Wednesday 26 March 2008

Ranting in Durham

My view of N. T. Wright starts with a simple thought: why is he regarded as an academic biblical theologian? I take very two examples. His Easter sermon at the Sung Eucharist in Durham Cathedral on 23 March was little more than an undersupported rant against secularism. I was not going to bother with it, but David Aaronovitch was right to take him to task for his "wicked untruths" (headline).

I'll start with the biblical bits. He argues that:

the continued puzzlement of the disciples is a mark of the story's authenticity. If someone had been making it all up a generation later, as many have suggested, they would hardly have had such a muddle going on. More particularly, nobody would have made up the remarkable detail of the cloth around Jesus' head, folded up in a place by itself, or the even more extraordinary fact that Jesus is not immediately recognised, either here, or in the evening on the road to Emmaus, or the later time, cooking breakfast by the shore.

The issue is not "someone... making it all up" but that there are four gospels and more texts in the New Testament, each history-like and biography-like, which, usually consistent (but not always) within themselves, represents the ongoing oral traditions of what Jesus did and said as understood within communities. They are different because they developed came via different routes, and they cannot be conflated together. It is like a set of beliefs and expectations looking to the future, drawing on existing scriptures, pulling on some of what Jesus did and said as such was mangled through the story-making and telling processes, but much more presented for the messianic hope. It has been said that, other than the forty days in the wilderness, the events of Jesus add up to about three weeks worth of activity. That extraction would be rather selective, then. The reason Jesus is not recognised in some resurrection appearances is not because some historian is being authentic, but because a theological point is being made: Jesus is "recognised" when they get the point, or when it is presented in the text, and it is all to demonstrate that his mission is with the leaders and they have legitimacy and authority. In other words, it is not some form of history going on here, but a process of faith-writing into the community, that pulls on the various strands of the questioning, story-telling that is still looking for that day of liberation.

It is Wright's grotesque use of aunt sallies that makes him more like a fundy than any sort of scholar. He then attacks someone who regards the Easter message as showing good can come out of suffering.

'The Easter message draws the devout together' (presumably the devout of all religions). 'From suffering, goodness can triumph. Death is not final.' And then, a grand and woefully misleading last sentence: 'That is what all faiths in Britain can proclaim and where they can come together this weekend.'

He adds: don't achieve anything by downgrading the unique message of Easter.

And that other believers in other faiths:

...would rightly expect us to be talking about something unique that happened as a one-off.

Why would they? When I have conversations with people of other beliefs, we talk about overlaps. Of course there is not some sameness into which everything drops, but we will discuss what is similar. We should be interested in what we have in common.

He makes this blunder:

Easter is what it is because, together with Jesus' crucifixion, it is the central event of world history, the moment towards which everything was rushing and from which everything emerges new.

I want to know what, in history, this mechanism is: that one man's crucifixion is anything other than events for him and his followers at that time. Crucifixion turned into a faith event with a thousand and one implications for believers is a matter of theology, a different language game than is history. History is, when it is empirical, about documenting and the only issue is: did it happen, what primary documents have we got about it, and what are the document's witting and unwitting testimonies? We have no primary documents of the crucifixion. We think it took place, and there are other secondary references to it outside Christianity, but what people make of it stands outside history. Of course there are other approaches to history, but the most sympathetic to much theology - narrative history - is precisely that: story and culture that rolls one understanding on to another. Hardening history up even on this basis, it has to be said that the lack of primary documents means that we do not know what people thought of it at the time; we do know what some came to think of it, in what is called the proto-orthodox stream, where secondary documents about the crucifixion are actually primary documents about the proto-orthodox faith communities. They have no privilege into history: history does not include faith and belief as evidence of anything other than the existence of faith and believers.

As for agreement with others, it might be useful if he got his understanding right.

