Sunday, 13 March 2011

Lives of Jesus 7: N.T. Wright

In moving, in a sense, from left to right on the theological spectrum in our adventures with the Lives of Jesus, we have finally arrived at writer who holds an essentially orthodox view of Jesus, although one which has been criticised strongly by some conservative church leaders.  Nicholas Thomas Wright was until recently Anglican Bishop of Durham in the north of England, and is a celebrated and prolific New Testament scholar.  In this capacity he walks a fine line, on the one hand upholding many of the building blocks of Christian orthodoxy while on the other challenging conventional views of what this theology means.  Many people find him confusing.  He doesn't say what they are used to hearing, but at the same time it's impossible to brand him a "liberal".  In a sense, he sees this confusion as part of his mission.  He says:

If church leaders themselves spent more time studying and teaching Jesus and the Gospels, a good many of the other things we worry about in day-to-day church life would be seen in their proper light.

And in another place:

...the way to Christian growth is often to allow oneself to be puzzled and startled by new apparent complexity.

And finally, in case you thought you were in a safe haven of orthodoxy, there is this.

After twenty years of serious historical-Jesus study I still say the Christian creeds ex animo, but I now mean something very different by them, not least by the word God itself.

The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is is based on a series of lectures originally given in Chicago in 1999.  It draws heavily on his longer work, Jesus and the Victory of God, from which he quotes extensively.  The title gives you a clue to two things about this book.  The word Is in the subtitle suggests that he views Jesus as a present, not merely an historical figure.  The main title suggest that he wants his readers to be challenged, not comforted.

In introducing the book he links himself very firmly with the legacy of Albert Schweitzer.  For Schweitzer, writing in the first decade of the 20th century, the state of research allowed for only two possibilities - the "thoroughgoing skepticism" of William Wrede, who asserted that it was not possible to know much for certain about Jesus but that he certainly wasn't divine; and Schweitzer's own view that he was an eschatological prophet, a prophet forseeing the imminent end of the world as he knew it.  Wright, almost a century later, aligns himself firmly with Schweitzer, while seeing the proponents of The Jesus Seminar such as Robert Funk and Marcus Borg as successors to Wrede.

Following this line, he begins with Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of God, placing it firmly in the context of first century Judaism and the political situation in Judea.  Jesus clearly saw that the dominant forces in Judaism were moving towards a conflict with Rome which could only be disastrous for Israel.  This hardly took divine insight, just common sense.  The divine insight was rather in the alternative vision that he presented, of an inclusive Kingdom in which Israel would not simply be an independent theocracy but the true "light of the world" which God had originally intended.

In his view of the Kingdom he is not too far from Borg or Nolan.  However, he differs as to Jesus' view of his own place in it.  Firstly, Jesus saw himself very clearly and unabiguously as the Messiah.  Secondly, in contrast to the popular messianic view of his time, he understood that the Messiah had to suffer and die.

So for Wright, as for all orthodox Christians, the centre of the Gospel lies in Jesus' death and resurrection.  Wright is unambiguous about both these events - he regards both the crucifixion and resurrection as historical events, seeing the growth and spread of Christianity as inexplicable without both.  However, the meaning he gives to these events is a little less orthodox, and one of the key points on which his view is both complex and difficult to grasp.

Jesus had declared that the way to the kingdom was the way of peace, the way of love, the way of the cross.  Fighting the battle with the enemy's weapons meant that one had already lost it in principle and would soon lose it, and lose it terribly, in practice.  Jesus determined that it was his task and role, his vocation as Israel's representative, to lose the battle on Israel's behalf.  This would be the means of Israel's becoming the light, not just of herself...but of the whole world.

...the cross, seen as I have said in the light of Easter, offers itself as the great turning point of history.  if we are to follow Jesus' own understanding of his vocation, it was the moment when the evil and pain of all the world were heaped up in one place, there to be dealt with once and for all.

Statements like this led to Wright being accused of not believing in "substitutionary atonement", the idea of Jesus "dying for our sins" and taking the punishment for us.  He has apparently denied this, but I suspect that we have here an example of him saying the words but meaning something different by them.  Jesus' substitution in this retelling is both more direct, and more rooted in this world, than the view I was taught as a young Christian.  It also makes Jesus much more real, more human and less ethereal.

Which brings me to next logical question - was Jesus God?  This is the context for the quote at the start of this review - I still say the Christian creeds ex animo, but I now mean something very different by them, not least by the word God itself. 

So let's try to follow his argument. 

He believed himself called, by Israel's god, to evoke the traditions which promised YHWH's return to Zion, and the traditions which spoke of a human figure sharing the divine throne; to enact those traditions in his own journey to Jerusalem, his messianic act in the Temple, and his death at the hands of the pagans (in the hope of subsequent vindication); and thereby to embody YHWH's return....

In Jesus himself...we see the biblical portrait of YHWH come to life.

So Jesus appears to see it as his mission to represent, or act out, the identity of God on earth amongst his people.  But then:

I do not think Jesus "knew he was God" in the same sense that one knows one is hungry or thirsty, tall or short....It was more like the knowledge that I have that I am loved by my family and closest friends; like the knowledge I have that sunrise over the sea is awesome and beautiful....As part of his human vocation, grasped in faith, sustained in prayer, tested in confrontation, agonized over in further prayer and doubt, and implemented in action, he believed he had to do and be, for Israel and the world, that which according to Scripture only YHWH himself could do and be.

So that's "yes and no"?  In answer to the question he has given us a riddle, much as Jesus himself often did.  Perhaps that's appropriate for a subject so complex and so mysterious.  But he goes on to explain further.

Western orthodoxy, not least that which calls itself "evangelicalism", has had for too long an overly lofty and detached view of God.  It has always tended to approach the christological question by assuming this view of God and then by fitting Jesus into it.  Hardly surprisingly the result has been a docetic Jesus. (i.e. the idea that Jesus' human body was merely an illusion)...My proposal is not that we know what the word god means and manage somehow to fit Jesus into that.  Instead, I suggest that we think historically about a young Jew possessed of a desperately risky, indeed apparently crazy, vocation, riding into Jerusalem in tears, denouncing the Temple and dying on a Roman cross - and that we somehow allow our meaning for the word god to be recentred around that point.

So, then, this is what Wright means when he says "God" in the creed - and it is just the same as Albert Nolan meant 25 years earlier.

We cannot deduce anything about Jesus from what we think we know about God; we must now deduce everything about God from what we know about Jesus.

This, ultimately, is the challenge of Jesus - to understand what Jesus, and hence what God, is for us in our time and place, in the postmodern world where everything seems to be falling apart.  Wright sees the place of the Church and of Christians not as retreating to a modernist or pre-modern world-view, or "hurling true doctrine" at the world, but engaging with every aspect of life. 

The gospel of Jesus points us and indeed urges us to be at the leading edge of the whole culture, articulating in story and music and art and philosophy and education and poetry and politics and theology and even, heaven help us, biblical studies, a worldview that will mount the historically rooted Christian challenge to both modernity and post-modernity, leading the way into the post-modern world with joy and humour and good judgement and true wisdom.

1 comment:

Graham Scott said...

A thoughtful overview of Lives of Jesus. It was good to reminded of Wright's focus again through your use of quotes. It is indeed a valuable book. Thanks John.