Thursday, June 26, 2008

N. T. Wright is the opposite of John Hagee

In a recent comment, Mike says of N. T. Wright:

"Help me understand how this is much better than somebody like John Hagee. Doesn't Wright still rely heavily on superstitious beliefs that God will magically "fix" everything? I've always been intrigued by Tom Wright, but I've also had a hard time shaking his attachment to a supernatural eschatology."

Mike, your difficulty in understanding N. T. Wright is based on the fact that he challenges and subverts the very categories that you take for granted. If we want to understand him, we will have to expand our imaginations beyond the Enlightenment constraints to which they are often shackled.

In order to understand how inappropriate it is to compare N. T. Wright with John Hagee, we have to do some work on epistemology.

Let's take for starters your casual use of terms such as magically fix, supernatural, and external deity. Such descriptions only work within the thought world of the Enlightenment, which assumed that the world was somehow separate from God, and that God was a far away force external to it. I for one don't believe that God intervenes in history-- He doesn't need to intervene - he is already here! God is not some deistic God who is far removed and who occasionally crashes the party. Rather, God is with us always, acting freely according to his sovereign purposes. The best example of this is in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Now, you ask something like: "Is it a literal resurrection + renewal of creation that will be done by a theistic (or deistic) being. Or, is Wright using this as a metaphor used to describe how we humans can and should change the world by doing Christ's work. In symbolic terms, I mean we become the eyes, ears, limbs (resurrected body) of Christ."

The answer is yes. The church is called to be the body of Christ, to continue His work in the world. We can have confidence that our work is not wasted because we believe in the resurrection.

Here is an example, from his book, Surprised by Hope, of how the answer is yes.

"The image I often use in trying to explain the strange but important idea is that of a the stonemason working on part of a great cathedral. The architect already drew up the plans and passed on instructions to the team of masons as to which stones need carving in what way. The foreman distributes these tasks among the team. One shapes stones for a particular tower or turret; another carves the delicate pattern that breaks up the otherwise forbidding straight lines; another works on gargoyles or coats of arms; another is making statues of saints, martyrs, kings, or queens. They are vaguely aware that the others are getting on with their tasks, and they know, of course, that many other entire departments are busy about quite different tasks as well. When they're finished with their stones and their statues, they hand them over without necessarily knowing very much about where in the eventual building their work will find its home. They may not have seen the complete architect's drawing of the whole building with their bit identified in its proper place. They may not live either, to see the completed building with their work at last where it belongs. But they trust the architect that the work they have done in following instructions will not be wasted..... The work we do in the present, then, gains its full significance from the eventual design in which it is meant to belong. Applied to the mission of the church, this means that we must work in the present for the advance signs of that eventual state of affairs when God is 'all in all, when his kingdom has come and his will is done 'on earth as in heaven.' " (209)

At the end of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul's long discourse on resurrection, he does not say, "so sit back and wait for God to do everything." Instead he says, "Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain."

Again, Mike says:

"Now he wants us to buy into literal resurrection of all the decayed human bodies that ever lived. Keep in mind that most of the molecules that made up the bodies of those people have long been fossilized or consumed by other life forms. How exactly could that work? It seems Wright, like his American fundamentalist counterparts, fell victim to the same inability to recognize a metaphor or literary allegory. Get a grip. "

Here is Wright's response:

"Tertullian gives a brusque answer. It's God's business, he says; he's the creator, so he can and will sort it out. Origen, faced with similar questions, replies more subtly. Our bodies, he points out, are in any case in a state of flux. It isn't just that hair and fingernails grow and are cut off; our entire physical substance is slowly changing. What we today call atoms and molecules pass through us, leaving us with continuity of form but transience of matter (C.S. Lewis summarizing this argument, offers an illustration: I am in that respect, he says, like a curve in a waterfall). This argument is repeated by Thomas Aquinas a millennium after Origen and nearly a millennium before Lewis. It's a good argument: as we now know, we change our entire physical kit, every atom and molecule, over a period of seven years or so. I am physically a totally different person now from the person I was ten years ago. And yet I am still me. thus it really doesn't matter whether we get the identical molecules back or not, though some continuity is perfectly possible." (157 of Surprised by Hope)

