Interview with N.T. Wright (part 2 of 6)
Continue reading Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 2 of 6)
You’ve already hinted at this a bit, but what do you personally hope to contribute to the Anglican communion (and, more broadly, Christ’s church) in the rather unique niche that you now occupy as both world-reknowned scholar and bishop of Durham.
I need to think about that a bit. In a sense I have spent the last ten months learning on the job what it means to be a bishop and there’s all sorts of things that you can’t know until you do them. You’re told all sorts of things, but it’s only when you get out there and start doing them that it really bites. And that’s been hugely exciting. And I think one of the things that I hope to do in the next ten years, assuming I shall retire in the next ten to fifteen years, is simply to be the sort of teaching, pastoral bishop who will combine the different aspects of the church’s ministry and particularly the bringing of Scripture to life, both for the diocese and through my responsibilities on the national stage and the international stage in the wider world. But it’s important that it be earthed and not be simply a mind attached to a word processor sitting in midair somewhere, e.g. Westminster Abbey, which sometimes did feel like sitting in midair somewhere. I mean, it was a wonderful place to be in all sorts of ways, but I was curiously detached both from the church and the political life of the country even though I was right in the middle of it, you know, with Church House and Parliament and everything within a stone’s throw, and yet I wasn’t actually part of it. Curiously, now, I am much more part of it even though I am living at the other end of the country. But I think one of the difficulties that the church is faced with is that we have given lip service to Scripture. We’ve said in our formularies, we’ve said in our ordination services over and over again things like ‘I will teach only that which is in Scripture, and Scripture contains all things necessary to salvation.’ We have sixteenth century formulations which we go on saying. But in the last 200 years we haven’t actually hammered out what that looks like in practice, how you read Scripture. It has been assumed that Scripture is a given and everyone knows what it says and it is just a matter of going and looking up answers and here it is. Then, within the whole modernist and now postmodernist swathe that has come through in the church and seminaries, not least in America, people are saying, ‘you know, Paul didn’t write this, we can’t believe that, if that’s what Paul thought he must have had indigestion, but we now know better.’ People have devised all kinds of strategies, and of course notoriously with the historical Jesus question, all kinds of strategies for turning Jesus into the kind of figure who legitimates the kind of religion or politics or both that we want to embrace anyway. And of course this is part of the ongoing hermeneutical spiral, I’m not saying that we can attain that unattainable objectivity, for the reasons that I’ve already given, that’s just not where one can go.
But you would say that there are more adequate and less adequate approximations of that objectivity, more obvious use of ideology and less.
Exactly. The fact that one has an ideology – you know it’s the old thing about paranoia, just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t actually out to get me. The fact that I have biases and prejudices, which we all do, doesn’t mean I’m not telling you the truth. If I have a paranoia that one plane in every ten crashes, the fact that I have that paranoia doesn’t mean that if I tell you I saw a plane crash yesterday that I would be lying. It might actually have happened. In the same way, this is why in scholarship and the life of the church we have to do our Scripture reading in public. This is why the public reading and discussion and preaching of Scripture is the primary task, because we need one another, we need to listen to one another within the body of Christ, within the academy. We need to listen to people saying ‘that Greek word simply could not have meant that in the first century, and then battle is joined and we look up other texts and we say well, what about this, what about that? We need that. And constantly when I am writing things, friends will nudge me and say, ‘are you really sure about that? I don’t think that actually catches the nuance of that.’ Something that I never questioned, and I look it over, and say ‘my goodness, you’re right! Please keep on reminding me of this sort of thing.’ because no one individual can possibly see the whole picture. We need to be engaged in that task the whole time, and my hope is that these little commentaries and so on as well as the larger scholarly works are actually doing the authority of Scripture, because the authority of Scripture is a _____ complicated concept. It’s not simply authority as in, here’s a golf club we’re looking out at, there will be a list of rules somewhere about what you do and don’t do. And some people would like to turn Scripture into that, and it really isn’t that sort of thing. It’s more like a combination of that with the coach who is out on the course with you with the captain of the club, with all sorts of other things going on. And it’s much more exciting actually, than a list of rules.
