Our situation is as though someone who had more authority than was good for him decided one day to see if he could get our entire population to begin acting as though they were autistic. The trick would be to get them all to cover up their faces so that nobody could send or receive the countless little social signals we all send every day, with the result we have now found ourselves inhabiting this gigantic 3D social media experiment, trolls and all.
But this makes the whole thing seem deliberate and arbitrary, as though somebody just wanted to see what would happen. Now I do think it was deliberate, for a handful of people, those who wanted to sow some additional chaos in advance of the presidential election. But for most of the players, it was simply a good old-fashioned moral panic, scaled up to fit our new global communications technology, and then followed up by good old-fashioned conceit and pride, of the sort that wants to postpone the admission of a catastrophic error as long as possible. That kind of climb down is never any fun, right? And the fact that such a climb down is inevitable doesn’t make it any more fun, and doesn’t make the conceit and pride go away. Never put off to tomorrow what you could put off to the day after tomorrow.
Now I do have a few descriptive things to say about this moral panic but I intend to wait for November for all of that. This is because I think that such a subject invites a writer in my position to limber up beforehand, while at the same time seeking to learn as many synonyms for imbecilic as I can. I want all my adjectives to have a bruised magenta look around the edges, and these things take time.
So for the present, I would just like to note that many Christians have an instinctive problem with these masking orders, and go on to explain from Scripture why these instincts are sound.
Precisely because it is not November yet, I want to acknowledge from the outset that I do not believe that astronauts out on a space walk should take off their helmets. Nor do I think that deep sea divers are wrong for imitating the astronauts in this sort of prudence. Nor do I think that medical professionals doing brain surgery in a negatively pressurized operating room, and well-trained in mask discipline, with fitted N95 masks, should be asked to take them off. And I believe that an entire regiment of soldiers equipped with gas masks in the First World War, when experiencing a mustard gas attack, were quite right to put those masks on and to keep them on until it was safe to take them off. I don’t believe that any of the above is dehumanizing — rather it is an expression of our humanity to want to go down to the bottom of the bay to see what is down there. In short, as I believe you can all see, I am quite prepared to be reasonable.
What I am not prepared to do is be unreasonable. I am not prepared to lose my mind simply because the people doing so are yelling something about science. In situations like this one, I prefer to work from Richard Feynman’s observation: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
“On this issue we are so eager to jump to something called data to arbitrate our dispute, crossing swords over who has the better grasp of science. Such knowledge is necessary in making reasoned judgments, of course, but what is often overlooked entirely is the philosophical premises regarding what a human creature is.”Devin O’Donnell, Touchstone (Nov/Dec 2020), p. 24
What we are currently doing is far more than a medical measure. This attempt to put billions of people in a mask has profound theological implications. Why may we not raise our questions?
Why Christians Are Right to Balk
We were created in the image of God, and there are sound scriptural reasons for insisting that the human face is central to this. Of course we want to be careful not to talk about it in ways that veer into Trinitarian heresies, as though God had a physical body there in Eden that He was literally copying from. Of course not. But at the same time, we want to be able to insist that the scriptural imagery about this divine image is intended to communicate something important, and that it is no threat to orthodoxy if we take this imagery seriously, and use it in similar ways ourselves.
God fashioned Adam from the dust of the ground, but he did not become a living being until God breathed the breath of life into his nostrils, into his face (Gen. 2:7).
The sin of Sodom was great, and came up before the face of the Lord (Gen. 19:13). Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord, and named the place Peniel because he had encountered God face to face and lived (Gen. 32:30). Moses yearned to see the glory of God, and was only permitted to see the back of it (Ex. 33:18). And when God refused the request to see the fullness of His glory, He was refusing to show His face (Ex. 33:23).
Throughout the Old Testament, the desire to approach God in worship was expressed as a desire to appear before His face.
“When thou saidst, Seek ye my face; my heart said unto thee, Thy face, LORD, will I seek. Hide not thy face far from me; put not thy servant away in anger: Thou hast been my help; leave me not, neither forsake me, O God of my salvation.”
Psalm 27:8–9 (KJV)
When fellowship with God was broken because of the disobedience of the people, the result was that God would hide His face. Desire for restoration was the same thing as wanting to come before God’s face again.
“My confusion is continually before me, and the shame of my face hath covered me . . . Wherefore hidest thou thy face, and forgettest our affliction and our oppression?”
Psalm 44: 15, 24 (KJV)
At the same time, we must remember that the image of God in man was drastically marred by our fall into sin. We know that the image of God was not entirely obliterated because after the fall, capital punishment is required for murder because the image of God was borne by the victim (Gen. 9:6 ). Thus the image of God is still present in fallen man, but it is in a ruinous state. The gospel as it is presented in the New Testament describes our salvation as a process of facial reconstruction. We are to put off the old man, and put on the new. The work God is doing is centered on the face.
This is accomplished by the Holy Spirit as we look in faith to the perfect man, the Lord Jesus, crucified, buried risen and ascended. But notice how this gospel is described for us.
“For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”
2 Corinthians 4:6 (KJV)
As we look by faith on the face of Jesus Christ, the perfect man, we are by degrees transformed into His image. This is what is happening in a Christian worship service. This is the process of the image of God being restored in us. What we forfeited in the Garden is being given back to us, and this gift is administered to us as we behold the face of Jesus Christ.
“Nevertheless when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit; and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord.”
2 Corinthians 3:16–18 (NKJV)
There Are Deep Connections
So what is the connection between how we worship God and how we shop at Safeway?
It is a monumental subject, and so I am only going to touch on one aspect of it. The Christian church, in our worship of God, is supposed to be modeling for the world a new way of being human. This is the Jesus way of being human, as opposed to the Adam way of being human.
We worship God face to face, as above, so He can fashion us into the kind of people who can interact with one another face to face. Christian koinonia fellowship is a face to face affair. In this fellowship we are modeling for the world what happens to horizontal fellowship when the vertical fellowship is put right (1 John 1:7).
“But we, brethren, being taken from you for a short time in presence, not in heart, endeavoured the more abundantly to see your face with great desire.”
1 Thessalonians 2:17 (KJV)
“Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?”
1 Thessalonians 3:10 (KJV)
So all our interactions with non-believers should constitute a standing invitation to join us. Come worship Jehovah with us, through the face of Jesus Christ, and He will put you right with all your brothers and sisters who have trusted in Him as well. Because you have come before the face of God, you are equipped to turn and face one another. We can face one another because, to use that memorable image from C.S. Lewis, we have been given the gift of faces.
When the magistrate tells Christians to cancel worship or, if we worship, to keep the attendance crazy down, and take away the hymnals, and don’t serve communion, and don’t sing, and at the same time they tell the abortion clinics and pot shops to carry on, the more cynical among us start to get suspicious. It almost appears as though they don’t want believers to be free to model this new way of being human.
“As in water face answereth to face,so the heart of man to man” (Prov. 27:19).