Sunday, June 25, 2006

Those Evil Articles of Wright's

A week from yesterday I had the privilege of travelling to Birmingham to hear Bishop N.T. Wright lecture on the subject of 'Christian Mission in a Pagan World.' It was well worth the journey. I had the chance to briefly talk to the Bishop during some of the breaks, and I took that opportunity to let him know that his writings have helped me to really enjoy studying the Bible. I also told him that his work has assisted me in seeing the bigger picture of scripture, rather than just to see the Bible as a collection of isolated proof texts. (That's a picture of the Bishop on the right, by the way.)

For lay people wanting to read something from N. T. Wright but not knowing where to start (he has an enormous output), let me suggest his books What St. Paul Really Said and The Challenge of Jesus (don't try to understand what he means in chapter 5 of the later book, which is a bit strange, but the rest of the book is worthwhile). Also, for starters, download his video Simply Christian and watch it with Window's Media Player. (He also has a whole corpus of scholarly books, one of which, Jesus and the Victory of God, I am slowing making my way through at the moment.

On March 10th I posted some quotes from Wright's first lecture on the problem of evil. Here are some quotes from his further lectures (which have actually been published in a book now, titled Evil and the Justice of God, although these quotes are taken from the original lectures).

“When we think of a world unreachable by death, we tend in western culture to think of a non-physical world, but the truly remarkable thing Paul is talking about here is an incorruptible, unkillable physical world. New creation is what matters, a new kind of world with a new kind of physicality, which will not need to decay and die, which will not be subject to the seasons, and to the (to us) apparently endless sequence of deaths and births within the natural order. God’s new world will be the reality towards which all the beauty and power in the present world are mere signposts; but they are true signposts, not (as in Platonic schemes) because they point to abstractions, non-physical realities but because they point to a world which will be more physical, more solid, more utterly real, a world in which the physical reality will wear its deepest meanings on its face, a world filled with the knowledge of God’s glory as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11; Habakkuk 2).”

“The greatest Pauline picture of the future world is of course that in Romans 8.19–25. Creation, writes Paul, has been subjected to futility (8.20); and don’t we know it. The tree reaches its full fruitfulness and then becomes bleak and bare. Summer reaches its height and at once the days start to shorten. Human lives, full of promise and beauty, laughter and love, are cut short by illness and death. Creation as we know it bears witness to God’s power and glory (1.19–20) but also to the present state of futility to which it has been subjected as to a form of slavery. But this slavery, like all slaveries in the Bible, is then given its Exodus, its moment of release, when God does for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at Easter. This is the vision which is so big, so dazzling, that many even devout readers of Paul have blinked, rubbed their eyes, and ignored it, hurrying on to the more ‘personal’ application in the following paragraph. But this is where Paul’s whole argument has been going. This is where his great theme, of the justice of God – even, we might say, of the justification of God! – comes to one of its greatest climaxes. The theme of God’s justice has for so long been subsumed in popular readings of Paul under the theme of human salvation that we need to remind ourselves, as a matter of strict exegesis, that the theme stated in Romans 1.16f. comes to its full expression not simply in 3.21—4.25, not simply in 5.1–11 or 8.1–11, but here in 8.19–27. The problem is the same, mutatis mutandis, as that addressed in 4 Ezra: that unless creation as a whole is put to rights it might look as though God the creator had blundered, or was weak and incapable, or was actually unjust. No, declares Paul: the renewal of creation, the birth of the new world from the labouring womb of the old, will demonstrate that God is in the right. Romans 8 is the deepest New Testament answer to the ‘problem of evil’, to the question of God’s justice; and it is all accomplished according to the pattern of the Exodus, of the freeing of the slaves, of the cross and the resurrection, of the powerful new life of the Spirit. “

“…we should be working in the present time to put into practice, on the basis of the victory of Jesus Christ in his death, the beginnings, the advance signs, of that new world which we are called to imagine.”

