Tag Archives: N.T. Wright

sacramentality

I have a serious looking book by a serious theologian on sacramental theology that has been sitting on my bookshelf for months.  I must have a look at it.   I only say this to start this point with a humbling admission that I have next to no experience of sacramental things.  Or perhaps maybe we all have more than we think?

The word ‘sacrament’ refers to a ‘-ment’ (“the result or product of the action“) of the ‘sacred’, just as an ‘achievement’ is the ‘-ment’ of ‘achieving’.  Wright defines the sacraments (Eucharist, Baptism, etc.) as:

…those occasions when the life of heaven intersects mysteriously with the life of earth, not so that the earth can control or manipulate heaven (that would be magic, not faith) but so that the story of heaven may become concrete, physical reality within the life of earth, catching up human beings within a world where all sorts of things make sense that don’t otherwise, and all sorts of things that might have appeared to make sense do so no longer. (After You Believe (U.K. title ‘Virtue Reborn’), p. 223.

All kinds of conversations come rushing into play here – or put the other way ’round, all sorts of tangents can be taken here.  But to tie it back to my opening thoughts, it occurs to me that there are competing forms of sacramentality.  There are various kinds of ‘heaven’ that are trying to achieve ‘-ments’ of their own particular kind of ‘sacred’.  For the Coca-cola corporation, purchasing and consuming one of their beverages is a sacramental act.  To use Wright’s language, Coca-cola’s ‘story of heaven’ finds concrete, physical expression when a Coke is sold and savoured.  Those who deny any kind of ‘heaven’ at all still have narratives about ultimate reality (or worldview stories) which find sacramental expression, perhaps in a new scientific discovery or achievement, bringing humanity one step forward (so goes the standard Progressivist Myth) in its march toward ever-increasing reasonableness.

One could multiply examples till the cows come home, using the implicit or explicit worldview-stories of travel agencies, pornographers, booksellers and political parties.  I only wish to focus on two points:

1) We all live sacramentally, so we’re more experienced at it than we may realise.  Indeed, the more subconscious and un-critiqued the assumptions and behaviour, the stronger the hold the ‘story of heaven’ has on you?

2) Christian sacramentality, both affirms and subverts various elements from other stories.  This is what Wright refers to when he talks about some things making sense that didn’t before, and vice versa.  The Christian ‘story of heaven’ is a story about being truly free, so it will subvert any story that enslaves in any way – physically, financially, imaginatively, relationally, psychologically, etc.  Of course, the best way to keep someone enslaved is to keep them from being aware they are enslaved, and whilst the sacraments of these enslaving stories may ‘make sense’ at one level, but the foolish wisdom (1 Corinthians 1) of the Christian story subverts them.  Slavery to Christ is true freedom.

wright on liturgy

There is nothing wrong with spontaneous worship, just as there’s nothing wrong with two friends meeting by chance, grabbing a sandwich from a shop, and going off together for an impromptu picnic.  But if the friends get to know one another better and decide to meet more regularly, they might decide that, though they could indeed repeat the picnic from time to time, a better setting for their friendship, and a way of showing that friendship in action, might be to take thought over proper meals for one another and prepare thoroughly.  In the same way, good Christian liturgy is friendship in action, love taking thought, the covenant relationship between God and his people not simply discovered and celebrated like the sudden meeting of friends, exciting and worthwhile though that is, but thought through and relished, planned and prepared – and ultimately better way for the relationship to grow and at the same time a way of demonstrating what the relationship is all about. (After You Believe (U.K. title: ‘Virtue Reborn’), p. 222)

a working metaphor

More and more, I think one of the most misunderstood aspects of the Christian moral life is the role of active, moral effort.

By this, I’m talking not only about the mental/psychological task of working hard at discerning what is ‘right’ or ‘God’s will’, but particularly the gritty, tiring, laborious work (but not ‘works’ – read on) doing God’s will.  Training yourself to do acts of love and service instead of (at best) nothing at all or (worst of all) of acts of harm and selfishness.

