Sunday Night Journal — September 19, 2010
I finished reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope some weeks ago, and have been wanting to write about it, but having difficulty finding the time to do so. To let it be the subject of this week’s Sunday Night Journal seemed a way out of the impasse. But now that I have a few hours available, and the book in my hand, I find the task almost overwhelming. There’s so much in the book that is valuable that any review longer than “It’s good; you should read it,” seems misguided: an attempt to do too much, ending in doing too little. But I’ll give it a try.
I prefer to avoid learning anything much about the life and personality of an author when I first encounter him or her, because I don’t want to be prejudiced by such knowledge. Accordingly, I’ve resisted the temptation to look around on the net for any information about N.T. Wright beyond what I already knew: that he is the Anglican bishop of Durham, that he is a well-regarded biblical scholar and theologian, and that his work has had positive responses from Catholics such as Amy Welborn (I believe it was her review of this book that made me want to read it). On the basis of the book itself, I would add that he seems to have an Evangelical perspective, but with the Anglican inclusion of emphasis on sacraments. He seems to have a typically Evangelical definition of the word “church,” which is to say, a pretty broad one, of the “mere Christianity” sort. But apart from that, and apart from what strikes me as an over-hasty dismissal of the idea of purgatory, I don’t think there’s much here that is incompatible with Catholic teaching.
It’s important to establish that at the beginning, because Wright’s purpose in this book is to dismantle what he believes to be some seriously erroneous views about the ultimate destiny promised by Christianity. And I think he’s right. Like C.S. Lewis, whose influence on this book is clear from the title down through many details, his over-arching doctrinal views are derived from sources and directed toward conclusions which are held in common by most reasonably orthodox Christians.
What is it that Christians hope for? “To go to heaven when we die” would be the obvious immediate answer. And what or where is heaven? The answer to that is less ready to hand, because our notions of it are too vague. And that, says Wright, is because we have unconsciously adopted a too-spiritual view of it, and have lost our sense of the real meaning of resurrection and have begun to think in terms that are not specifically Christian at all, but rather are quite ordinary and widespread.
Most people in the ancient world, Wright says, would have found it not at all unsurprising to hear the followers of Jesus say that he continued to live in a spiritual form in a spiritual world. What was astonishing and in some sense offensive was the claim that he had come back to life in a physical body, albeit one with powers and qualities unknown to us. It is not the claim of “life after death” that scandalizes, but the claim of life renewed in a human body, in this world.
We are not to think of the next life as an escape from this one, of our souls escaping from the physical into the spiritual. The Christian hope is not that we will depart this world and that it will be discarded as being of no further use, having served its purpose in testing people so that they can be judged worthy of heaven or hell. Our hope is for the transformation of this world, and ourselves, into what they were always intended by God to be. As Wright says:
When St. Paul says, “We are citizens of heaven,” he doesn’t at all mean that when we’re done with this life we’ll be going off to live in heaven. What he means is that the savior, the Lord, Jesus the King…will come from heaven to earth, to change the present situation and state of his people. The key word here is transform…Jesus will not declare that present physicality is redundant and can be scrapped…. In a great act of power—the same power that accomplished Jesus’s own resurrection…he will change the present body into one that corresponds in kind to his own…this will take place within the context of God’s victorious transformation of the whole cosmos. (that last emphasis is mine).
Speaking of the passage in Revelation, Wright says …the image is that of marriage. the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband….This is the ultimate rejection of…every worldview that sees the final goal as the separation of the world from God, of the physical from the spiritual, of earth from heaven. It is the final answer to the Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom will come and his will be done on earth as in heaven.
Heaven and earth, it seems, are not after all poles apart, needing to be separated forever when all the children of heaven have been rescued from this wicked earth…they are different, radically different, but they are made for each other in the same way…as male and female.
What, then, is “heaven,” exactly?
…when the Bible speaks of heaven and earth it is not talking about two localities related to each other within the same space-time continuum or about a nonphysical world contrasted with a physical one but about two different kinds of what we call space, two different kinds of what we call time…. God’s space and ours—heaven and earth, in other words—are, though very different, not far away from one another….God’s space and ours interlock and intersect in a whole variety of ways even while they remain, for the moment at least, their separate and distinct identities and roles. One day…they will be joined in a quite new way, open and visible to one another, married together forever.
…This world [heaven] is different from ours (earth) but intersects with it in countless ways, not least in the inner lives of Christians themselves...
To fail to understand the difference between this cosmic resurrection and the conventional bland idea of “going to heaven when we die” is to fail to understand what Christian hope is all about, and therefore to get the message wrong in significant ways. Surprised by Hope is not, in general, impressive for its prose style, but there are some striking passages, one of which makes this point:
…if God’s good creation—of the world, of life as we know it, of our glorious and remarkable bodies, brains, and bloodstreams—really is good, and if God wants to reaffirm that goodness in a wonderful act of new creation at the last, then to see the death of the body and the escape of the soul as salvation is not simply slightly off course, in need of a few subtle alterations and modifications. It is totally and utterly wrong. It is colluding with death. It is conniving at death’s destruction of God’s good, image-bearing human creatures while consoling ourselves with the (essentially non-Christian and non-Jewish) thought that the really important bit of ourselves is saved from this wicked, nasty body and this sad, dark world of space, time, and matter! As we have seen, the whole of the Bible, form Genesis to Revelation, speaks out against such nonsense.
And what will this renewed and transformed creation, this earth-heaven, be like? Well, Wright doesn’t indulge in too much speculation on that score, and of course he’s right not to.
It is of course only through imagery, through metaphor and symbol, that we can imagine the new world that God intends to make. That is right and proper. All our language about the future…is like a set of signposts pointing into a bright mist. The signpost doesn’t provide a photograph of what we will find when we arrive but offers instead a true indication of the direction we should be travelling in...
The last third or so of the book deals with the implications of this proper understanding of hope. It points, says Wright, to a serious responsibility for attempting to improve the conditions of life here and now, for everyone, as a sign and a first manifestation of the kingdom. He cautions, of course, against the idea that we can create the kingdom ourselves, but also against the opposite error, of believing that the world is so hopelessly corrupt, and is anyway doomed to the garbage dump, that we can only endure it and can’t expect to do much to improve it. This part of the book is really quite clearly aligned with Catholic social teaching, and while it’s perfectly good it isn’t as noteworthy as the earlier parts.
Personally, I want to speculate about the new creation, and cling desperately to the hope of it. By nature I’m gloomy enough to find myself sometimes thinking that it would be better if the creation had never happened, because the pain in it sometimes seems so very much greater than the joy or hope. I very much need to believe that the pain has a meaning and that we are on a difficult path that leads to what we most desire. So speculating about what it will actually be like serves a good purpose for me, as long as I keep in mind that it’s almost certainly wrong or at best a little bit right, because the new condition will be something I can’t really imagine now.
I think, for instance, about romantic love, about sex in both its narrow and broad meanings. If this new creation has anything at all to do with the existing one, it seems inconceivable that we will not still be men and women. What will that mean? I long to find out. And I know that the best way for us to find out it is to try to be good men and women here and now. I don’t mean only morally good in the sense of following the rules, although that’s necessary: I mean good in the sense that a great work of art is good, or that a flourishing healthy tree is good: being what their creators intended them to be.
By the way, the title of this piece is from the book, though I can’t locate it now.