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Thursday, December 16, 2004

Interview with N.T. Wright (part 4 of 6)

In June of 2004 I had the privilege of interviewing N.T. Wright for The Living Church Magazine. 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. (Part 1 is here, part 2 is here and part 3 is here.)

Continue reading Interview with N.T. Wright (Part 4 of 6)

Changing gears a bit, I would like to ask what you believe to be the most important issue facing the church in England today? What about the Anglican Communion? What are the major distractions from that? How might we better apply ourselves to it?

If we’re talking most important, I want to put it as a global heading, and I see the several other issues that I might pick up as aspects of or functions of this. It’s something we’ve talked about already, and I’ll put it – this is in rather abstract and broad terms, but it is how the church can authentically lead the way into the post-post-modern world. At the moment, take one of the really vital issues that we’ve got to address, which is ecumenism. I was just present at the installation of the new Roman Catholic bishop in the area where I am, and we had a very warm service with real affection and mutual regard, and we’ve got to work at that. But: the ecumenical movement doesn’t know what it is supposed to be doing at the moment, because it is working out of the modernist paradigm, where you try to put everything together in one big, clunky picture, while the rest of the world is actually rattling along cheerfully into postmodernity where we all tell our different stories and wave at each other as we go by. That’s not ecumenism, either. So that the ecumenical task needs to be reconceived in terms which are neither simply the older modernist paradigm of doing it, nor the postmodern paradigm.


The second thing which I think is, in all sorts of ways, a crucially urgent task, which relates to this as well, is the witness of the church when faced with the serious problems of the world, by which I mean the negative effects of globalization. Globalization itself is probably inevitable, but its negative effects, in terms of ecological disaster – I mean this is extraordinary to me, the way so many otherwise intelligent Americans dismiss ecological problems as so much bleeding heart liberal nonsense: this is just not the case – the economic realities of the way in which the IMF and the World Bank have had their effect on the rest of the world. The way in which across great swathes of the world there is unpayable global debt, and we seem incapable of addressing it. This is the real dirty little secret of the world at the moment, only it’s not so little, either.


The issues of sexual ethics are important, but to my mind they pale into insignificance beside the fact that there are millions and millions of people who are suffering the effects of this major debt, with all kinds of spinoffs from that. And this, again, is the modern/ postmodern thing. Modernism has given us globalization: let’s put it all together and create this world in which we’ve got all this freedom of markets, etc., but that only works for the people who’ve got modernity, which is the Western world. And then postmodernity, as many various writers have shown very effectively, simply can’t address the issues of empire. And so the church desperately needs to find authentic ways of speaking about empire.

The problem is – and this is very much at this modern/postmodern/postpostmodern interface – is that the political spectrum is assumed to be from left to right, where left is revolutionary anarchy, and right is status quo, and firm government, and so on. And that is simply the legacy of the French Revolution, and the 18th century. And if you look at Jewish political thought, if you look at early Christian political thought, it simply doesn’t acknowledge that spectrum. It says on the one hand ‘God is God and the powers-that-be are not God’ which sounds very revolutionary and subversive. But it says on the other hand that ‘God does want good government, because otherwise the bullies win.’ God wants his people to hold the powers of the world to account. The church has to be able to say this and recapture the Christian and Jewish political theology that was swept aside at the enlightenment and that most people don’t even know existed. That’s a really huge and enormous thing.

At the last Lambeth Conference, there were many, many black African bishops who came desperate to have Lambeth speak about the fact that their people were suffering desperately. They discovered all these rich white people who just wanted to talk about sex. Sex matters. But when you look at it like that, you ask ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ Most of the world is desperate for food and justice. A small number of people in the world want more sex. You ask ‘excuse me? Can we just get the world the right way up again?’ See, the issues of freedom and unity, which have been a cause of interesting tension, ideologically, philosophically, theologically, for years now, are really coming up and biting us. These are things the churches have struggled with. In 1975, the WCC in Nairobi had as its slogan ‘Jesus Christ frees and unites’ and I remember at the time, I was a young delegate there, and I remember thinking ‘if you have freedom, that’s pulling away from unity, but if you have unity, that can be uniformity, you’re all going to conform with what we want, and therefore you’re not going to be allowed to do it your own way.’ So how can Jesus Christ both free and unite, how do those things sit together? And that is precisely the question facing the Anglican Communion at the moment. Is one part of the Anglican Communion free to do its own thing, and if so, what is the cost in terms of unity? Or do we say that unity matters so much that we must be prepared to live and let live on this? Those are the parameters within which the presenting issues on the table must be addressed. It isn’t a matter of single issue, are we or are we not allowed to do x, y, or z? This is actually a symptom of a much larger problem which is how to be authentic Christian and how to speak the word of God authentically within this swirling postpostmodern culture which is struggling to be born.

I’d like you to clarify something which you said. You said, the church needs to find new ways of speaking of empire in this postpostmodern culture – could you say another word or two about that just to clarify?

