Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical (hermionesviolin) wrote,
Elizabeth Scripturient (the delinquent, ecumenical

N. T. Wright (Noble Lecture series) [2006-10-24, 25]


The William Belden Noble Lectures
Lecturer: The Right Reverend Dr. N. T. Wright, Bishop of Durham, England

The Gospel and Our Culture

Monday, October 23, 8:00 p.m.
"God the Creator: The Gospel in a Gnostic World"

Tuesday, October 24, 8:00 p.m.
"Jesus the Lord: The Gospel and the New Imperialism"

Wednesday, October 25, 8:00 p.m.
"Spirit of Truth: The Gospel in a Postmodern World"

Every generation in the church has to face the question of the interface between the Christian gospel and the contemporary culture. There are many ways of approaching this complex topic, but there is some virtue in tracking cultural trends in terms of their relation to the classic Trinitarian framework of Christian thought, and this actually highlights three areas of fascinating and urgent discussion today. First, there is the question of the goodness and God-givenness of the created order, a notion challenged head on by some of the early Gnostic texts and once again under attack as forms of Gnosticism re-emerge in our culture. Second, there is the often-forgotten question of the political meaning of saying "Jesus is Lord," which becomes urgent in a world where new forms of human empire appear to claim absolute sovereignty. Third, there is the promise of the Spirit's leading into all truth, at a time when postmodern deconstruction challenges the very notion of truth, let alone the claim of any person or group to have grasped it. Actually, these three interact in the present day, as their ancestors did in the first Christian centuries: those alienated by empire seek solace in Gnosticism, while Cynics ancient and modern scorn empire but can't challenge it effectively. These lectures—prefaced by a sermon on the Christian theology of beauty in the light of God's promise of a world renewed—offer a fresh reading of scripture with which to address these urgent contemporary issues.

The Noble Lectures are free and open to the public.
I get the impression that the Monday night lecture (which I didn't know about until after the fact, though I read marketsquare's entry about it) was the best of the three.

The woman introducing N. T. Wright on Tuesday night summarized the lecture in a way that made me really interested.  She talked about the cult of self-discovery, creation and new creation, Romans, revolutionary rejection of resurrection -- yeah, I wish I remembered what exactly that phrase in my notes meant; I think it was about connecting unbelief in Jesus' bodily resurrection with gnosticism.
When Wright came to the podium he said he had worked hard to cut his lecture from an hour and a half to an hour; if he'd know he could get it down to seven minutes... :)

His Tuesday night lecture was: "Jesus the Lord: The Gospel and the New Imperialism"

He suggested that ancient gnosticism began because of the failure of the Jewish revolts in the 130s -- that faced with apparent evidence that God was not working in the world, they retreated from the world.

Regardless of whether this is accurate or not, his major point stands: that by retreating to the otherworldly, gnosticism has no need to critique imperialism.

Being an Englishman, he was very conscious that he has no moral high ground from which to lecture Americans on imperialism.  He said, "I often envy the effortless moral high ground of my Irish brethren."  He likened himself to "a lion addressing an audience of highly judgmental lambs on vegetarianism."

He said that if you believe in progress (as modernism does) then Empire is an obligation because of course how can you let people suffer when there are better things available for them.  I would argue that everyone (evangelical Christians, social liberals, etc.) believes they have got The Way and The Truth and The Life and want to force that on other people, just to varying degrees.

He referred to the encounter between Pilate and Jesus (at Jesus' trial), talking for a bit about Pilate asking what truth is, and also about Jesus' statement that Pilate would have no power if it were not given from Above.  He talked about the necessity of rulers in the world -- and how the abuse of structure is thus a double evil.

He talked about how Jesus' final cry in John is "It is done"/ "It is accomplished " -- echoing the Creation narrative in Genesis.

"If death is the ultimate tool of the tyrant, resurrection is the reassertion of the Creator."

Humans are called to reflect the divine image into the world.

"Church must learn from Jesus to speak truth to power not just from power or against power."

He posited the question "How can we speak truth to power when truth turns out to be a function of power?" but didn't really answer it.

The Respondent didn't have any criticisms I found particularly substantive, but I loved that they had someone offer up challenges to the lecture directly after the lecture.  (And she must have had a copy in advance because she regularly quoted from his lecture.)

