Our hearts go out to the wonderful people of New York City who have been particularly challenged by the COVID-19 crisis. We were all delighted when we heard that New York was finally starting to “flatten the curve.” But, what startled me was Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statement about it. At his daily briefing, he was talking about how New York had flattened the curve and moved beyond the worst part of the crisis. In responding to the falling number of positive COVID-19 cases in New York he said (and this is a quote), “The number is down because we brought the number down. God did not do that. Faith did not do that. We did that.”
Even by today’s degraded standards, that was a stunning public admission from a sitting governor. It is even more telling considering the strong Christian upbringing of Governor Cuomo. He was baptized as a newborn into the Roman Catholic Church by his faithful Roman Catholic parents (his father Mario was, of course, also the governor of New York). Andrew Cuomo graduated from a Roman Catholic high school named Archbishop Molly High School in Queens. He then went to a Roman Catholic Jesuit university in the Bronx, Fordham University. In short, Cuomo’s entire education has been shaped by the Roman Catholic tradition, and yet he says, “God did not do that. We did that.”
What does this say about how God is understood today? It says that in our day God is just one of many causative actors in the world. There are doctors and nurses and first responders and Jewish rabbis (this is New York), and congressmen/women and the police, and so forth. In the popular mind, God is just one being above all the other beings. Cuomo seems to think that God is the highest being who enters the cultural stage to do the really big things that no one else can do. Therefore, Cuomo reasons since God didn’t seem to show up in the emergency rooms, or labs, but nurses and first responders did, then he means no disrespect when he says, “God did not do that. We did that.” But, God is not competing for space in the great chain of being. God is not a being in the chain of being who is simply above the gnat, the grasshopper, the beaver, the horse, the tiger, the soaring eagle, the lion, and humankind. God is above the chain as the highest being not part of the created chain of being. But God is more than “being” as we understand it, since all of creation is contingent upon his being, whereas God is dependent upon no one.
God is not just a higher being who we insert into the gaps to explain things we can’t explain, or the man upstairs we call in when we find ourselves in over our heads. God is the very ground of all being. He is not just the highest being, he is being itself. He is the Great “I AM.” This is where Wesleyan theology is so rich. We do not view the world with the classic distinction, “We do our part; God does his part.” We do not say, “We do the stuff we can do, and God does the stuff only He can do.” Rather, we say, “Whatever work I am doing, God is at work in and through me.” This frames all of life—all of our hard work, including our Christian work—within the larger framework of God’s grace. To put it bluntly, without Him, nothing happens. All things are upheld by the word of His power! (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:17). Even the nails that hung Jesus to the cross were themselves being held together by the word of his power! Whatever we do in life can be beautifully summed up by the words of the prophet Isaiah when he says, “O Lord, it is you who have accomplished all that we have done” (Isa. 26:12). That is the biblical view. He accomplishes what we have done. It is His work in and through us, whether we acknowledge it or not, whether we know Him or not.
The next time you meet someone who is an atheist and they began to pontificate how they do not believe in God, before you start any defense, ask them first to tell you what they mean by God. What comes out of their mouth will not be the God of biblical revelation, but some shocking caricature formed in the fires of a popular culture that needs a so-called God, which they create out of their own minds and that they can then dismiss as unbelievable. When you hear this, you should say to your atheist friend, “I do not believe in that god either.” We simply do not believe in the caricatured god of popular imaginations. It is the Roman Catholic Bishop and popular writer Robert Barron who pointed out that the modern view of God is a lot like that Russian cosmonaut in the 1960’s who went to space and then famously declared he had looked around and “there is no God out there.” It revealed how tepid and weak the modern understanding of God is. They think He is some being somewhere out there in our solar system. But all gods fashioned out of our minds are known in the Bible as idols. Modern atheism serves the higher purpose of showing us the latest array of idols that the current culture confusingly thinks is God.
Andrew Cuomo was simply stating (without realizing it) that idols did not help flatten the curve in New York. In that sense, Andrew Cuomo was right. The God of his conception did not flatten the curve, because idols cannot flatten New York’s curve, or any other. The deeper question is this: Is Andrew Cuomo, or your atheist friends, or anyone else you meet, interested in knowing the true God who has self-disclosed himself in Holy Scripture? That God is much bigger, and grander, and more glorious than anything they have ever imagined. If any curve is ever flattened, or antidote discovered, it will be by the grace of God working in and through His image-bearers working in the midst of a fallen world.