N T Wright in Dublin (2)

OK so here is your faithful reporter’s take on last night’s C S Lewis Lecture by Prof N T Wright, ‘God in the Dock: what place now for the Christian Faith in the Public Life?’

A really well run and organised event. Good wine and snacks beforehand. Well designed hotel conference room. Smooth. Sean Mullan did an excellent job introducing and responding. And NTW is always entertaining and a pleasure to listen to – wonderful communicator.

I tooks notes on my phone – for what they are worth here they are. And I’m leaving them rough – hey this is a blog post. Any of my comments are in brackets:

Three Narratives of faith in the public square

1. Secularist narrative.

The church made hell on earth to save people in heaven. The answer is eduation, science, progree, tolerance, beyond superstition. Religion bad for u. Strident. Media takes the narrative for granted. Assumed the church internally corrupt. No place for church in modern life. No voice in public sq. And soon church will disappear.  [In Ireland we’ve taken to this narrative zealously].

 2. [An inadequate] Christian response.

Secularist story has failed. Look at the crimes committed by secularists and atheism. Guillotine, gas chamber. Also a straw-man caricature of all religion bad.

But this story does not really address the place of church in public life. And the cold fury of the failure of public faith [and this goes deep in Ireland – deep deep disgust]. It tends to assume that life will go on as before. And overlooks how church had been practicing its faith. So a response to the New Athiests may have some success but does not reflect on how church got lost. There needs to be more honest self- reflection and transparency within the Church.

3. An Alternative narrative of Jesus and the Kingdom of God

Back to Jesus and his followers. New athiests tend to ignore Jesus. Kingdom of God brings us to the question of Jesus the King. And in the Creeds the life of Jesus is missing. [well known point of view of NTW here – somewhat in conflict with Scot McKnight’s argument for strong continuity in gospel terms between the NT and the Creeds in the King Jesus Gospel. Clear elements of gospel in Creed but NTW is right that the life of Jesus is missing].

Kingdom is GOD IN CHARGE: This king will be and is king of the whole world. Where this gets political is Jesus is God in charge of all. BUT to many this seems unbelievable. God is not in charge – just look at the world. Also undesirable – leads to theocracy, rule of clerics. Fundamentalism.

Thus a response is for the state to becomes divinised – communism and secularism. Now liberal democracies pose a competing narrative. They have tried (are trying) to replace the church – where the political becomes caring provider just as the church did. So the church is marginalised and religion is privatised.

This is the Enligtenment and earlier Epicurean idea of banishing the gods to their world and hunans living theirs. (Sounds like Kant). Hobbes, Rousseau. Modernist science and democracy hopes for naturalism and human progress. So church can do its private thing and has no place in public faith. Not about tolerance, it is about the belief that god and the world do not mix.

Ireland today is the brittle disjunction of God’s world and ours. And often the church has colluded in fulfilling this disjunction – see in african spirituals and in RC purgatory.  Even those opposing the marginalisation of Christians in public life have tended to do so by arguing for ‘our rights’ and left the dualistic structure of western thought about faith and society unchallenged.

[NTW mentioned an un-named former archbishop here – must be Lord Carey. I blogged about ‘persecution’ of Christians in the UK here – and I think NTW is dead right here.  The Christian Insititute and others on the right are ‘fighting’ for rights, but there is little deeper engagement with the secularist narrative and especially there is little or no self-reflection, humility, and engaging with the ‘powerlessness’ and ‘foolishness’ of the ‘upside down Kingdom of God – and this is where NTW went next].

NTW argued that kingdom speaks of power redefined. NOT of the church fighting for a slice of bit of power. It is Jesus power; redefined power. A call for Jesus people to live kingdom life in this world. Beatitudes. NOT God sending in the tanks! But God sends in love, humility, gentle self-giving love. By Jubilee projects.  By justice issues. NOT a private individualism.

Good works in NT are for all as well as the church (Gal 6). This is subversive christianity of the early church. [sounds much like anabaptism!?]

The Church is a society of repentant sinners. And many in the church are doing wonderful servant things unseen and unreported.

The call of church is also to hold power to account.  A prophetic gift to the world. Yes church will get it wrong and needs discussion and discernment. But it is not to  wait til second coming before holding power to account. [And this is where he defends the role of Bishops in the House of Lords etc. I think he argues that this is where his view diverges from anabaptism of Yoder and Hauerwas etc. But I’m not so sure – they also hold power to account. Their anabaptism is NOT non-political. It is politically engaged, but refuses to use power to achieve ends.]

Jesus is Lord of all. But this does not lead to theocracy. The call of the church is to be salt and light etc … In small local ways in tough situations. The small and insignificant, from the bottom up. [Anabaptism again]. Youth groups, pastors on streets at 3am, in care for poor, etc. Being ‘Poor in Spirit’. Meek taking over the earth without powerful noticing. This is an alternative powerless kingdom.