Wednesday: "Spirit of Truth: The Gospel in a Postmodern World"

In the introduction, it was joked that tonight NTW would be "responded to by the 3rd of Job's friends."  Ah Biblical studies humor.

The introducer summarized Tuesday night's lecture and yeah, still not awesome.  Empire encourages gnosticism, because then people are fleeing to the private sphere rather than fomenting revolution.

NTW opened with talking about the ancient "Cynics," a word which he said means "dogs" in Greek -- that they "barked" at those in power.

He talked about the post-modern hermeneutic of suspicion and said that post-modernism  says some things we badly need to hear and is important in its critique of larger/broader issues of society.  However, he argued that the answer to this critiques is "rooted in Trinitarian wisdom."

He summarized modernism as follows:
1. God is absentee (landlord), religion is private and escapist
2. The world full of facts we can know objectively and thus do things, run things, etc.
3. "I" am the master of my fate... (emphasis on self/I/Ego)
4. The human race has attained Enlightenment.

He pointed out that the church language of intervention implies a usually absentee God.

He said that post-modernism is a necessary protest to modernist arrogance but that post-modernism provides no alternative.

He cited Nicholas Boyle's book Who Are We Now?, which sounded interesting.

He said that post-modernism is ironically elitist -- and thus has little effect on tyrants or the democratic process.

He argued that once post-modernism has deconstructed truth, it can't speak truth to power.  Also, empire co-opts post-modernism.

He talked about "grace and truth" in the prologue of John.  He argued that it takes an act of grace to reveal truth.  ("10He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.")  "Blind eyes and unready hearts cannot...."  This is in strong contrast to the idea that the truth is just there and all we have to do is look for it (a la The Da Vinci Code, gnosticism, etc.).

He said that Chapter 8 is the darkest and most contested part of John.

John 14:6 "I am the Way and the Truth and the Life."  Love is the answer.
He talked about the Spirit of Truth -- the crescendo of it mentioned three times in John's farewell.  He said that the Father will send the Spirit of Truth as an advocate to manifest truth and the world will fail to recognize.
John 15: 26-27
The Spirit will prove world wrong re: sin, righteousness/vindication, judgment.  The Spirit will prove the world not just wrong (as the NRSV has it) but in the wrong, culpable.  The Spirit is going to act through those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells.

He said that truth is a public thing and that the Church must constantly invoke the Spirit (at this point I'm unclear as to whether I'm referring to the Spirit of Truth of the Holy Spirit -- and honestly was never clear as to what the Spirit of Truth was exactly) and be always leaning.
Truth must belong in interplay between creation, judgement, new creation.
The human vocation is to be God's image bearer in creation.
Love is the mode of knowing in which the knower is fully invoked and the known is fully validated, affirmed, etc. -- not an object/subject relation.
Genuine art is a response to the beauty of God.
Truth is not just something we know and speak but something we do.

The self is the hero of modernity and the empty raincoat of post-modernism.  I don't think he had a pithy metaphor for the self in Christianity.
Christians should not jib at the post-modernist critique of self (see the Gospel call).

Triple challenge: gnosis, empire, post-modernism.

Yeah, once we got into John I was basically scribbling notes and half-comprehending.  Not only do I not have the theological background (in terms of knowing all the concepts and terminology) but I don't have all the Scripture in my head, so listening to a lecture instead of reading something at my own pace when I can have a Bible next to me....

This night's Respondent had slightly more substantive criticisms, but mostly I felt like it was stuff that you kinda knew NTW was aware of but just couldn't address in the time allotted.  He had a lot of great lines, though.
"For those of you who have been here all 3 nights, I apologize for subjecting you to another European accent."
"I hope my accent is intelligible even if my ideas are not."
He said the Irish rarely tip their hat to English orators, but with NTW he couldn't not.  "He did, after all, have the good sense to quote Oscar Wilde."
"His organizing concepts come in shamrock-like clusters of 3."
"The church has always been a its best when it pontificates less and engages with the needy more."
"As an experienced doctoral advisor, Bishop Wright knows a 'but' is coming."
He mentioned Tillich's injunction to live Christ in the ambiguities, which I would be interested to hear/learn more about.

