I was recently given a recommendation to look into N.T. (Tom) Wright in this exchange on a Patheo's blogger's comment section. Rebecca Florence Miller is currently my favorite Christian blogger, and she's very responsive to her readers, so I wanted to take it seriously.
The exchange continues for a bit, and I interacted with another commenter, but it wasn't productive. It's not the first I've heard of this "Plato screwed up Christianity" thing either. Tony Jones gave me a longer but similar response in his"Questions that Haunt" series. You can see that in the preview of the published version in book form on amazon.
I've heard of N.T. Wright. He is referenced often by progressive Christians. But I don't feel like reading another book that I'm almost certain will disappoint me. So, I went to Google University to find out what I could. I found out he supports the defense of marriage, which is the nice way of saying he is against homosexual marriage. Somehow it interferes with the marriage of Christ and the Church or something. Really don't care. Strike one.
I found an hour long interview that touches on his latest book. It also includes a classic straw man argument against atheism, saying atheists view the physical world as inanimate and something to be exploited. Strike two. It ends with an open question. He is asked what he would like to highlight, what question wasn't asked in the interview that he would like to bring up. He says, Jesus. It's all about Jesus. We just need to keep learning about Jesus. We'll never completely understand him, but he's been important for 2,000 years, therefore he is important, Jesus. Okay, well, strike three.
Read on if you can. He has been called the successor to C.S. Lewis. I don't see how he has improved on that, and C.S. Lewis has been soundly refuted. If this is as good as it gets, progressive Christianity is in big trouble.
The interview begins with an introduction to Wright's book about "The Good News" which seems to be about acknowledging that Jesus is doing something and will continue. Exactly what that is, is not made clear. He discusses how Octavian proclaimed he had brought peace to the world, but of course he had done it through killing off his enemies. The wars in the Old Testament or people burning in Revelations is not brought at any point in this interview.
Wright denigrates how Christianity has devolved into the idea of scripture just being "good advice". Whether that be instructions on how to get to heaven or more practical knowledge about what you should do or believe at any given moment. To him, the Bible also gets you to consider what changes to the world happened when Jesus arrived, the coming of the Kingdom. Ideas that came up much later, like Purgatory are really not relevant to him. He calls these ideas a "corrupted" version of what the Bible teaches. Typical progressive stuff, begin by putting down old time religion without mentioning any names.
They discuss how Paul himself noted that the gospels are "foolishness" to some. That would have been even easier to see at the time when you consider how crucifixion was viewed. To say that was the messiah would seem ludicrous. The expectation of God stepping in solving all the problems of the Jews was not realized.
Even today, the resurrection is dismissed and people want to listen only to the ethical teachings of Jesus. Wright notes that Jesus speaks to the wicked things that come out of our hearts. The cure that he offers is his own sacrifice, not a psychology or method that can overcome that wickedness. He admits this is "cryptic", but states that it is clear that what Jesus is bringing is the Kingdom. It is also clear that we need the resurrection to be victorious over the "dark forces". All the teachings, no matter how good, can't do that. At this point, Wright says this is a difficult to get your mind around, "our whole thought patterns are not designed to do that, but Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are doing exactly that". In other words, don't think for yourself, just read the Bible. Throughout the interview, he continues to say the message is not a recipe, but he leaves it a mystery as to what the message actually is.
In keeping with every major theologian for the last couple hundred years, he blames Western individualism for the problem of people watering down the language of the Bible and dismissing the transformation of creation that Jesus brought. He brings in Platonism at this point too, saying Plato brought us this idea that the world we see is one of shadows and corruption and the answer to that is to find another world outside of that and figure out the keys to getting there. In the same breath, he makes sure that we don't think he is becoming a materialist. In the Biblical view, or I would say his view of the Bible, heaven and earth overlap and interlock.
I agree with his thoughts on not being a Platonist, but he offers nothing here to explain how this was strictly a Greek idea and that it somehow infected the Jewish tradition around the time Christianity was forming. Surely just the idea of God as lawgiver is an example of something better "up there" and nothing but sinners down here. If he explains this better in a book somewhere, please provide a reference.
He covers pantheists too, and makes a bit of a truce with them. He recognizes that there are Christians who act more like pantheists, reveling in the beauty of creation. Wright says, God will do his thing and we should support that. God has begun the work of radical renewal with Jesus, after already having given us the responsibility for the earth in Genesis. This is somehow better than doing good things because you feel called by the beauty and grace of nature itself.
At minute 32, he addresses the myth of progress. I happen to agree with that. Progress has not been a steady stream of great ideas, each better than the last. But he slides over into moral progress and points out that sexual norms were loosened in the 1960's and then "people were given carte blanche to abuse children and cover it up". That is so unbelievably slimey. Child abuse was not invented in 1972. The reason we know more about it now is that we have made it harder to cover it up. It get's harder to keep going at this point, but stay with me if you have the stomach.
He goes on to blame "The Western Enlightenment" for prejudice. He makes no case for it, he just says it. He describes the natural human response to seeing people who don't look like us, for example Muslim terrorists killing other Muslims, and says we feel something, but mostly we feel disconnected from them since we don't see them as part of our community. God's community of course is the whole world and that's how we should see them. He doesn't mention anything about "chosen ones" or "tribes of Israel" or Jesus being transformed into a handsome blue eyed man that would have been completely out of place in 1st century Palestine.