Not surprisingly, if you know me, I’m finding N.T. Wright just brilliant on this.  Video here.  Book I’m currently reading here.  He helpfully navigates the territory of the debate concerning how we develop Christian character, and particularly the question of the role of our own moral effort in this process.  Is it a matter of simply trying hard enough (to make yourself good enough), as comes through in popular portrayals of Christian faith (based no doubt on a lot of actual teaching/instruction)?  Or is it a matter of resting from any trying at all, and simply waiting on God to empower, motivate and enable you, as comes through in not a few reactions to the former?  Wright argues persuasively and thoroughly that it is ‘neither/nor’.  He makes clear the ‘both/and’ view expressed by Paul and the rest of the New Testament.  Both my own moral effort; and God’s enabling presence alongside and underneath me.

As usual, the worldview one is working with is everything.  And here the tension between monistic and dualistic frameworks are evident.  If reality is, at utter rock bottom, essentially one thing, then it’s hard to have any sense of both/and.  And if reality is characterised by not only a relational duality, but a dualism where the two ontological realities are fundamentally opposed to and detached from one another (i.e. the Creator is not involved within creation at all…), then this both/and is just as impossible.  Indeed, much modern naturalism has simply cut the strings of an ‘unnecessary’ deity who had been ‘kicked upstairs’ by 18th century Enlightenment philosophy.  We inherit much of this naturalism today, as we breathe the air of an intellectual (and epistemological) tradition that fails (or refuses) to see any trace of God in the world, and strips it of its title ‘creation’ and calls in ‘Nature’ instead, leaving us with an utterly God-less view of the world.

This general (and powerful) shift in popular imagination (and let’s be honest, at the level of ultimate reality, it’s a matter of imagination, not observation) has fed into the particularly Christian (and biblical) debate about how we should picture this both/and of God’s work and our work in Christian living.

I think metaphors are the best we can do, often.  And perhaps multiple metaphors are needed to capture this.  Wright makes the point that a picture of two humans collaborating on one activity doesn’t quite get it, as though ‘walking by (or in) the Spirit’ was analogous to working alongside another human such that you put in 50% and so does God.  It’s not like that.  Any good metaphor will capture at least three things (and more):
a) the ontological difference between God and humans
b) the utter human dependency of humans upon God
c) the very real human responsibility to act and choose

I can think of no better metaphor than the person of Christ.  But unfortunately, this re-raises the whole question, for (if we affirm Christ’s dual nature as Scripture teaches) how do we conceive of the relationship between Christ’s divinity and his humanity.  Is he a human puppet for a divine hand?  Is he basically just human?  Is he mostly divine and just appeared to be human?  Much rich and wonderful theology (since the 1st century as the apostles countered Gnosticism and docetic Jesus) is devoted to clarifying and addressing these questions.

But what other metaphors might we use?

a trinity of ‘knowledge-lights’…

Epistemology is the most foundational of topics in philosophy.  How trustworthy is human knowledge?  Or worded another way: How much ‘faith’ (Greek ‘pistis’ for ‘trust’) can we put in what we think we know?  At one end of the spectrum, you have narrow, ‘verificationist’ epistemologies (such as: logical positivism & naive realism) that only trust knowledge that can be ‘verified’ by empirical methods.  At the other, you have skeptical ‘post modern’ epistemologies (such as the phenomenalism of Maurice Merleau-Ponty – The Phenomenology of Perception) which hold that all we can truly ‘know’ is the ‘sense data’ of our perceptions.In his book, The New Testament and the People of God, N.T. Wright follows the thought of renowned Catholic philosopher Bernard Lonergan (particularly his Generalised Empirical Method) discussing a kind of middle-way between positivism and phenomenalism: ‘critical realism’.  Elsewhere, he has described an ‘epistemology of love’, where love is that which a) respects the ‘otherness’ of the other, while at the same time b) remaining in rich subjective relationship to it.  Critical realism is first critical in that it is aware of its potential for self-deception and the distortion of perception, but it is not so critical that it does not take the second post-critical step of then daring to describe the reality it believes it actually ‘knows’.