I liked all this because I have strong anabaptist leanings. In the Q & A, I got to ask NTW if he was an anabaptist bishop in disguise 😉 He found that amusing but disagreed. He thinks anabaptism too disengaged. He used the image of a visiting an interesting and attractive zoo, but cut off in its own world. But that’s a bit of a caricature. I’m unconvinced that there was that much difference between what he was saying and the best of anabaptism – Hauerwas, Yoder.

Comments, as ever, welcome.

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17 thoughts on “N T Wright in Dublin (2)

  1. Dublin, place of my birth, … poor Dublin, indeed where are the Christian & true Catholic “prophets”? Not N.T. Wright certainly! Perhaps we need to revisit Augustine’s City of God? I say yes and Amen! Btw, if you can find a copy? See John H.S. Burleigh’s : The City Of God, A Study Of St. Augustine’s Philosophy, Croall Lectures, 1944. My copy is London: Nisbet & Co., LTD. 1949.

  2. I am a great admirer of NTW. The audience to which NTW’s remarks seemed primarily addressed last night was one of sympathetic believers like myself. Notwithstanding NT’s delineation of Christian mission as an expression of God’s kingdom, I am not sure we really got to the point on the role of Christianity in the public sphere, and certainly not in Ireland. That would have required a greater specificity to really hit home.

    I was struck by NTW’s powerful restatement that Jesus has not only been given authority in the heavens, but on the earth, which deserves our greater attention. Christian ministry as ‘salting and lighting’ can scarcely be overemphasised – care of the downtrodden, hospices, debt cancellation – but all of it is spiritual, in the Spirit, an intentional confrontation with the hidden forces which are themselves intentionally set up against the knowledge of God. For this activity, no less than the former, we need ‘divine power’. That may not have been a matter easily explained to ‘the unconvinced’, and for which no-one’s permission is required.

    • My criticism of Tom Wright is of course theological, and not personal. And I am also critical of his Anglicanism and his bishopric (now of course retired, and has gone back to academia.. not that he ever left it, really). But he is certainly personally brilliant, but brilliance does not always mean faithfulness or orthodoxy. His best work and efforts were on the historicity of the Gospels. I still have his big three: The NT and the People of God; Jesus and The Victory of God; and, The Resurrection of The Son Of God.

  3. Greetings Fergus and welcome – thanks for a very helpful take on the night. The main impression I took away was a call for a humble, alternative ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’ kingdom life worked out in authentic local communities of faith … quite a contrast to the top down Christendom religion that has so marked so much of Irish Christianity.

    • Patrick: I am 61, 62 in fact on monday the 24th. And I was raised Irish Roman Catholic in Dublin, but later went to England in my teens, and educated theologically there (two doctorates). But with over ten years active (and several as a reserve) as a RMC, Royal Marine Commando. And going to Gulf War 1 in my early 40’s (Recon officer). I have my own life experience. Anyway, my point here is the Irish people are best lead in my regard, from the top down, but with also the strength of educated layman. And so any lasting renewal and revival with the Irish people must be within a strong Historical Church, note here btw, the history of the Irish Reformed, puritans, and of course James Ussher (see the Irish Articles 1615).

      *Of course the whole history of Irish Roman Catholicism, is another subject, but still shows the same kind of connection, at least to my mind.

      And let me roll my dice here, but as an Anglican (now in the USA, for three years), I am even Federal Vision friendly, but not uncritical here either, since I am myself an Reformed Anglican. But I am always a “Churchman”! I have preached several times here in the US in Presbyterian Churches that are FV friendly. I am semi-retired now.

  4. Patrick, did Paul then neglect the life of Jesus in 1 Cor 15? OK, Paul and Nicea are not the same, but if we think Paul assumes the life of Jesus perhaps the context of Nicea’s preachers and theologians will also permit us to assume that his life is embedded in the Creed.

    What say you O theologian?

  5. Every real historical Anglican stands at least on Nicea and the Nicene Creed! Luther of course stood squarely on the Nicene “homoousios”. ‘In Christ’ we are confronted by God Himself, for Christ is ‘very God’. Christology is always theolocentric!

  6. Greetings Scot. Embedded is a good word.Certainly it would be perverse to read the Creed as rejecting or denying anything to do with the life of Jesus. Given its high Christology, Jesus the miracle worker, Messiah and king etc must be assumed, it’s just that they were not the issues in focus in the technical debates over identity. And maybe this highlights the problems with all summaries of faith – they are always going to be particular and limited and incomplete since they can’t ‘compete’ with the rich narrative of Scripture. And Paul does, as I think you may have said somewhere 🙂 link in Messiah and Scriptures and eschatology within 1 cor 15. So, Paul does a better job than the Nicene Creed IMHO!

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