Friday, March 13, 2009
THE GOOD BISHOP WEIGHS IN-- TOM WRIGHT ON 'SURPRISED BY HOPE'
N.T. Wright's "Surprised by Hope" has been called an instant classic, and now with two years of positive reviews under its belt, it was time to sit down with the Bishop and ask some follow up questions which arise from some of the things he has said in the book and some of the responses he has gotten.
I caught up with Tom in Prague, but he delayed answering for a day until he could get home to Bishop Auckland Palace, where you find him safely ensconced in the picture above (coupled with a picture of Durham Cathedral at dawn, looking over the Wear river bridge).
Since both Europe and America are rapidly becoming more multi-cultural and emphasizing the goodness of religious diversity, it is natural to expect an increasing diversity of afterlife views even in the West. In light of this fact, how would you approach taking your message of hope to the streets, how would you do evangelism on this important topic in this post-modern post-Christian setting and era?
1. Diversity of afterlife views. Yes, indeed, we are becoming more diverse (though not hugely so I think in the UK -- there tends to be an assumption that Christians believe in heaven and hell, some other religions believe in reincarnation, and most people are either agnostic or think death is final). There aren't actually too many options, really, in either the ancient or the modern world; just variations on well-known themes.
I don't see the full Christian eschatology as the primary thing to talk about in evangelism. The primary thing is Jesus himself, and the vision of the loving, rescuing creator God we get when we focus on him. However, the vision of new heavens and new earth, and of God's project, already begun in Jesus, to flood the whole creation with his restorative justice, does indeed generate a powerful evangelistic message: not just 'you're sinful, here's how to escape the consequences', but 'your sinful life means you're failing to be a genuine human being, contributing to God's project of justice and beauty -- here's how the project got back on track, and here's how you can be part of it, both in your own life being set right and made 'something beautiful for God' and in what you do THROUGH your life, bringing justice, hope, joy and beauty to God's world as we look forward to the final day'... I'd better not go further or you'll get the whole sermon?
Question 2--- There seem to have been at least two persons who saw the risen Jesus on or after Easter who were not amongst his disciples at the time---- James his brother and Saul on Damascus Road. One of these surely took place during the initial period of appearances, the other after those 40 or so days, which is to say after the Ascension. Yet they both claimed equally to have seen the risen Lord.
In your view was either of these appearances to non-disciples visionary in character, and does it make any difference to your case that resurrection always meant something that happened to a body after death and the initial afterlife?
2. James, Paul and 'visions'. The difficulty here is that in our culture a 'vision' is thought of as a 'purely subjective' thing, so that when people say 'so-and-so had a vision' they assume there is no correlated phenomena in our own space-time-matter world. The whole NT is predicated on a different view: that heaven and earth are twin parts of God's good creation, and that they overlap and interlock in a variety of surprising ways, so that sometimes people really do see right into God's dimension and sometimes aspects of God's dimension -- in this case, the risen body of Jesus -- are visible from within our dimension.
That is of course what I think was happening when Paul saw Jesus, as I have explained in the relevant chapter of The Resurrection of the Son of God. Such moments are genuine anticipations of the final day when heaven and earth will come together as one glorious reality, when 'the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea'. Our culture is built on the denial that such a thing is possible, let alone desirable, so things fall apart into either 'ordinary seeing' or 'vision', the first being 'objective' and the latter 'subjective'. To unravel this further would need a few paragraphs on epistemology...
Question 3--- About half way through your book you make clear that Purgatory is not a Biblical doctrine, and that of course salvation is not a reward earned by good works.
There does however seem to be both in early Jewish traditions and the teachings of Jesus and Paul a connection between good works and some sort of reward when the Kingdom comes on earth (not, it would appear, rewards of varying status in heaven, or years off of purgatory).
What do you make of this, and passages like 2 Cor. 5.10 which speak of all Christians being accountable at the bema seat judgment of Christ for the deeds done in the body, whether good or bad?
If salvation is by grace through faith, what do these rewards amount to? And is there no correlation between behavior in this life and getting into the eschatological Kingdom on earth later, as Gal. 5 would seem to suggest?
3. Rewards etc. As C. S. Lewis pointed out a long time ago, there is a big difference between a child (a) passing a French exam and being given a bicycle as a 'reward' and the same child (b) being given, instead, a month in Paris now that she is able to enjoy and profit from it.
Not a totally accurate example but it helps: if the final state to which we look forward is that of complete humanness, fully reflecting God's image into the world, and if our faith, hope, love, fruits of the Spirit, meekness, patience, etc etc in the present are genuine anticipations of that, then the final state will be from that point of view the reward (b) will be ontologically connected with the preceding activity.