The second leader [in The Times] on Good Friday was rightly complaining about Tibet. What good does it do to say there that 'from suffering goodness can triumph'? Isn't that just a further encouragement to the bullying Chinese government? And what would a Buddhist say, for whom suffering is an illusion? And would mouthing these platitudes do one tiny thing to encourage our government, or even our athletes, to put pressure on China?

Buddhists do not think suffering is an illusion. They think it is experienced, sticky, horrid and of samsara - due to attachment. It is as real as the rest of life. But it is an attempt at binary opposition to Christianity to put it down by labelling it swiftly as "illusion". The Buddhists of Tibet want rid of such suffering as much as any other believer or non-believer: it is a huge burden and limitation. To try to achieve non-attachment in such a setting is made into an immense even overbearing effort. They want their culture and religion restored in order to make such non-attachment more achievable, in order to have liberation here and now to achieve that deeper liberation that practice achieves. Plus, and according to Tibetan belief (and that of other Mahayana views), how can a Bodhissatva return and do good among others in such a repressive setting?

He has all these enemies, does Tom Wright, and one of them is the Enlightenment:
It is, I grant you, better to say that from suffering goodness can triumph than to lose hope altogether. For some people who would say that, the glass of faith is perhaps half full. But what the article has done, in a typically patronizing example of late-Enlightenment rhetoric, is to offer a glass that's half empty and getting emptier.

But in fact he is his own huge displayer of late-Enlightenment rhetoric. To speak of one truth, as he does, and to misunderstand history and theology, is such a display of Enlightenment objectivism. He also gets muddled between the pluralistic and relativistic and the Enlightenment task and method of aiming for objectivity.

Real Christianity, the full-glass version, is both the truth that makes sense of all other truth and the truth that offers itself as the framework within which those other truths will find their meaning. The one thing it doesn't do, uncomfortably for today's pluralistic world, is offer itself as one truth among many, or one version of a single truth common to all.

Well it may just have to be so, because this is how the world is so composed; what he is seeking is privilege for his version of the truth: not only for Christianity as a whole but his rather narrow theological version of it, and one that rides roughshod over historiography. But it all gets much worse when he shows his ranting side about secularism:

First, the current controversy about embryo cloning. Our present government has been pushing through, hard and fast, legislation that comes from a militantly atheist and secularist lobby.

What utter rubbish. This is the logic of the football supporters club, chanting and making a noise. He wants to join in with his pals on this side of a line he draws:

The media sometimes imply that it's only Roman Catholics who care about such things, but that is of course wrong. All Christians are now facing, and must resist, the long outworking of various secularist philosophies, which imagine that we can attain the Christian vision of future hope without the Christian God. In this 1984-style world, we create our own utopia by our own efforts, particularly our science and technology.

No thank you. I am not joining your circus of baracking and shouting. Scientists have made considerable progress in medical health and progress is welcome. Does he have no need of progress in medical health? I have an interest in improving the lives of those with dementia and reducing its occurence; I also have kept an interest in Tuberous Sclerosis. Both of these require advanced work that may upset people who cannot tell the difference between clusters of cells and sentient and self-conscious people. This that follows is utterly disgraceful:

The irony is that this secular utopianism is based on a belief in an unstoppable human ability to make a better world, while at the same time it believes that we (it's interesting to ask who 'we' might be at this point) have the right to kill unborn children and surplus old people, and to play games with the humanity of those in between. Gender-bending was so last century; we now do species-bending. Look how clever we are! Utopia must be just round the corner.

These are not the words of someone who would like to be considered serious. They would be comic if they were not so fascistic in their attacks on those who actually live, and think, and work. Plus the attack on "gender-bending" as some sort of past fashion just shows how little he regards the pain of those who have one sex in their head and one sex on their bodies. No doubt he combines 1 Corinthians 5 and Romans 1 as well for that other trodden-on minority. That's why this rings so hollow, coming from his ranting:

It grows directly out of the central facts of our faith, because on Easter day God reaffirmed the goodness and image-bearingness of the human race in the man Jesus Christ, giving the lie simultaneously to the idea that utopia could be had by our own efforts and to the idea that humans are just miscellaneous evolutionary by-products, to be managed and manipulated at will.

