NT Wright has become a favorite theologian of mine for several reasons ever since I was first exposed to him in seminary. His theological work is tightly related to his scholarship in biblical studies, which he taught for many years. This makes him helpful as a teacher for the Church because teaching in the Church is generally the ministry of the Word. Wright refuses to turn biblical stories into either Christian Aesop’s fables on the one hand whose true value is in the moral or principle rather than their place in the overarching narrative, or into mere examinations of the relative likelihood of their historical veracity on the other hand, treating them as textual relics to be studied rather than a Divine Word to be heard and done. Instead, he works rigorously to read them on their own terms from their own setting, while at the same time listening for and reflecting on the theological importance for them in the life of the Church.
So, I am excited to be reading and blogging his recent work Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. I’ll do my best to present his views in each chapter clearly and succinctly, interact with them some myself, then get out of the way. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I think I will.
To begin, Wright asserts in the preface that many people, Christians included, do not know “what the ultimate Christian hope really is.” Therefore, “hope comes as a surprise, at several levels at once.”
1. “At the first level, the book is obviously about death and about what can be said from a Christian perspective about what lies beyond it.”
2. “At the second level, then, the book is about the groundwork of practical and even political theology–of, that is, Christian reflection on the nature of the task we face as we seek to bring God’s kingdom to bear on the real and painful world in which we live.”
Then, in chapter 1, “All dressed up and no place to go?”, he begins with a series of snapshots to set the stage: public grief at Princess Diana’s death in 1997, controversial statements about the afterlife from a famous soccer coach that sounded defaming of persons with disabilities, a small group of people gathered for a funeral in which the body has been cremated, public uncertainty and questions in the wake of large scale disasters–9/11, the 2004 Asian tsunami, the Gulf Coast hurricanes of 2005, etc, and an all but abandoned community once rich with natural resources, now a desolate sign of “postindustrial blight.” The common thread in these snapshots is the implicit question of where hope may be found, if at all.
Wright wants to address two questions “tightly together” that have otherwise been addressed apart: “First, what is the ultimate Christian hope? Second, what hope is there for change, rescue, transformation, new possibilities within the world in the present?” (p. 5)
In this book, I anticipate him developing a common theme in his lectures and other work, that Christian hope is less about escaping from the world and up to heaven and more about “God’s new creation, for ‘new heavens and new earth.'”
To set the stage just a little further, Wright points out as evidence of widespread confusion in the wider world, that there is a great diversity of belief regarding ultimate hope among the world’s religions and belief systems. Further, “the main beliefs that emerge in the present climate seem to [Wright] of three types, none of which corresponds to Christian orthodoxy.” (p. 9)
1. “Some believe in complete annihilation; that is at least clean and tidy, however unsatisfying it may be as an account of human destiny.” (p. 9)
2. “The funeral practices that have grown up, or reappeared, in our own day exhibit the same kind of confusion.” (p. 11) What does “gifts for the dead” in the form of pictures, stuffed animals, spare glassess, and/or false teeth being placed in the coffin, reflect in terms of belief, if anything?
3. “Finally, at the popular level, belief in ghosts and the possibility of spiritualistic contact with the dead has resisted all the inroads of a century of secularism.” (p. 12)
Unfortunately, confusion and ignorance are not only indicative of culture at large, but of the Church as well. A little more unpacking our confusion in the next chapter and we’ll be ready to start our study of hope in the Christian Scriptures.
3 thoughts on “surprised by hope 1”
Looking at the three points at the end of the discussion, one thing that strikes me as a good description of the end of a “worldly” life is actually from “Star Trek: TNG”.
In one episode, a Klingon warrior is killed. The crew of the spaceship asks another Klingon what is to be done with the body – a particular burial, return it to the family, etc. The Klingon response is “the body does not matter; dispose of it.” The Klingon belief was that the body was merely a vessel for the spirit, and once that spirit has left, the body is no longer important.
Actually not a bad description of how Christians should think, in my opinion!
Actually, as best I understand it–though I’m still doing some learning on this–the Hebrew understanding (and therefore, that of the NT writers as well) is not that of the Klingons. The body is not merely a container for the spirit. I think there’s something to not being wierdly attached to our earthly bodies, though we may not know exactly what that means–what it rules in or out.
The problem I see with too radical a rejection of the body is to reject an embodied existence, which is the clear witness of the NT on resurrection. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that we will have a resurrection body. So, whatever is after this earthly life is not the life of a disembodied spirit.
I think what we wrestle with since, I think, we lack a satisfying theology of the body that is broadly understood and engaged, is an intuitive curiosity about what philosophers call the mind/body problem. Our minds and bodies seem to us to be 2 things. Yet they need one another for survival, to make up the whole. They are intricately, mysteriously linked. Whatever the relationship of the mind to the soul or to the spirit, I think this relates to what we’re talking about. At this point, I know some of my questions, but am short on answers and am needing to learn more to find a satisfying theology of this whole spirit/soul/body/mind issue, as I admittedly find the Klingon explanation fairly radical and unsatisfying, even though I think it is onto something.
I agree that the spirit, mind, and body are inextricably tied together here on earth. However, I relate this to the Klingon logic, as well as to Paul, by thinking that we will have a different body in Heaven, a new body made whole, lacking infirmity, and ready for eternal community with God. Paul in 1 Cor 15 separates the physical body from the spiritual, saying, “What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. … It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body.” (NRSV)
I guess that perhaps I also approach this from my Catholic upbringing. The Roman Catholic tradition is that the spirit will ascend to heaven and enter a heavenly body at that time. Thus, the earthly body is left on earth. This is the part of the reasoning behind allowing cremation of the dead. There is no need to maintain the earthly body, as God has a new one for us when the time comes. (Don’t ask me how this would relate to the rapture, as to whether or not the body “disappears” as is often depicted in popular Christian fiction.)
Just my thoughts. Of course, I always look forward to additional discussion!