I’ve just finished N.T. Wright’s new book Surprised by Hope. With the exception of his views on homosexuality, I’ve always been a fan of his solid theology and was looking forward to his take on death, resurrection, heaven and the new creation. It was a little off-putting at the outset because of his superfluous injections of the words ‘liberal,’ ‘progress,’ and ‘evolution’ in places that implied a great distaste for whatever they might stand for but never a definition of what that is. What I guess is this. Liberalism is anything that believes that humanity has within itself the ability to accomplish enough good for society that society might become better from one generation to another, and, by implication to eventually become perfect. Progress, therefore, is the illusion of actually having accomplished some lasting good in society. His use of the word evolution seemed to point toward something like Social Darwinism rather than any other concept of evolution. For some reason he took special delight in hammering on Teilhard. It seemed to me that all of that was a scheme for setting up a number of straw men in order to knock them down in his later arguments.
Because the book was cadged together from a series of lectures delivered in various places over several years, those later arguments became quite repetitive at times.
You might think from that introduction that I disliked the book. Far from it. I loved it. For starters, you know how hard it is to explain the nature of evil to people, and Wright did a terrific job of it in the simplest of terms: “…it consists in the rebellious idolatry by which humans worship and honor elements of the natural world rather than God…” And what is sin? It is any and all of that which dehumanizes us. I like that.
He insists, and argues well, that bodily resurrection is where our hope lies, and that we need to work harder to help Christians understand that a disembodied eternal life as spirits floating around in heaven is not what is proclaimed on Easter morning. If, indeed, our souls are heaven bound, it only a temporary state of being until the wholeness of resurrection is accomplished on a renewed earth in a renewed cosmos that has material reality. I liked his frequent reference to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce as a way of trying to explain what that might be like.
He pretty much debunked most of the popular thinking about the second coming and rapture, replacing it with what scripture actually says. The power of the gospel, he writes, “lies not in the offer of a new spirituality…not in the threat of hellfire…but in the powerful announcement that God is God, that Jesus is Lord, that the powers of evil have been defeated, that God’s new world has begun.” He also urged the Church to restore to its teaching the reality of judgment and the reasons why that is a measure of hope and not threat.
Toward the last third of the book he turned to the role of Christians in the contemporary world which looked a lot like the liberal progressivism he had first ridiculed. I think the difference is that his brand of progressivism is grounded in biblical mandate rather than the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Why do so many theologians feel that they have to keep battling a 300-year-old not very coherent philosophical movement?
I was also taken by his desire that the Church take sacred space and time seriously, no matter what sort of worship style is preferred. When he added it all together it produced a new understanding of what it would mean for the Church to be missional, and that is something we can all use.
So there you have it in a few words of gross generalities. If you want to know the details read the book. Wright remains one of my favorite contemporary theologians: a stalwart conservative who is really a closet liberal, a lover of the Anglican tradition, and a great teacher.