Right. And much more involving, too.
And this, again, isn’t to say that there aren’t rules. In fact, it’s interesting, even those who want to say ‘Scripture is not a list of rules’ usually then re-invent a list of new, neo-ethics of one sort or another, and we’re all familiar with the way that happens in our society.
This is going off of my question a little bit, but based on what you said about reading Scripture in public and the work of the academy and the church, would you also bring in a larger public to that, in a University Chicago style of being responsible to, say, a national public, or the non-churchgoing public? Or on the other hand, what do you think of say, Stanley Hauerwas or someone who would want to restrict it more to the church and less to the academy?
I know where Stanley’s coming from with that, and I can see that the academy, not least in Biblical studies in secular universities in America, has often adopted quite a bullying tone, and has insisted that because it is working without presuppositions (ha ha, I mean we know that that’s wrong) But often that’s been the answer: ‘we’re the ones who are coming with a neutral, objectivity. You are the ones who are adopting this funny stance called faith. Therefore, we’re going to tell you that in fact the text was thus and so.’ And of course this is not new, it’s been going on since the 18th century. But it is the bullying tone of voice which, in America, picks up extra speed from your official church-state separation, which is of course a joke because you church and your state are in fact intricately bound up together, it’s just that you don’t have a way of formalizing that. But it’s fascinating for me, having lived and worked in an established church for most of my life to hear the anti-established church rhetoric in America and to see that actually your church is far more established than ours is, in all sorts of de facto ways. It’s woven into American Culture.
My answer is – and I’m not sure if this is an answer to Hauerwas or not, it’d be interesting to have him here and ask him – I think the way in which what the church does has to be done in public includes at least the note of mission. The church has a responsibility not just to tell itself the truth but to speak God’s truth to the world. And if the church isn’t speaking God’s truth to the world, it has stopped being the church. You can never – and I’m sure Stan wouldn’t want to – get to the closed sectarian mentality. I know he might be accused of pulling in that direction. There is a danger with a certain kind of Barthianism which I run into often enough, which really does seem to be saying, and this is a caricature, but really does seem to run the risk of saying, that until you’ve taken your flying leap and landed in the charmed circle called faith, we have nothing to say to you and you have nothing to say to us. Unless everything you say flows directly from the fact of Jesus Christ, then its uninteresting and irrelevant. Whereas it seems to me that the whole point of who Jesus was, as the ultimate representative of God’s people, Israel was called to be God’s people for the world, and it was Israel’s failure to be God’s people for the world which resulted in God sending his son to be his people incarnate for the world, and therefore the church as the people of Jesus Christ exists precisely by doing business with the world. The question then is, what does that doing business with the world consist of? Does it consist only of saying that which the world is waiting to hear? Of course not. That’s where we have to go back to things like the Areopagus address, in Acts 17, where simultaneously Paul is saying look here you have an altar to the unknown God, let you tell you about this unknown God whom you ignorantly worship – you know, it send shivers down the Barthian spine with the very thought of that. But then in the very next breath, he says the god who made heaven and earth does not live in temples made with human hands. And what are we looking at from the Aeopagus? The Parthenon, the Temple of Nike, some of the greatest artworks in the Western World. And he’s saying, it’s all a waste of space. There is a willingness to find the points of contact, and then to do the explosive thing of saying ‘and actually two-thirds of your culture is radically idolatrous, and needs to be confronted and swept away. So real life is much more exciting than saying we need to retreat and do this in private. I can see that in America some people may need to say ‘a plague on your academic negativity. We’re going to tell the Christian story and you can go ahead and laugh at us if you like.’ There is a sort of cheerful holy boldness about that and that’s very much Stan Hauerwas’ style, as I understand it.
Cheerful boldness – that’s a good way of putting it.
