Friday, April 11, 2008

The Possibilities and Perils in Being a Really Smart Bishop

Richard John Neuhaus's latest "On the Square" in First Things (available online only to subscribers) has some appreciation, but also pointed criticism, for Wright's Surprised by Hope:
The first part of the book is a reprise of his argument for the historicity of the resurrection, which will be helpful for those not prepared to take on his more comprehensive Resurrection of the Son of God. Most of the book is devoted to making the case for a greater accent in Christian piety and liturgy on the final resurrection of the dead and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Or, as Wright likes to put it, we need to recover the biblical focus on “life after life after death.” I believe Wright is right about that. As he is also on target when he insists that the resurrection “is not the story of a happy ending but of a new beginning.” But his argument is grievously marred by his heaping of scorn on centuries of Christian piety revolving around the hope of “going to heaven,” and his repeated and unseemly suggestion that he is the first to have understood the New Testament correctly, or at least the first since a few thinkers in the patristic era got part of the gospel right. . . .

In the familiar manner of many British academics, Wright takes the mandatory potshots at capitalism and the United States. The answer to world poverty, he writes, is the remission of the debt of poor countries. In fact, America is in the lead in remitting such debts, but debt remission is hardly the solution for 60,000 percent inflation in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, or for the tribalism, thuggery, and corruption that afflict most African countries. Nothing daunted, Wright says that those who disagree with him will “stand condemned by subsequent history alongside those who supported slavery and those who supported the Nazis.” Bishop Wright, as it is said, doesn’t do nuance. “Reading the collected works of F.A. Hayek in a comfortable chair in North America,” he writes, “simply doesn’t address the moral questions of the twenty-first century.” I’m not sure what the bishop reads on economic development, but the last time I checked the accommodations at Durham Cathedral were very comfortable indeed.

Closer to the gravamen of his new book, Wright debunks traditional ideas of heaven by noting that Jesus could not have been referring to heaven when he said that the good thief would be with him today in paradise because Jesus still had to descend to hell and be resurrected and therefore was not himself in heaven on that day. Gotcha. Now why didn’t Thomas Aquinas and all those other smart theologians think of that? Here and elsewhere, N.T. Wright is as literalistic as the staunchest of fundamentalists.

Everything is in support of his central claim that the entire mission of the Church is to proclaim “the time when God will fill the earth with his glory, transform the old heavens and earth into the new, and raise his children from the dead to populate and rule over the redeemed world he has made.” The imagery is more suggestive of Joseph Smith than of St. Paul and falls rather short of the traditional understanding of the Beatific Vision, in which the whole creation, composed of micro and macro realities beyond our imagining, is fulfilled in union with the Absolute Being of God who is “all in all” (1 Cor. 15). Surprised by Hope is, if one may put it delicately, a very uneven book. Those who have read with justified appreciation The Resurrection of the Son of God will likely be very disappointed.