[Fuzzy San Diego, cas 2007]
Earlier this year, the spiritual advisor to the Queen of England spoke at a fundraiser for my church’s legal defense. It was my introduction to life as an Anglican in Newport Beach. The fundraiser was held at the yacht club. Jeff and I were seated with some senior citizens, a couple of whom were downing Scotch while singing along with the worship band. A priest wearing ornate red robes stood out amidst the crowd. “Who is that?” we asked. The spiritual advisor to the queen. Ohhh.
The queen’s guy had nothing on N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, in terms of crowd-hushing presence. Wright wasn’t wearing robes, but when he walked to the podium at AAR, people seemed to anticipate something profound. I’m not sure he said anything profound, but he resonated with me, partly because I’m neither a “fluffy” postmodernist nor a linear-thinking modernist, and partly, I think, because I’m from New Jersey and we like our Scotch neat. (That’s metaphor; I don’t drink Scotch.)
The Bishop said the idea of God in Public is a topic society should have been addressing for a long time. (Haven’t we been arguing about this in the United States for a couple hundred years?) In the split world of the Enlightenment, even William Wilberforce committed a faux pas by employing a biblically-based political critique in his abolitionist rhetoric.
Wright said belief in the Bible and in the bodily resurrection of Christ are both fading, but that the rise in fundamentalism is alarming. Once again I heard that the secularist/fundamentalist dance is two opposing modernist narratives that are “running out of steam.” He described the dance as a “stunning example of missing the point.”
(Here he noted, with what sounded like disapproval, that the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature have split under criticism that their relationship was evidence of religious bias in the Academy.)
The Enlightenment dream ultimately “eats its own tail,” in Wright’s view. Reason inevitably descends into spin, which degenerates further into emotivism.
Wisdom takes a different track.
He suggested that much of evangelicalism is based on the Epistles rather than the Gospels and said this mirrors a larger problem of not knowing what the Gospels are for. He believes they provide the basis for the idea of God in Public. In the Gospels, God is reclaiming the world as his own in and through Jesus. They demonstrate what the world looks like with God running the show.
Wright said both Hitchens and Nietzsche work from the perspective of “God as tyrant,” but the coming of God into the world is the confrontation of alientating and dehumanizing tryants.
He suggested an integrated reading of the Gospels and mentioned both Luke 4 and the Sermon on the Mount. He stood the Gospels up against all comers, saying the kingdom Jesus brought was emphatically for this world, defeating both tyranny and chaos, Modernism and “fluffy” postmodernism. He said that the Gospel narrative read this way “resists deconstructionist power games.” It is, instead, the impetus for renewal and the final coming together of heaven and earth.
This is where he called the religious right a “clumsy attempt” at trying to bring God back into public life “without understanding why or how this makes sense.” (He had earlier stated that in England there is no religious right, only a religious left. He seemed to favor neither one.) He then said something about launching a “political hermaneutic of suspicion.” The Gospels, in contrast, are the story of God’s public kingdom project that summons the whole world to repentance and faith.
He quoted Psalm 2, and said the creator God reigns through order, not chaos. He mentioned Jim Wallis’ new book, but said we need a more firmly grounded Creationist order. Even corrupt order is better than chaos, in Wright’s view. He mentioned John 19, I Corinthians 2, and Colossians 2 as a biblical basis for this position. He affirmed the legitimacy of confronting corrupt leaders, saying the rulers of this age inevitably twist God-ordained authority into the satanic possibility of tryanny. However, the cross offers a paradoxical victory. It is tyranny confronted and overthrown (Romans 13).
God is a god of order, even if He has, inevitably, to judge that order.
In the New Testament, Jesus is already Lord of heaven and earth. The Spirit was given so the world would be called to account. The reign of the Spirit is demonstrated in works of justice, mercy, beauty, and through relationship.
He said we must collaborate without compromise and critique without dualism. He denounced our present “glorification of democracy,” which, in his view, stems from Enlightenment dualism. Holding governments to account demands, however, that the church is called to account as well. He suggested that we welcome both prophetic witness and reform within our communities.
Wright said, “In all kinds of ways, we are moving toward post-postmodernism.” He failed to defend this statement.
As to modernism and postmodernism, he dismissed one as boring and trivial and the other as dangerous and dehumanizing. You decide which is which. He didn’t say. I can conjure arguments either way, despite the obvious implication.
The Bishop of Durham concluded by saying we must take seriously the biblical witness to God in public, and develop a wise exegesis for the common good, while rejecting the shrill certainties of fundamentalism and the necessary nihilism of the postmodern reaction.
This is why I liked him. He sounded like a realist.