And even some of his opponents accuse him of holiness, which is odd granted the language he uses. There is a certain kind of rigor and determination to be a Christian in America today which is a lot harder [than what it has been.}
Exactly. Especially given what I thought was a fair analysis, that in fact as a nation, our faith is even closer to our politics than in England, where there’s an officially established church.
Much moreso. Thought he denies it, Rowan Williams is actually the real leader of the opposition at the moment, because the conservatives are so much at one with Tony Blair on the key issues that are facing the country at the moment, whether it is the war with Iraq, or how we handle Europe, or what have you. They’re not offering real analysis and critique of where our public life is going. And so there is a sense that the church has a prophetic voice and actually often has had a prophetic voice. Some of the greatest prophetic voices in England over the last hundred years, people like William Temple, have been at the heart of the established church, who regard being at the heart of the established church as being a commission to speak God’s word to the nation, even if it’s not what anyone else is saying. That’s part of what establishment actually always meant in the post-constantinian world. You see people in American use the word ‘Constantinian’ as a stick to beat Christendom. But in fact if you study the fifth and sixth centuries and so on, the settlement was deeply interesting and often ambiguous and often very fruitful and creative and was by no means the swallowing up of the church under imperialism. I sometimes suspect what is going on with Americans slagging off with Constantinian Christianity is actually a projection of the American problem onto the screen of history.
I was just thinking that – that it is bad conscience about our own synthesis.
I think that is precisely what is going on. And I have found it terrifying, actually. I did a newspaper interview with one of the English broadsheets around Christmastime, I don’t know if you saw it, with the Independent. They talked a bit about the war in Iraq, and we discussed all of that, and I said a few things about the way in which America acts as the world’s police force, and how the fact is that you simply can’t do that any more than – and I used a dangerous analogy, we have an area of south London, Brixton, which is I guess about three-quarters black, and has had a notoriety, whether justified of not I don’t know, as being a place with a lot of drug problems and so on. I said, supposing that some white people from a different part of London were to say ‘Let’s go and sort that lot out’, they would go in as vigilantes, and they would simply not be a credible police force. My point is we need a credible global police force and America simply cannot be that. And the fact that America cannot see that is part of the problem. I then had angry letters, e-mails, etc., from devout Americans saying ‘how dare you criticize our president!’ We are good Christians, and we voted him in because he doesn’t believe in abortion, because he’s not like those wicked Democrats, he’s not like Bill Clinton was, and we Christian Americans know that we need to do this business. And there is no sense of critical distance, that you might support some policies and not others. And of course you are right in the middle of that with the whole business about Kerry and abortion. I was talking with someone the other day about that and I didn’t realize how bad that was getting, where you’ve got a sense that one issue is being used as a lever in order to say, therefore, there can be no criticism of what Rumsfeld and Cheney have brought America and the rest of the world into.
One final comment, I’d like to see if you would agree with this. To move back a paragraph, it sounds like part of what you are saying is that as much as Americans might be horrified of establishment, one of the blessings of it is the freedom to speak the truth without needing to worry about free market competition with another denomination or the church down the street or somewhere else where itching ears will hear what they want.
Yes, I think that is part of it. In the Church of England, and in England, alas, we do not have nearly as high a proportion of churchgoers that you have in America, even though a substantial number of people in England call themselves Christians. The postmodern rhetoric in England at the moment is that we are a multicultural society, we have all these different faiths, so Christianity is only one among many. Now in fact, the statistics are that I think less than 7% of all people in England claim to belong to one of the other non-Christian religions or faiths. Maybe about 10% officially call themselves atheists or agnostics. We have over 70% who will put the word “Christian” on a form, whatever that means. But it certainly means that they are not Muslim, or Jewish, of Sikhs, or whatever. So that the church, oddly, in England, can speak for a silent majority, even if the silent majority are a bit puzzled and don’t know what they believe about God and Jesus and so on.
(More to come soon.)
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