Friday, May 16, 2008

Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright (Chapter 5)

In chapter 5 of Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright describes two views of history that he thinks are not the Christian view. He points out that many Christians have held these views of history, and that aspects of them resemble the Christian view of history. Ultimately, however, they both fail to do justice to what God is doing in history.

The first view that Wright describes and rejects is the optimists' view that the world is getting better and better. This view dominated the modern western age, but has been called into question in the last 60 or so years. Permutations of this view are liberal secularism, the social gospel, and social Darwinism. Wright writes:

"'The real problem with the myth of progress is, as I just hinted, that it cannot deal with evil. And when I say 'deal with,' I don't just mean intellectually, though that is true as well; I mean in practice. It can't develop a strategy that actually addresses the severe problems of evil in the world." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 85.

Wright claims that optimism cannot handle evil on three levels: (1) It cannot stop evil (scientific progress brings us cures for diseases, but it also gives us Hiroshima and the Gulag), (2) it cannot address the moral evil that has already happened (if utopia came today, what would we say about the evil that happened yesterday? Is there justice?), and (3) it underestimates the power and nature of evil itself.

The second view of history that Wright rejects is the view that the world is completely evil, it's getting worse and worse, and Christians need to be "rescued" from it. Wright rightly points out that this view is essentially Gnostic. Wright writes:

"A good many Christian hymns and poems wander off unthinkingly in the direction of Gnosticism. The 'just passing through' spirituality (as in the spiritual 'This world is not my home/ I'm just a'passin' through'), though it has some affinities with classical Christianity, encourages precisely a Gnostic attitude: the created world is at best irrelevant, at worst a dark, evil, gloomy place, and we immortal souls, who existed originally in a different sphere, are looking to returning to it as soon as we're allowed to." (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church [New York: HarperOne, 2008], 90.

Where is N.T. Wright going to go next? What is the Christian's relation to the world? If the world isn't getting better and better, and it is not hopelessly evil, what is to become of the world? What role does the church play in the consummation of history?


Anonymous said...

In his book, "Things Which Become Sound Doctrine", J. Dwight Pentecost rejects the notion that man is as bad as he can be. Rather, the doctrine of depravity says that man is as bad off as he can be. This might fall in between the 2 notions of history that Wright describes.

Gig Harbor

Matt said...

Good thought, Jim.

While people are not "as bad as they could be," they are corrupted/fallen. Further, they are "as bad off as they could be" in the sense that they are powerless to get better in and of themselves.

I agree and I think that is where Wright will go, too. Instead of seeing humanity/the world as "a bad thing in need of being destroyed/abandoned," he will argue that it is "a corrupt thing in need of being redeemed/recreated." At least that is what I think he will say.