He recommends a book "Who is this Man" about how Christians have made the world better. From the reviews it sounds atrocious.
The next few minutes are a rambling dance through history about God doing new things just when needed and people corrupting the ideas of great theologians like Aquinas. He never describes good or bad or acknowledges that Aquinas' works were banned in his lifetime, he just says God is good and people are sometimes bad.
He also makes one of those points that baffles me about progressive Christians. He remembers being taught that The Reformation was a "great light" where God allowed the Bible to come forward and everyone would understand what was really in it. But as he later found out through his studies, opening up the question of what IS right led to wars among themselves. He recognizes, and realizes people today recognize, that is NOT the way to discover which interpretation is right. He also recognizes that recent history doesn't show that we've advanced much beyond that. He recognizes these are serious issues to be wrestled with, but offers nothing in the way of how to do that. Other than, Jesus.
This is immediately followed by a criticism of modern atheism. In it, he denigrates the very tools and methods which have been created to discuss our differences and learn how we can live together. He brings up pantheism again, saying that results from eliminating Gods. People still notice forces of nature that they can't explain. He somehow relates this to Nazism, again ignoring 2,000 years of antisemitism.
He compares God's creation to the naturalist view, saying God gave us the world as a gift and for us to be stewards, but God is still in charge, and the naturalist view is one of exploitation. I suppose every Christian throughout history who took God's commands to use the world as they needed was just wrong. Wright even relates worship to stewardship, saying we are here to articulate the joy of creation through our speech and our rituals. This, according to Wright results in a much better relationship with the world than one where you think of the world as "miscellaneous, inanimate stuff that we can do what we like with". He says this understanding of the order of things is "remarkably exciting" and leads to us being "humble of our role within it."
This is why I don't see progressive Christianity as progressive at all. What we have discovered by starting with a premise that we won't rely on a supernatural explanation, is that we are far more integrated into this world than we ever knew. We discovered the universe was billions of times bigger than we thought and not too long after that, we found that our very chemistry was part of the early stars that formed a long time ago.
We don't need an invisible hierarchy telling us we need to take care of this world, we have found that our very existence depends on us doing that. If that is not something to celebrate and at the same time make you humble, I don't know what is. At best, we can thank religion for an intuitive recognition of our connection to the universe and for finding a way to mythologize that intuition and encourage each generation to internalize it. But we now understand where those feelings come from and we can strip away the false parts of the belief system that are no longer functional and in fact harmful.
Next is ethics. He talks about baptism, sin, dying to sin and the resurrection and belief therein, taking up your cross, etc. I don't see any point in discussing it. The interviewer however makes an interesting comparison. He compares Plato's Republic, where reaching "the good city" is difficult, it is only dimly available to us, to how Jesus starts off the Sermon the Mount with "You are the light of the world." He and Wright think this is awesome, and who wouldn't? That is the appeal of religion. It would be a great message, if it were true. Someone is telling you how cool you are and how important you are. Then they tell you to give away all your stuff. I always wondered who actually ended up with all that stuff. The Bible doesn't mention it, but now we have accountants who can tell you.
At 53 minutes they start talking about philosophy. He summarizes the central questions that all philosophers are asking and have asked, what is there, how do we know things, and how do we behave. This is the triangle of physics, logic and ethics. He wraps them up beautifully, if you want to act ethically "and you are thinking clearly (logic) you should be able to see human behavior ought to be consonant with the way things are (physics)". He then relates this to Paul, but says Paul doesn't spell it out, but he is seeing the new way to behave, brought on by Christ, read Chapter 14 of Paul and the Faithfulness of God if you want more on that. He just overlays these claims of Paul and says they are central to the triangle. But, he says, this is not a different world, they overlap, because Jesus was here, new creation, something, something.
Wright offers a way out of fundamentalism, or he at least points to a flaw in it, that it looks for a new set of rules to live by, a way out of this world, but he offers no tools for what to do once you get away from fundamentalism. He drops you off in the new New Jerusalem, then turns the van around and goes looking for some new disciples. "Just don't sin", he yells as he drives off.
Logic and reason promise you nothing, in fact, to use them properly, you have to accept that they may lead you to discover that they don't work. The premise of naturalism is a premise, and it must be allowed to question it, or it's not a premise, it's a belief. They regularly lead you to conclusions that contradict earlier conclusions that were arrived at by logic and reason. This is not a bug, it's a feature. It is not a flaw of logic, it is the result of building on each new discovery and each new result of each new experiment arrived at using new data. Jesus just keeps leading you back to Jesus and the promise of a shining city on the hill. But it is never anymore than that, a promise.
The final question is the kicker. It makes it clear that everything I interpret from everything else he says is accurate. You have to wonder if you are getting the full picture in a one hour interview. But the interviewer allows Wright to pick his own topic and fill in whatever he wants. His choice, Jesus. Keep studying the gospels and learn about Jesus. Because we still don't understand him and can't. Intellectually or personally, you need to get back to Jesus. "Ultimately it all comes back to Jesus."