Both Jesus' basic ethics and Paul's are eschatological, that is, they are based on the fact that the kingdom is already inaugurated as an act of sheer grace and looking forward to the fact that the kingdom will one day be consummated, also as an act of sheer grace, and celebrating the fact that what grace does is to enable failed, sinful human beings to be caught up in God's restorative justice so that, by that same grace active through the Spirit in their lives, and by their Spirit-enabled thinking through of what it's all about (Romans 12.2, etc etc), they are anticipating in the present some aspects at least of the full humanity which will be theirs at the last. Again, much more could be said, not least on how to retrieve the notion of 'virtue' from a fully biblical point of view.
Joel Green and other NT scholars have been conferencing with neuroscientists and writing a good deal about how the mind is simply the software of the brain, and without the physical body, the whole person simply ceases to exist. In other words, they are advocates of some sort of monism in the form of the equation 'no body=no person'.
I take it from many things you say in 'Surprised by Hope' that you believe in a limited dualism between body and soul, or body and personality, such that the person survives death and goes to be with the Lord, but that ultimately that dualism will be resolved when the resurrection of the body happens, and those in Christ are made like him once and for all.
How would you answer the monists, who insist they have mind/brain science on their side?
4. I do think -- and at this point Aquinas, and the Greek Orthodox theologians, and the early fathers, agree with me -- that humans are incomplete without a body.
However, I agree with theologians Jewish and Christian, ancient and modern, that if there is to be a resurrection that presupposes some kind of continuity between the embodied person now and the embodied person then. One way of 'solving' this might be to suggest that at death we are 'fast-tracked' straight to the eschaton; I don't buy that because the new world will be made out of the old one, not created de novo, and that clearly hasn't happened yet.
Another way of 'solving' it is to say that God 'remembers' us, not just with a kind of nostalgic looking back at the person we once were but are no longer, but that he somehow holds us in life (as the Psalmist says) within his own being. Hence Polkinghorne's image: God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves. For me the telling points are Jesus' words to the brigand: TODAY you will be with me in Paradise -- though Jesus won't be raised for another three days; and Paul's in Philippians, 'My desire is to depart and be with Christ which is far better'. I don't think Paul could have said that if he'd believed it would be a non-existent state prior to the resurrection. Wisdom 3 of course uses the language of 'souls in the hand of God', which may be a way of saying pretty much the same thing.
I don't like thinking of this as 'dualism', but rather as a temporary duality, a kind of half-existence with God obviously taking the complete initiative to hold in being the true identity etc of persons who once had full bodily identity and will again...
In a recent book on a Christian view of work, David Jensen says that we are not co-laborers with God, building the Kingdom on earth, but merely engaging in grateful responsive labor to the purely divine work. This seems to be an attempt to avoid suggesting that our deeds have something to do with our own salvation whether present or future or the coming of the Kingdom whether present or future.
From the last section of your book Surprised by Hope, it seems clear that you think Jensen is saying too little, and indeed is wrong. Help us connect the dots between our future hope in Kingdom come, and our present work. Is it a mere foreshadowing of Kingdom come, or an actual foretaste, and so part of that work? Does what we do now, get perfected when Jesus and the Kingdom come in full? What does it mean to be co-laborers with Christ and why should that give us hope in the present as well as for the future?
5. We are not building the kingdom by our own efforts, no. The Kingdom remains God's gift, new creation, sheer grace. But, as part of that grace already poured out in Jesus Christ and by the Spirit, we are building FOR the kingdom. I use the image of the eleventh-century stonemason, probably illiterate, working away on one or two blocks of stone according to the orders given to him. He isn't building the Cathedral; he is building FOR the Cathedral. When the master mason/architect gathers up all the small pieces of stone at which people have been working away, he will put them into the great edifice which he's had in mind all along and which he alone can build -- but FOR WHICH we can and must build in the present time. Note 1 Corinthians 3, the Temple-building picture, and the way it relates directly to 1 Cor 15.58: what you do in the Lord is NOT IN VAIN, because of the resurrection.
I have absolutely no idea how it might be that a great symphony or painting, or the small act of love and gentleness shown to an elderly patient dying in hospital, or Wilberforce campaigning to end the slave trade, or the sudden generosity which makes a street beggar happy all day -- how any or all of those find a place in God's eventual kingdom. He's the architect, not me. He has given us instructions on the little bits of stone we are meant to be carving. How he puts them together is his business.