Friday, December 11, 2009

Surprised by Hope review/response (long)

I'm a little late on this. I just got around to reading Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright, which some people recommended to me a few years ago. I thought it was a good book, with some very good observations on our apparent misconceptions (as both Christians and non-believers) about death, resurrection, and the afterlife. I agree with Wright's interpretation of bodily resurrection, and the hope of a new Earth and a new heaven. I take no issue with the content presented in the book, or the case presented for this interpretation of resurrection and the afterlife. Wright makes an extremely strong case for his perspective, and I believe this perspective corresponds most closely with the truth. Although the bulk of this article will be negative my overall response to the vast majority of the book was positive. I just don't have a lot to add to the stuff I agreed with other than saying that I do in fact agree.

All that being said, I do take issue with one of the central themes of the book. Specifically the issue of 'Does this matter?', and/or 'Is this significant, and if so, how significant?' Wright explicitly answers these two questions in part 3 of the book with a definitive 'Yes', and 'Yes, very', respectively. But I'm not convinced that it is AS significant as Wright claims that it is. It is significant in that it reveals a truth, and that's important enough in itself to justify writing the book and clarifying the issue for people who are obviously confused or uneducated on the subject. However, Wright claims that the significance extends beyond simply knowing what is true. He claims that understanding these truths will, or should, drastically transform how we live our Christian lives. Which I don't necessarily buy, though I understand and appreciate the case that he makes.

To illustrate what I'm getting at, let us take two Christians. Both of these Christians are crystal clear about what the Bible says about who Jesus is, about what his commands are, about how we as Christians are to live and treat each other, about the fact that Jesus died in our place and rose for our sins, conquering death etc. Also, both are at a similar place in their walk with Christ. That is, the 'strength' of their faith at this point in life is similar. The only place where these two Christians differ is that one (we'll call him #1) understands the afterlife correctly, the promise of bodily resurrection, Christ literally defeating death in a physical sense, a new heaven and new Earth joined together etc. while the other (#2) holds some common Platonic misconceptions about the afterlife, such as that of a disembodied soul leaving the body at death, ascending to heaven, leaving behind this doomed Earth forever etc.

Given this, what should we expect to see in the way of 'fruits' from these two Christians? It's my contention that their fruits, the degree to which they live a Christian life, should be roughly exactly the same, with neither bearing any more significant fruit than the other on average. But Wright argues (implicitly) that the latter Christian will most often bear significantly less fruit. That holding the beliefs that the 2nd Christian does will, in most cases, result in the Christian not caring enough about this life, not trying to change this world for the better, and just patiently awaiting the next, completely separate, disconnected and better life. Despite the fact that Jesus directly commands his followers to be concerned with this present world, and clearly lays out the ways to go about doing that. Regardless of the Christian's depth of understanding about the way in which afterlife and resurrection function.

If Christian #2, despite not correctly understanding the promise of bodily resurrection, understands and puts into practice Christ's commands, and follows his example, then his lack of understanding on that issue shouldn't affect his actions. Jesus said to help and care for the poor, so Christian #2 tries to do it as best as he can, end of story. Jesus said to follow him, to spread the good news of him and the salvation that he offers, and to love others, so that's what Christian #2 tries to do. Christian #1 does the same. If both Christians understand the example of Christ, and His words, to the same degree (and they find themselves at a similar node in life, with similar backgrounds, life experiences, etc.) then their actions should be approximately identical. We wouldn't expect to see any more from #1 than we do from #2.

Why then is it of utmost importance that a Christian fully comprehend these truths about the afterlife and resurrection (other than truth for truth's own sake)? If a Christian can live a dedicated, full Christian life under the misapprehensions of a disembodied soul ascending to heaven (which they can, and probably tens-to-hundreds of thousands do), then why is it so crucial? The elevation of the issue to such a level seems like a kind of intellectual elitism. The idea that only those of us privy to specific scholarly interpretations of the Bible can lead a fully realized Christian life. Christ is Lord of all, including the largely dull-witted masses incapable of parsing this issue effectively for themselves. Christ is even Lord of illiterates, for that matter. Which is not to say that rigorous study of the Bible shouldn't be done, of course it should be. But if it requires a working knowledge of multiple languages, historical cultural traditions, cultural differences, rigorous cross referencing of scripture given knowledge of the original language and what various phrases/words meant in different contexts, etc. to divine a particular truth then I can't very well believe God would intentionally make an essential truth relatively esoteric. And when I say 'essential' I mean that it's essential to understand the truth in order to live a full, Christian life. While the truth of the resurrection itself is certainly essential, I don't think it's essential to understand the exact machinations of that truth in order to lead a Christian life.

