated, to address this “crisis of solidarity.”
If the church does a “humble remapping” (a phrase Wehner credits to Forsyth) of its cultural engagement, it can begin to think of what role it can play in American life.
Where do you find hope?
The place I find hope in 2017 is the same place I found it in 2007 and 1997 and 1987. I believe that God is sovereign and connected to human life and history, and that there is purpose. Christianity is a faith of redemption and repair, and God can make all things new, beyond this life but within this life, too. He is faithful to walk with us on the journey.
I’m a person who has spent his whole life in politics … but there is a tendency to make politics more important than it actually is. If it’s done well, government gives us the space to live our lives outside of politics. After the Trump presidency, things like decency, compassion will be viewed in a much better light.
For younger Christians, the old model of cultural engagement has failed. They want something higher, more hopeful and more noble. I think that they will find their way. Faithful Christians will do their “remapping.”
I’m someone who is hardwired for hope. Despair is not part of my constitution. I deeply believe that hope is a Christian theme, and that when you become a Christian you become an apostle of hope. It goes with the territory. The God we worship gives us reasons for hope.