I’ve been recently intrigued, however, by a talk on Epistemology by Mark Strom (audio here) where he claims that all human knowledge involves not only acts of love, but also faith and hope.  I find this really compelling.  Our knowledge of any activity, person, principle or thing involves faith, hope and love – in some form, and at some level.

Scientific knowledge, for an interesting example, involves all three.  The natural scientist must first have faith (Greek pistis, meaning ‘trust’) that his object of study, the natural world, will, under the exact same conditions, always behave exactly the same way in the present and future as we’ve observed it to in the past.  She also hopes that the hunch followed will be fruitful, that the experiment designed will be sufficient, and that the knowledge gained will be helpful and worthwhile. And finally, there is also love – the relational dynamism between a subject and object; in the case of science, between the observer and the observed, the cosmologist and the cosmos, the neurologist and the neurons.

Faith, hope and love (I thought for a few minutes today), then can be thought of as the ‘vehicles’ by which knowledge comes to us.  However, this, I decided, is too anthropocentric a metaphor.  Better to see them as ‘lights’ by which we are enabled to ‘see’ Truth.  But of course, this vision remains imperfect, blurry and ‘dim’…

Love never ends. Prophecies? They will be set aside. Tongues? They will cease. Knowledge? It will be set aside. For we know in part, and we prophesy in part, but when what is perfect comes, the partial will be set aside. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. But when I became an adult, I set aside childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully knownAnd now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.” – Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians 13:8-13

Wright comments on blogging

“It really is high time we developed a Christian ethic of blogging. Bad temper is bad temper even in the apparent privacy of your own hard drive, and harsh and unjust words, when released into the wild, rampage around and do real damage. And as for the practice of saying mean an unjust things behind a pseudonym – well if I get a letter like that it goes straight in the bin. But the cyberspace equivalents of road rage don’t happen by accident. People who type vicious, angry, slanderous and inaccurate accusations do so because they feel their worldview to be under attack.” (Wright, N.T., Justification: God’s Plan, Paul’s Vision,SPCK, 2009, p.10)

Found here.  Hat-tip Ben Myers.

wright – various issues

A new-ish series of vids with Bishop N.T. Wright speaking to various issues related to Christian belief.  Tom really works hard here to offer very well-compressed and summarised statements on some very intricate and rich concepts.  Enjoy. Continue reading

wright – ‘wisdom in a troubled time’

In this sermon to head-masters/mistresses, Wright touches on quite a few important concerns – especially for our time.  In particular, he focuses on at least two examples of foolishness ( 1) economic foolishness demonstrated in the current ‘crisis’, and 2) the foolishness of the so-called ‘evolution-creation debate’) and the need for wisdom.  Good stuff, Bishop.

recent book purchase

Many books are on my desk at the moment.  Books for my theological study, and books for my personal interest.  I have too many books on my desk.  I cannot read them all…

Yet this did not prevent me from picking up 7 more books on our recent trip to the states… Continue reading

Ehrman and Wright ‘blogalogue’

WrightEhrmanBart Ehrman and N.T. Wright have agreed to ‘blog’ through the issue of Suffering and God over at Beliefnet. You can follow their discussion here.

Bart Ehrman (author of ‘Misquoting Jesus‘, ‘God’s Problem‘ and other titles) and Tom Wright (author of ‘Evil and the Justice of God‘, ‘Suprised by Hope‘ and other titles) are both recognised scholars. Ehrman is currently an ‘agnostic’ and is open about his slow departure from the Christian faith. Wright is Bishop of Durham.

I look forward to following their contributions and interaction with one another.

the wright gift!

A rather HUGE thanks to my wife this year for definitely choosing the ‘Wright’ gift this Christmas…

(See pics below!) Continue reading