“The start of God’s address to the world, following the death and resurrection of his son, is the creation and vocation, by the Spirit, of a people drawn from every family who will live consciously out of tune with the world as it presently is and in tune with the way God intends it to be (Romans 12.1–2: do not be conformed to this present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds – a statement that might serve as a title for this whole lecture), and who by bearing that tension in themselves, and turning it into prayer, become agents of that new world beginning to break in to the present one in healing and hope.”

“The Christian calling to radical holiness of life is likewise a matter of inaugurated eschatology. Christian ethics does not consist of a list of ‘what we’re allowed to do’ and ‘what we’re not allowed to do’, but rather of the summons to live in God’s new world, on the basis that idolatry and sin has been defeated at the cross and that new creation has begun at Easter – and that the entire new world based on this achievement is guaranteed by the power of the Spirit.”

“If it is true, as Jesus said after his resurrection, that all authority in heaven and on earth had been entrusted to him, the Christian view of all human authorities is that they are at most penultimate, to be held responsible before the Jesus who died and was raised and now calls the whole world to account. In particular, human authorities, whether at the most local level or the most globalized, are constantly to be reminded of, and encouraged in, their primary task, which is to do justice and love mercy, to ensure that those who are weak and vulnerable are properly looked after….The idea that once some kind of election has been held the government that results has carte blanche legitimacy to do whatever it wants for the next few years is a travesty of the freedom and wisdom which the biblical writers seek and urge.”

“…we need, as I have said all along, to learn to imagine a world without evil and then to think through the steps by which we might approach that goal, recognising that we shall never attain it fully during the present age but that we must not, for that reason, acquiesce meekly in the present state of the present world.”

“…evil must be named and confronted; there must be no sliding around it, no attempt, for the sake of an easy life or a quick fix to the problem, to pretend it wasn’t so bad after all. Only when that has been done, when both evil and the evildoer have been identified as what and who they are…can there be the second move, towards ‘embrace’, the embrace of the one who has deeply hurt and wounded me. Of course, even then this may not happen, if the perpetrator of the evil refuses to see his or her action in that light; but if I have named the evil and done my best to offer genuine forgiveness and reconciliation, I am free to love the person even if they don’t want to respond.”

“The fact is that when we forgive someone we not only release them from the burden of our anger and its possible consequences; we release ourselves from the burden of whatever it was they had done to us.”

“A truly biblical ecclesiology does not focus so much on the fact that the church is the community of the saved, but on the fact that the church is the community of those who, being redeemed through the cross, are now to be a kingdom and priests to serve God and to reign on the earth. Our fear of triumphalism on the one hand, and our flattening out of final destiny into simply ‘going to heaven’, have combined to rob us of this central biblical theme, but until we put it back where it belongs we won’t see how the New Testament ultimately offers a solution to the problem of evil.”

“The central point is that forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. I am aware that this has been a major theme in much of my preaching here at the Abbey these last three years, and I am sorry if you think it’s a kind of King Charles’s Head of mine. We are told again and again that we must be inclusive; that Jesus welcomed all kinds of people just as they are; that the church believes in forgiveness and that therefore we should remarry divorcees without question, we should reinstate employees who were sacked for dishonesty, we should allow convicted paedophiles back into children’s work . . . actually, we don’t normally hear the last of these, which shows that we do have some common sense at least. But forgiveness is not the same as tolerance. It is not the same as inclusivity. It is not the same as indifference, whether personal or moral."

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we don’t take evil seriously after all; it means that we do. In fact, it means we take it doubly seriously; because, to begin with, we are determined to name it and shame it and, to follow that, we are equally determined that we will do everything we can to resume an appropriate relationship after evil has been dealt with, and that in any case we will not allow this evil to determine the question of the sort of people we shall then become. That is what forgiveness is all about. It is tough: tough to do, tough to receive – and tough also in the sense that, once it’s really happened, it’s strong, unlike a wimpish tolerance which is, effectively, simply taking the line of least resistance.