Perhaps Mike is familiar with the work of John Polkinghorne. For 25 years, Polkinghorne was a theoretical physicist working on theories of elementary particles and played a significant role in the discovery of the quark. From 1968 to 1979 he was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, and then he decided to become a priest and a theologian in the Church of England. N. T. Wright favorably quotes Polkinghorne's analogy for resurrection: God will download our software onto his hardware until the time when he gives us new hardware to run the software again. (163)

N. T. Wright is the opposite of John Hagee. Hagee thinks the goal of the Christian life is to be raptured away from this terrible planet, so that we can live a disembodied life in heaven. (So it doesn't much matter what happens in or to this world). Wright (who doesn't believe in the Rapture) believes that the goal of the Christian life is to bear witness to the marriage of heaven and earth, the new creation that started with the resurrection of Jesus and continues now when we love in his name, and will be brought some day to its glorious fulfillment when this world is renewed, we will all be resurrected to share in glory, because the Earth that God made is indeed a good world after all. For this we pray each time we join together in the Lord's Prayer, and for this we live in hope of the resurrection, knowing that in the Lord, our labor is not in vain.

And Tom Wright is very familiar with how the Book of Revelation critiques the Empire. It also subverts the empires of our day. See his essay on Paul's Gospel and Caesar's Empire. Also see his essay on God and Caesar. (John Hagee is about as pro-empire as you can get).

Archbishop Rowan Williams was pleased to present the Ramsey Prize in 2005 to N. T. Wright for his book The Resurrection of the Son of God. Mike, in order to understand my point of view even better, you might want to check out the critique that Rowan Williams made of John Shelby Spong. He explains in even more depth about the misleading dualism that would have us come up with ideas like 'external deity.'


PamBG said...

I'm new to your blog so didn't see the original discussion happen 'in real time' (as it were).

I have to say that I'm astounded at the idea that Wright is some kind of naive, non-critical realist who is demanding blind faith in the supernatural.

He is a realist, but quite a critical one. Is Mike saying that a person has to be a non-realist in order to be a thinking Christian theologian? That's the impression I get.

I think Wright's views deserve some serious engagement. I'm certain that he's well familiar with the critiques of his views from both the 'theological left' and the 'theological right'. It's not rigorous enough to simply pass him off as someone who is unthinkingly trying to defend orthodoxy.

As an aside, I never though that Wright's views were particularly in line with American conservative evangelicalism and I was always bemused that so many of these saw Wright as someone defending their position. John Piper's recent attack on Wright (Piper stops just short of calling Wright an unbeliever) is much more the sort of thing I would have expected.

Mike L. said...


Thanks for the wonderful response!

I don't like the categories of supernatural/natural either. I don't believe there are 2 such things. I do not adhere to any type of deism or dualism either. I'm glad we find that point of agreement (I think).

What I heard Wright suggesting sounded exactly like the typical natural/supernatural divide of greek dualism. That is why I used the word. I still hear it in your response too.

I hear you attempting to renounce the term supernaturalism. Yet, you mention some type of "software" that would be run on a new piece of hardware. You can try to change the terms, but that is similar to the type of metaphysics applied by John Hagee. It seems like you want to keep the idea, but change the term/metaphor.

You are right that Hagee and Wright imagine the particulars working out differently and Wright at least imagines our "help" in the process. But, both imagine a "soul" or "consciousness" that exists beyond our physical bodies and can survive either as disembodied spirits or plugged back into another physical body. Both imagine God as an external being that coordinates the game rather than being itself. How is that not supernaturalism?

Again, my comparison of these two men is only on the metaphysics they employ in their specific theology NOT their politics or their view of the Church's role in the world. I'm a big fan of many of Wright's results (a clear passion for justice).