Sure, Let me say first, we British had an empire upon which the sun never set. We have spent the last hundred years counting the cost and feeling the pain of this. I know Americans like to make their own mistakes and resent it when other people say ‘don’t do it as we did it.’ But I do want to say I do hope my dear, beloved American friends do not have to spend a hundred years counting the cost of their empire. The fact that it isn’t called an empire doesn’t mean that it isn’t; because, manifestly, the rest of the world knows that it is. I have often felt these last four years, that the rest of the world ought to vote in U.S. presidential elections because what you’re getting is someone whose policies will determine which way the wind is going to blow for the rest of us. These last two or three years have made that abundantly clear. I seem to recall some people shouting ‘no taxation without representation,’ 230 years ago, whatever it was, getting rid of George the 3rd, maybe the rest of the world is feeling that about George the 2nd at the moment.

So we’ve repaid the favor?

In all sorts of ways. And, okay, maybe this had to happen and we have to work through it. The thinking clearly about it you see is that so much of the New Testament is written against the backdrop of the Roman Empire, and it isn’t enough to say ‘Jesus is Lord and therefore Caesar isn’t.’ That’s part of the New Testament message, but if you just say that within a postenlightenment political framework, people think that you’re simply being a ‘60’s revolutionary: tune in, turn on, drop out, the system’s rotten, join the revolt. It really isn’t that easy. We need to find a mature way of addressing empire, recognizing that government is good, it is God-given, but God holds it to account. It’s very intereting that in the New Testament, in Jewish and Christian thought in the ancient world, they were much much more interested not in how people got into power, democracy or otherwise, but in what they did once they were there. We have reversed that. We think that as long as there’s been some kind of voting system which we can loosely call democracy, then this must mean that everything’s all right. Actually, it’s a matter of holding governments to account, which is the critical thing.

Right, it’s an enlightenment paradigm, that you have the right method which will guarantee certain results.

Absolutely – we’ve got the machine, so what comes out must be right.

This year, in an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, you commented that “America has been screwing the world into the socket” on a number of issues for some time, and yet when it came to Iraq, when faced with resistance, we acted virtually alone. Of course, England actually aided and abetted our invasion. But what I take to be your substantive point – that America tends to be both maverick and powerful, partnering with others only when it is to her advantage – is quite solid. When it comes to ordination of gays and lesbians, you style the issue as more about communion than homosexuality. In that, I take it, you are saying that the Episcopal Church is more or less mirroring the maverick character of American culture to the detriment of the larger church? Can you expand on that a bit?

I have predictably received some extremely negative comments about what I said in the Pittsburgh newspaper, and no doubt that will continue. I think my main point is about perception. American Christians need to hear how the rest of the world perceives the whole thing.

And you’d make an analogous point about America per se, the nation?

Yes. If you imagine the situation of a Palestinian Christian, and there are many Palestinian Anglicans; if you imagine the situation of an Anglican in northern Uganda, or in Chile, or in Japan – I mean Japan is a different case because they are rich. I am deliberately picking one or two places which are not part of the old British empire. Then they look at America and what do they see? Whether justly or unjustly, they see a country which spends more than the rest of the world put together on its quote-unquote defense. They see a country which has more money and resources than most of the rest of the world put together. They see a country that therefore goes, as they would see it, swaggering around the world, doing whatever it wants, and whatever will make it money and enhance its life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And they see this is done at the expense of a lot of other people’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, again, I am not commenting on whether that is a true perception, I’m merely saying that is the perception. That’s my point. When in that context, people from within that same culture say, ‘by the way, we’re going to change the rules on sexual morality’, it is totally understandable that the rest of the world thinks, ‘well, you’re not going to take us with you on that.’ That is precisely what empire has always done, whether it is fifth century Athens, or first century Rome, or nineteenth century Britain, ‘because we are the great empire, we are bringing peace and freedom to the world, therefore the rest of the world ought to like us. And if they don’t it’s because they’re being silly, and we’ll have to send in a gunboat and teach them a lesson.’ It is interesting that, within that imperial set up you do find historically, to put it as neutrally as I can, fresh sexual options being invented or rediscovered or whatever, for which subsistence economies often have little time, energy, or cultural space. I mean it’s a very interesting thing to explore.

So, to extrapolate, what you’re saying, in part, is that it’s as much a reflection of national culture and prosperity as much as it is church teaching. If that’s true, then, what does that imply about the church and our life together? I mean if we can see over two millennia this dynamic of empire and imperial ideology underwriting certain things in the church…?

Of course, in America, it is easy for what would broadly be called liberal American Christians to see that this is happening in the right wing, because there are millions of deeply Republican Christians for whom Christianity really means, saluting the American flag, and America being raised up by God to do good around the rest of the world and have this Christian way of life and so on. So the walls between the Christian way of life and an American way of life are basically collapsed and they’re assumed to be the same thing, and so any criticism of one is perceived to be criticism of the other. It’s easy for liberal Christians to look at that and shudder, without realizing that there are ways in which liberal Christianity does exactly the same thing, baptizing certain elements of the prevailing culture, whatever it might be. Though America has a very interesting history of hammering out questions of Christ and Culture, you know the book by Neibuhr, the whole tradition which has been more marked in America ironically than in my country of that being a major question in theology – obviously, Tillich’s cultural analysis as well – and coming through to Stan Hauerwas, who obviously is a very different tradition. That has been one of the key questions. But it is ironic that people have not really picked this up in the church’s teaching on sexual behavior is very much interwoven with the Christ and culture question. That’s the map on which we ought to be having at least part of the debate.

(More to come soon.)

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