Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 1 of 6)
Of course, before the interview, I only knew him distantly, by reputation. Although I looked forward to talking with him, I also steeled myself to the quite real possibility that he would be brusque, arrogant, or dismissive, traits which do occasionally surface among the upper echelons of the church and the academy. So I was immensely pleased, upon meeting him, to find that he was self-effacing, possessed of a good sense of humor, and quite generous with his time. What I envisioned as a half hour interview quickly turned into an hour and three-quarters amble through some breathtaking intellectual and spiritual vistas. Alas, the transcribed results clocked in around 14,000 words, and The Living Church was only able to publish around 1000! So their loss is your gain, dear reader, as I plan to present the interview in six parts (excepting what appeared in print), directly from my notes as transcribed from a tape recording. I hope you enjoy it.
Continue reading Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 1 of 6)
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My questions and comments appear in italics.
I appreciate your work and the sort of synthesis you bring to it, of service to the church and also academic rigor.
The outlines of your professional career are well known to most: professor, canon theologian of Westminster Abbey, and now Bishop of Durham. I would like, however, to ask you a bit about your spiritual and vocational life – about things one wouldn’t find on your C.V., if you don’t mind?
As author, teacher, and ordained person, your vocation embraces both the church and the academy, both faith and scholarship. How did you arrive at this dual vocation?
I’m not sure that it is a question of arriving at a dual vocation; it’s just always been there. Well, maybe not always. I was aware of a call to ministry when I was quite young. I didn’t know it was unusual in those days, I thought, maybe, that’s just the way it always happened. When I was seven or eight I was just quite clear that this is what I wanted to do. And through my teens I just always assumed that this meant I would go to theological college and I would get ordained and I would work in a parish for the rest of my days. I have several relatives who have done that and so it is a career path that I was quite familiar with. It was when I was at Oxford as an undergraduate that I, to put it crudely, discovered that I had a brain. I think I was always reasonably good academically at school but I never gave myself a huge emphasis on that because I was always busy with sport and music, you know the really important things in life. When I was at seminary in my early twenties having graduated I remember talking to one of my advisors about my desire to do both pastoral work and scholarship and the advisor saying very firmly ‘well, you’re going to have to choose which you want.’ And I thought then and think now thirty-five years later that he was wrong, that I have been right to combine the two. And it has meant at times living on the fault line between two tectonic plates, but that is part of the deal as far as I’m concerned. I think both the church and the academy have suffered from the disjunction. I think it’s important that some people at least get to that particular place of pain, which is a place of, as it were, cultural pain. Not least in North America, maybe more in North America than England. My advisor was there representing more of a North American standpoint than a British standpoint, because I sit in a study at home where the great portrait on the wall is J.B. Lightfoot, who was one of most famous ever bishops of Durham and also one of the five leading intellectuals in Europe of his day. He embodies the fact that you should be bringing this stuff together. And that is an incredible model to have day by day.
You’ve already touched on this in terms of cultural pain, but what value do you see in that synthesis beyond living on the fault line? Also, what do you find are its pitfalls?
I think at the moment we are seeing a great shift in biblical and theological scholarship, not least in this country as people are fed up with the negativity of modernism. Part of the postliberal thing, in grasping some of Barth’s insights, it seems to me actually in danger of going back, of saying that the modernist thing was a mistake, let’s just go back to medieval exegesis or allegory or whatever. Within postmodernism, that can mean, ‘let’s just play with the text’ and hear what we want to hear in it and let’s not be put off by any of that silly modernist stuff about what it originally meant. Actually, I want to say know it is painful to hold on to what it originally meant as well as what we want to hear in it today, but if you are not doing both of those you are in deep trouble. I think that the way I construe our culture as having gone in the Western World in the last couple of years, those are the tectonic plates: living with the “pastness” of the past but also the fact that the past also has to become present and future for us. This is why I’ve written a certain amount about what I loosely call, following Bernard Lonergan, an epistemology of love. The point about love is that it simultaneously affirms the otherness of the beloved and in the case of the historian, that means letting the past be the past and not trying to collapse it into the present. And also embracing it. And unless it’s doing both of those, it’s simply not love. If it simply affirms the otherness without the embrace, it is simply a cool, enlightenment style tolerance of something of something that is very different. If it tries to collapse the boundaries without the affirmation of otherness, then it is some kind of rape or abuse. I’m aware that the church finds it terribly difficult because our culture finds it terribly difficult to do both of those and to keep them in their proper balance. I’m constantly aware of trying to hammer out what that means whether it is in historical Jesus scholarship or in reading Paul or whatever.
So your criticism of the Barthian postliberals would be that they are not sufficiently postmodern and that they are trying to, at least in your view, return to a premodern exegesis? And postmodernists are not sufficiently modern in that they don’t take the otherness of the text seriously?
I think the danger is, in rejecting modernism, (and this is funny, because I am often characterized as a postmodern writer in some ways, if you listen to some of my critiques of enlightenment modernity – I had someone come up to me following a lecture the other day and say ‘I think there’s something to be said for the enlightenment’ and I said ‘of course, there’s a lot to be said for the enlightenment, I do not want to go back to pre-enlightenment dentistry, for example. There are all kinds of things for which I am profoundly grateful.) But at the serious academic level, we’ve got to hear the questions of the enlightenment. The danger with the postliberal movement is that it just says “oh! All that historical stuff! Who needs it? Let’s just shut it away.” One of my ongoing questions for people writing in these traditions is whether there is sufficient clarity when people use the label postliberal as to how that relates to postmodernity and vice-versa. There is a to-ing and a fro-ing to be done. What I am actually interested in doing is not saying yes to modernity or yes to postmodernity but in finding a way through postmodernity and out the other side into something which will not be a going back to something else we had but a going on to where we’re supposed to be now, tomorrow, a post-postmodernity, which we don’t know what it looks like yet. It will recapture the best of the past, it’s got to do that. Yes, I want to hear what Augustine said about Psalm 145, I want to be doing business with Bernard of Clairvaux, I want to be doing business with Luther and Calvin, and Ignatius of Loyola. But, they themselves would say, your primary business is to do real business with the text while being a praying, faithful, holy, witnessing Christian in your own day. And it’s that creative fusion, a creative fusion without a wrong sort of collapse which is where the task really lies. This is plunging into some wonderful big picture stuff, almost before we’ve begun.
This is a very theological, an eschatological perspective, which is oriented towards the future, even while God is the same God who has been working with the church in the past.
(More to come soon.)
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