In his response, NTW said, "A third of what I say is wrong, but the problem is that I don't know which third or else I'd do something about it."
He said, "The London Underground is one of the most inaccurate maps ever written, and at the same time one of the most accurate maps ever written" -- talking about how it's useful for some things and not for others, and saying that he intended his talk  to be a map and acknowledged that it was only useful in certain ways.
He said that at the time of Constantine, if you were an early Christian, you could say, "Go ahead and keep throwing us to the lions, it's so much more authentic," or you could swallow hard and face challenges you(r community) had never faced before -- how to be a Christian empire.
And he very much agreed that "most Christians aren't Westerners, and most Westerners aren't Christians."

The Q&A was made of awesome.  People wrote down questions which were then collected by ushers, sorted by one of the participants, and read aloud to NTW and the audience.

The first one was about religious pluralism and posited the idea that it is a limitation of God's power to say Jesus is God's only revelation.
NTW said that everything is a response to the universe, God's universe, and thus a response to God.  (He said more, but that was the part that particularly struck me.)

* "What should Ivy League universities do to restore Jesus' lordship to the universities?"
Yeah, I seriously couldn't believe I actually heard that question on Harvard campus.
"The first and best answer is, of course, pray.  It's a serious answer."
I really appreciated that he didn't make specific concrete suggestions but instead emphasized stuff like prayerfulness.

* "Is homosexuality under judgment or part of God's new creation?"
He definitely danced around this question.  He talked about Jesus' response to the question about marriage in heaven and suggested that life in heaven may transcend life here in that aspect so that sex becomes a moot point, though he frequently talked about the blessing of sexuality, that it's certainly a good part of our life here/now.  He said that there's no need for procreation when no one dies and that sex is, in part, laughing in the face of death.
He made the analogy to a married Christian who is attracted to women besides his spouse and could say "My true orientation is a polygamist" and that that person could say he was called to be a non-practicing polygamist, and I'm actually not sure why that analogy didn't hugely offend me.  I think it's a flawed analogy, and I'm usually really frustrated by that analogy, but this time it just kinda slid off me.
He said the issue threatens to disrupt or derail things we should be getting on with, which I was kind of offended by.
He pointed out that prophetic action has to be owned and received by the rest of the church.
He also mentioned the importance of pastoral awareness of people who are hurt and bruised by debate itself, which I was really impressed by (because that's something that I expect slips under most people's radar screens -- mine most definitely included).

* Another question about many faiths.
He talked about reading the texts together and saying that you can do that without having to believe we all believe the same things underneath.  I was so so glad to hear this because (I'm sure you're shocked to know) the overemphasis on the similarities between faiths really frustrates me (because the differences are important, and eliding them I think sometimes really limits the usefulness of dialogue).
He cited a Jewish scholar from Virgina (University of?) whose name I didn't catch: "You Christians have to go on saying Jesus is the Messiah, and we Jews have to go on saying we don't think so actually, and we have to go on saying it to each other."  I liked that a lot.
He said it that it places the Enlightened as king and all others as poor approximation to believe that the important part is the part we can all agree on.

* "What is your opinion on the suggestion that Christians raise up an army in places like Darfur?"
"I've never heard that suggestion.  And I'm tempted to say I hope I never hear that suggestion again."

* One question asked about faith in knowing and loving, about what a science based in an epistemology of love rather than an epistemology of facts would look like.
I was kind of boggled by this.
He said that loving an object is seeing it as it is, which I liked a lot -- not making the evidence subservient to your preferred interpretation, etc.
He mentioned the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle -- that the very act of observing something changes it -- and said that's how how love operates, that it's a relationship of change.
Yeah, nicely played.
He also said that faith is a mode of knowing.


Next year's Noble Lecturer is Dr. Karen Amstrong.

An insert in the program has a list of all the Noble Lecturers to date.  I mostly don't recognize the names.

1911: Wilfred T. Grenfell [wonder if that's a relation of Trelawney's]

1965: Professor Paul Tillich

1999: The Right Reverend John Shelby Spong
2000: Kathleen Norris
2001: Professor Elaine Pagels

For 2004 they have "Dr. Timothy Johnson" listed, which I don't know if that's Luke Timothy Johnson or not.
Tags: n. t. wright

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