Let's be clear, Christian #2 still believes in the resurrection, still believes Christ died and rose (literally, bodily) for our sins, still believes that it is only through his work on the cross that we are saved from death and reconciled with God, still believes in and understands the importance of helping the poor and downtrodden, still believes that what he does or doesn't do in this world will have eternal consequences for himself and those around him (thus that this world is very important, and not wholly distinct and separate from heaven) etc. etc. Even if he is not fully cognizant of the machinations of hope, so to speak, even if he is mistaken as to the metaphysics of body-soul duality, even if he doesn't realize that Jesus 'conquering the grave' is not only Christ's literal defeating of death, but also a defeating of literal death for humanity etc. Even if he doesn't understand these things he can still lead a fully realized Christian life and do so just as easily as someone who does understand them.

A second, though not entirely separate, bone I have to pick also occurs in the third part of the book and also has to do with the implications of fully understanding these issues. Wright takes aim at Christian conservatism primarily in the US, and declares that a proper view of the resurrection and the Christian hope necessarily leads to the conclusion that global debt remission is the greatest moral crisis in the world today. Which I find to be a non-sequitur, though, to be fair, he states that he doesn't have space in this book to make that argument fully.

He goes on to straw man Christian conservatives by stating that they are happy about things such as acid rain, pollution and ecological damage. Or at least that they are not worried about them because of the temporary nature of this world. As well as stating that they believe that God must be happy about these things as well.

First of all, the Christian is commissioned to be a good steward of the Earth and all that is in within it even if they hold the false belief that the Earth is temporary and soon to perish. So whether or not they understand the reason why they should be a good steward, if they aren't being good stewards then they simply are not obeying God's commands. So I don't buy the argument that "If only they understood the 'WHY' then they would obey". No, they disobey because they are sinful, fallen humans, and they would disobey whether they understood the 'why' or not. You can be obedient without understanding and you can understand without being obedient. Comprehension is not a prerequisite for obedience.

Secondly it simply is not true that Western Christian conservatives like acid rain, or are ambivalent about pollution in the first place. Our perspective on the issue (if I can be so bold as to speak for us) is that it's an unfortunate byproduct of human progress, innovation, and increased standards of living for all people. And that God has created the Earth in specific preparation for us, fully capable of handling our pollution. Which is not to say that we shouldn't be good stewards and attempt to reduce our polluting activities as much as possible, clearly we are commanded to do just that. Only not at the expense of technological advancements that are, all factors accounted for, good for humans. Even if we could eliminate every trace of pollution from the planet along with every technology that created it, and therefore revert the human condition that has been dramatically improved through such technologies, we emphatically SHOULD NOT do it. It would be an act of supreme wickedness and an infliction of massive death and disease upon the human race if we were to do that. This is the argument that Christian conservatives make regarding pollution, yet Wright acts as though he's never heard the argument or at least hasn't understood it as he interprets the argument to be pro-pollution, or anti-responsibility-for-the-environment when it simply is neither.

Wright also states that, in light of the truth of bodily resurrection and all that goes along with it, somehow the economic policies of the right are also misguided in some way, though, again, this is more or less asserted and not at all supported by any argumentation that he provides. As far as I could see.

I am undoubtedly giving off the impression that I dislike the book or that I disagree with it's fundamental arguments, but I don't really. I very much appreciate the scholarship of Wright and the manner in which he organizes his arguments. I think the truths he reveals have the potential to be powerful apologetic tools as well. Many secularists, or just seeking non-believers, have complaints about Christianity that simply dissolve in the light of many of these truths, so that was also an invigorating aspect of the book, I found. I don't want to downplay the importance of what the book gets right, which, when it comes to the substance, is pretty much everything. I only take issue with some of the supposed implications of the various truths.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting post/analysis. I agree (with you) that it won't necessarily change how a Christian conducts his life. Using your definition of christian #1 and #2, there shouldn't be much difference in the way they conduct their lives. Just because #1 knows of the hope of bodily resurrection doesn't mean that it will move and convict that person to bear loads of fruit for the rest of their life. Some will, some won't. I'm not sure that Wright was ever implying that #1 will bear more fruit than the other, but contrasted the two to show the differences in intent. Does intent matter? I think it has some importance.

    If #1 feeds the poor, fights injustice, and takes care of the environment because he/she believes and wants to see God's kingdom here and now, that's a much different motivation than #2 feeding the poor, fighting injustice, and taking care of the environment because it's a "good Christian thing to do", Jesus did it so I should do it, and/or doing such things is evidence that I'm saved. #2's motivations aren't bad and they are well meaning and in my opinion the actual work that has been done is no less important than #1's, but within Wright's view of God's mission, #2's seems to be doing such things for the wrong reasons.