Let me develop the point a little further. Forgiveness doesn’t mean ‘I didn’t really mind’ or ‘it didn’t really matter’. I did mind, and it did matter, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to forgive at all, merely something to adjust my attitudes about. (We hear a lot about that these days – about people needing to adjust their attitudes to things they formerly thought wrong; but that’s not forgiveness. If I have a wrong attitude towards someone, and if I need to adjust my attitude, that’s not forgiving them, it’s saying they don’t need forgiveness.) Nor is forgiveness the same as ‘I’m going to pretend it didn’t really happen.’ This is a little trickier, because part of the point of forgiveness is that I am committing myself to work towards the point where I can behave as if it hadn’t happened; but it did happen, and forgiveness itself isn’t pretending that it didn’t, it’s looking hard at the fact that it did and making a conscious choice, a moral decision, to set it aside so that it doesn’t come as a barrier between us. In other words, the presupposition of forgiveness is that whatever it was was indeed evil and cannot simply be set aside as irrelevant. That way lies suppressed anger, and a steady distancing of people who no longer trust one another. Much better to put things out on the table, as indeed the New Testament commands us to do, and deal with them….

Matthew 18.15–20 makes it quite clear what the command to forgive does not mean. It does not mean letting people get away with things. Here again is…‘exclusion’. If someone has done something wrong, even at a personal level, the right thing to do is not to gossip about it, to tell everyone else, to allow resentment to build up and fester, and perhaps even to plot revenge. The right thing to do is to go and tell them, straight. Unfortunately the people who are best at doing this, in my experience, are the people who actually rather enjoy telling other people that they’re out of line. Perhaps the only real qualification for doing it is if you know, deep down, that you would much rather not have to, and you have to pray for grace to go and knock on the door in the first place. And it gets worse. If the person refuses to listen to you, won’t face up to the problem, you must take another Christian with you; and then, if you are still refused, you must tell the assembly of God’s people. This is hugely serious and I don’t think most of us have even begun to get to grips with it. We would, of course, if it were a financial irregularity or perhaps a sexual scandal. These days we have tightened up on such matters, though alas this has been mostly because it’s been forced on us from the outside rather than generated from within. But what Jesus is insisting is that we should keep short accounts with one another, should live as a family not prepared to go to bed at night if there is something unresolved between us. Tough stuff.”

“It appears that the faculty for receiving forgiveness and the faculty for granting forgiveness within each of us are one and the same thing. If we open the one we shall open the other. If we slam the door on the one we slam the door on the other. God is not being arbitrary. If you are the sort of person who is going to accuse your neighbour over every small thing and keep him or her under your anger until each item has been dealt with, you are also the sort of person who will be incapable of opening your heart to receive God’s generous forgiveness – indeed, you will probably not admit that you need it in the first place.”

“The command to forgive one another, then, is the bringing into the present of the promise for the future, that in God’s new world all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well…. Like many aspects of Christian living, it’s a matter of learning to live in the present in the light of the future; and this is always hard work, though infinitely worth while.”

“Part of the discipline of receiving God’s forgiveness is that we open that same inner faculty as wide as it can go, and thus learn the secret not only of accepting ourselves – that’s one thing, recognising that I am the person I am and learning to be comfortable with that – but also of forgiving ourselves, which is quite another thing, recognising that I have done sinful, hurtful and damaging things to other people, to myself, and to God in whose image I’m made, and that because God forgives me I must learn, under his direction, to forgive myself. Of course, as with all the other forgiving we’ve been talking about, this does not mean pretending it wasn’t so bad after all, or that it didn’t really happen, or that it didn’t matter that much. It was bad, and it did happen, and it did matter. But if God has dealt with it and forgiven you – and, if it involved other people, if you have made amends as best you can – then it is part of living an authentically Christian life that you learn to forgive yourself as well. Of course, because it’s forgiveness we’re talking about, not tolerance or indifference, this will once more mean exclusion as well as embrace. It will mean saying No to whatever it was in order to say Yes to God and his forgiveness.”

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