The problem I'm having with Wright is that he has chosen to ignore the enlightenment any time in conflicts with his beliefs. You can't move past the enlightenment until you've first understood it. Then you can seek to move past the tension that exists between stories written on one side of the enlightenment and people living on the other side. I don't think it is sufficient to suggest that we simply leave things unanswered in a state of paradox simply because we are afraid to question one side or the other.


I don't ever call Wright a non-thinking Christian. I appreciate his thinking. It just seems he has limited the conversation to exclude certain issues that don't fit his worldview.

PamBG said...

don't ever call Wright a non-thinking Christian. I appreciate his thinking. It just seems he has limited the conversation to exclude certain issues that don't fit his worldview.

I apologise. I'm just trying to give expression to the sort of views that I thought I heard you saying. I'm still hearing that anything that is realist won't do for you? That's a genuine question.

I don't think he's trying to play fast and loose with enlightenment paradigms; I think he's trying to step outside them altogether. Of course, he and we will have difficulty doing this as we are steeped in these paradigms.

He does point out, for instance, that first century people would have found resurrection just as unbelievable as we do. I expect we'd view most of first-century popular culture (Greek philosophers excepted) as 'supernaturalist'.

Unless one is a complete non-realist, we move in and out of these paradigms ourselves: believe in God but - of course- not in resurrection, for instance. I don't know for sure, but I doubt that Wright would come down on someone pastorally with a tonne of bricks if they said 'Like your paradigm, can't deal with the realism'. Which certainly would differentiate him from a fundamentalist who demands belief in 'the supernatural' as necessary for salvation (I say this as someone who grew up fundamentalist, in the traditional sense of the word.)

I've been in the UK a long time, but ISTM that the Colbert show is in actual fact a comedy show; do I have that wrong? I'm not sure how much we can learn about Wright's theology from it. I think we can learn that he's able to laugh at himself, though.

Mike L. said...


I'm not sure why you suggested "I'm still hearing that anything that is realist won't do for you?" I feel like I'm saying the opposite. I'm questioning the use of non-realism and advocating that we reconcile our stories with a nice dose of realism.

What do you mean by stepping outside enlightenment paradigms?

I think we can step outside the stereotypical reactions to the enlightenment (fundamentalism on one end and atheism on the other). But I don't see how we can step outside the findings of the enlightenment (our modern understanding of the universe, biology, textual criticism, etc). Do we want to leave those findings behind or do we want to embrace them and now work to reconcile those important understandings with the pre-enlightenment faith stories that we love so much.

I'm considering a both/and approach that keeps the ancient stories. Yet, we allow the enlightenment's marvelous achievements to speak in the areas it is qualified to address.

The hypothesis that dead bodies can be resurrected is a question for science. If you claim it isn't then I'm right in labeling your assertion (and Tom Wright's) as one of supernaturalism (other than or beyond nature).

I think Wright is wrong when he tries to claim that 1st century minds had to struggle with the idea of resurrection. They had to struggle with Jesus' resurrection, but not resurrection in general. There were some Jews that did not believe in resurrection (sadducees for example), but it seems clear that most groups did embrace some kind of afterlife. Both Jews and Greeks had a supernatural bent even if one was more holistic and the other more dualistic.

The trick for Christians in the early years was to believe the resurrection had STARTED with Jesus, not that it could ever happen. They already believed it was possible and even inevitable.

Raffi Shahinian said...

Superb answers to some common misconceptions about Wright's vision.

Speaking of the good bishop, I've posted something regarding a particular theological/eschatological issue pertaining to Wright HERE. Thought you might find it interesting.

Grace and Peace,
Raffi Shahinian
Parables of a Prodigal World

Mitch Lewis said...

I suppose I am a "supernaturalist" in Mike's point of view. I believe in a coming cosmic transformation in which God will indeed "fix everything" and raise the redeemed to eternal life.

I'll accept "external deity" as well. External doesn't necessarily mean deistic. I and my wife are separate beings, but it doesn't mean that we aren't intimately involved in each others lives. If 18th century philosophy was tempted to overemphasize God's transcendence, our generation is much more inclined to overemphasize God's immanence.