What does? What grows directly out of his faith seems to be a nasty ability to spout tripe, to attack, to treat minorities with dismissal, to make assumptions when not ranting, and indeed (as regards the Enlightenment) to be a pot calling a rather more thoughtful kettle black.

But we who celebrate our risen Lord today must bear witness to Easter, God's great act of putting-right, as the yardstick for all human justice.

But he puts nothing right by this interpretation. He should be ashamed. In this article on 24 March 2008 in Christianity Today, he writes:

The enormous shifts during my lifetime, from the whole town observing Good Friday and Easter, to those great days being simply more occasions for football matches and yet more televised reruns of old movies, are indices of what happens when a society loses its roots and drifts with prevailing social currents.

Is there any wonder, when he comes out with the rubbish that he did at Durham Cathedral? If he is anything like typical then it seems that ordinary people just might have their priorities right, wicked secularists that they are.


Steven Carr said...

'the continued puzzlement of the disciples is a mark of the story's authenticity.'


These people had allegedly been given the secret of the Kingdom of God.

They had allegedly been personally given the power to raise the dead (Matthew 10)

They had seen Moses (!) return from the grave.

One of them had even walked on water.

And Jesus had prophesied exactly what would happen.

Even the opposition to Jesus allegedly knew that he had prophesied that he would rise from the dead.

And Wright claims that the disciples doubts prove the story's authenticity.

What on earth is he on?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I don't agree with you either. You seem to mistake a process of New Testament writers mining the Hebrew Bible for content and support for some sort of reportage. It is not reportage at all. Wright knows this, that it goes from the New Testament to the Old, but what he tries to do is the old "authenticity at the scene of an accident" approach where the police get slightly different accounts from witnesses, and that doubts thrown at some accounts are left in by the writers as a mark of authenticity. They are left in, or made, because they underline a point: an important point, for example, is that in the stories the disciples must never be seen as the equivalent of Jesus whatever the gifts they are supposed to have. Wright also suggests difference means accounts of events means history, but it doesn't: primary documents mean history and there aren't any.

klady said...

I do not understand the obsession with the hobgoblin of secularism among church leaders in the U.K. As far as N.T. Wright is concerned, the only logical explanation for any kind of widespread opposition to his personal political and ethical views is that there must be a "militantly atheist and secularist lobby" out to defeat him (and the one behind the curtain, The One True God, for whom the bishop speaks). How bizarre for a man who is supposed to be brilliant, at least after a fashion.

Your essay is brilliant, Adrian. I need to spend more time with it, but just in passing, I'm struck with how odd it seems that Bishops Wright and Spong, both popular writers and scholars (Wright much more of a scholar, at least when he's not ranting), both spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy on the notion of the bodily Resurrection, fussing and fretting about whether it "really" happened, as a matter of historical, empirical, physical fact or whether it was merely a powerful imagining -- as if nothing else truly mattered -- flip side fundamentalists, both of them. I don't mind Spong, for various reasons, but Wright seems to me to be making rather a fool of himself, jousting at the non-believers (or as someone put it, the "God-free") when his kind of thinking seems to be causing much greater harm to Christianity than that of his supposed mighty opponents.

But would do I know? Just gazing across the pond here when not looking at our own mess.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Well Spong started out as an evangelical. Most lately he links the whole crucifixion-resurrection to Jewish festivals, and the palm leaves are only available at the festival of tabernacles and yet the narrative goes on to Pesach.

One reason why I did bother with the Anglican "heavy" - 'I'm a friend of the Archbishop' - is to put him alongside Williams and Jensen. My point is none of these work. Jensen is crass, Williams leaves you nowhere and Wright makes assumptions. None of them will employ metaphor for what it is.