Apart from some form of eschatological point of view, it seems to me that Christians have basically two other options: 1) a kingdom being gradually realized (similar to that of 19th century Christian liberalism) or 2) a perpetually hidden kingdom in which the God's reign exists in the hearts and minds of believers (and in the Christian community), but not really in the world.

Where I think I differ with Wright (if I'm reading him correctly, and there is a good chance I'm not) is that I think that our good works need the power of the resurrection as much as our bodies do. The signs of the kingdom that we see (and sometimes help create) in this age are temporary, local in effect and imperfect.

To use Wright's analogy, I think this fallen world tends to crush into powder many of the stones we carve for the cathedral.

The phrase that the funeral liturgy borrows from Revelation means much to me: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. Yes, says the Spirit, they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.

Perhaps the seer meant that their deeds live on even though their bodies are dead, but I don't read it that way.

Sorry - Too long for a comment.

More on my eschatological perspective at History and the Mud Pots.

PamBG said...

Mike - I think I understand now better where you're coming from. I don't really know how to reply without fisking. I do think that it's doing Wright an incredible disservice - whether or not one agrees with him - to compare him John Hagee.

PamBG said...

The signs of the kingdom that we see (and sometimes help create) in this age are temporary, local in effect and imperfect.

The way that I read Wright (and I don't claim expertise), he would agree with this.

I don't, however, believe that Wright thinks that 'imperfect' means 'completely worthless'. He talks about this world being a shadow of the world to come but not a world that has no resemblance to the world to come.

I can't now remember if he wrote the following in so many words or if it was just my own interpretation, but he wrote something in 'Surprised by Hope' along the lines of every act of goodness and love will be used by God toward the Kingdom even if they appear to us to be useless or to not have borne fruit. Personally, I found that very hopeful!

Mike L. said...

Mitch (or anyone else),

What does it mean to say...

"I think that our good works need the power of the resurrection as much as our bodies do"

I guess that is a metaphor for something, right? Again, the trouble with religious dialog is that we need metaphors to communicate ideas, but often people either mean them or take them literally. What exactly in literal terms is "power of the resurrection"? Do you mean to imply that Jesus is like casper the friendly ghost helping your do those works? Or do you mean that the "story" of the resurrection motivates you and gives you the confidence to do good works?

Lee said...

I'll happily stand up for dualism: there are two kinds of being - created and uncreated. This is simply good old-fashioned Augustinian metaphysics. To talk about God as "external" to the universe is probably unhelpful (then again, so is talking about God as "internal" to the universe). Spatial metaphors have their limits after all. But I'm perfectly content to say that the universe doesn't exhaust God's being (maybe saying that it exists "in" God is somewhat less misleading, but then maybe not).

To talk about God "intervening" in the universe, then, does rely on some questionable spatial metaphors. But there's a real question: does God sometimes act in ways that are extraordinary (that is, apart from his "ordinary" upholding of created beings and their causal powers)? Most Christians, historically, have said yes, and I don't know of any established findings in science or philosophy that require us to say that the created world is a "closed system."

PamBG said...

Mike - Supernaturalist alert - personally, what I mean is that I believe that I will be resurrected into a New Creation along with Jesus. Neither casper the friendly ghost (I guess you realise that sounds incredibly patronising but don't care that it does?) nor 'only' a story. But a story that has a 'real' truth to point to beyond 'only' a moral meaning.

But, as you point out, this does require belief in a God who is Other; if your concept of God is that God can be found in all things but is not Other, then this paradigm doesn't work. I suspect that this is where we diverge and I suspect we will struggle to communicate because of this difference.

Lee said...

p.s. I don't believe that the John Hagee types actually believe what's being attributed to them either. If they really believed in sitting back and letting God take care of everything why would they be working so hard to trigger the apocalypse by electing Republicans, etc.?

Rhology said...

Maybe it's neither what Hagee nor what Wright say.

Maybe it's what the Bible says - we are to act in accordance with God's commands while on earth, and while that will include doing good to others and loving them and serving as an example of grace and truth to those that do not believe, yet our citizenship is not on earth but is, rather, heavenly. We groan, waiting for the redemption of our bodies (2 Cor 5). Indeed, all of creation groans (Rom 8) b/c of the curse of the Fall.
Yet one day God will not only redeem our bodies but the entire earth, and it will be a highly supernatural event.

At the same time, I doubt it's as it appears to be from reading this blogpost. I doubt Wright denies an eternal afterlife (which, by its length alone, demands more preparation for than a simple temporary earth like where we live and move now), and I doubt Hagee denies that we should do good works while here on earth. Their positions seem fairly embellished here.

Mike L is kind of strange...
I don't like the categories of supernatural/natural either.

Perhaps he could explain the difference between my opening a can of peas and Christ's bodily resurrection from the dead with that in mind.

The problem I'm having with Wright is that he has chosen to ignore the enlightenment any time in conflicts with his beliefs.

If Wright believes that his beliefs are in line with God's self-revelation, why should he or anyone drop that which God has revealed in favor of errant and fallible human (mis)understandings?

Then you can seek to move past the tension that exists between stories written on one side of the enlightenment and people living on the other side.

Which might apply to Wright (I have no idea) but not to Hagee, at least. Hagee's professed final authority is unquestionably the Bible, which was written well before the Enlightenment but remains relevant to today (which is what one would expect, given that a timeless God wrote it).


Mike L. said...


Sorry about the "casper" comment. I was struggling with how to word that sentence and probably chose poorly. However, I did mean to convey how absurd it sounds to me. I wanted to convey my real sentiment about superstitions in general, but I didn't mean to make any type of attack. For example, I don't think people who believe in superstition or supernatural actions are any less intelligent. It is simply a different framework of understanding.

I've enjoyed the dialog. Thanks for being a good sport and thanks to Jonathan for allowing the comments to be published. I'll exit stage left now.

Peace to all

Jonathan said...

In the July 1, 2008 edition of The Christian Century, Walter Brueggemann observes:

"I do not know how it is in rational Judaism, but in rational Christianity there is much embarrassment about the resurrection as a defining claim of faith, especially among those who have been wounded by the authoritarianism of the church. Among liberal Christians there are endless attempts to explain it away, and among conservative Christians there are endless reductionisms in rationalistic form."

Perhaps our friend Mike has become embarrassed in precisely the way Brueggemann suggests.

Mike L. said...


I love Brueggemann! He has far more experience than I in these kinds of debates so I'm sure his critique of liberalism and fundamentalism has more teeth than mine.

As for my embarrassment, I don't think you'll see me blushing. You will hear me defend for an open debate on issues. I don't think it is fair to close off the discussion from fundamentalists emotional pleas (whether far right like Hagee or moderate right like Wright). I also don't think it is fair to exclude all the wonderful scholarship from the left. Christianity is a faith of head and heart, and we should embrace the pleas of both.

My critique of Wright and comparison with Hagee is not meant to imply that both are equally ill equipped. Instead it is based on their one joint tragic flaw (in my opinion) of lending too much weight to the ancient world view of biblical authors in areas that I don't believe they have any authority over us - science.

It is well within the scope of a scholar to claim that early Christians did eventually come to believe in a bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is another issue to then claim that based on these testimonies we can no longer discuss the possibility that it didn't happen. I don't think it is fair to wipe from our discussion the information we have about these stories that so clearly copy elements of virgin birth, resurrection, and ascension from older predated Jewish and Pagan stories. We can't sweep that under the rug so easily as Wright has done.

My current opinion (that is always up for renegotiation) is that these stories are mythical tellings with some small level of historicity. I do not base that on a preconceived notion of a modern mind. I base it on the evidence gathered from within the texts and from their close ties to other mythical stories that were available to the authors. I don't see any way to credit these miracles without also crediting other miracles in other sacred texts from around the world. We must filter them all through either the same scholarship or the same blind faith.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Did someone SERIOUSLY confuse Wright and Hagee??????