In the comments section of my recent post N.T. Wright Rides a Pale Horse, Tom Wright was kind enough to come by and leave a contribution to the discussion.
Just to say — thanks for the free publicity, Doug, but too bad I simply don’t recognise myself either in your portrait or in some of what’s said below . . . My only real point was that as a Brit who spends a fair amount of time in America I find the American debates — including those reflected in this blog — to work with a completely different set of assumptions to those elsewhere, including Europe. This doesn’t mean Americans are wrong in the way they line things up and the rest of us are right, but it ought to give us all some critical distance on all of our polarizations.
I don’t normally look at blogsites but a friend suggested I should glance at this one. I’m just a tad sorry I took his advice.
Good wishes to one and all, though
Prof N T Wright
In this response above, he says that his “only real point” is that Americans tend to debate with a completely different set of assumptions than do Europeans. Now I got that point, mentioned it in my post, and agreed with it. So we agree he said that, and we agreed on the point itself, but apparently differ on whether he said anything else of substance.
So having found out that he doesn’t recognize himself in my summary and response, I went back and looked at the video a several more times. In my book, misrepresenting what someone has argued is not a good thing at all, and I wanted to double check to make sure I had not done that to him. Imagine my relief . . .
In the video, Wright mentions those who have a kind of “passionate and compassionate” social concern that would be characterized here as “left wing,” and we all know compassion is a good thing, right? He says that what we need to do is “uncouple” the associations we “routinely” make, and the need for such uncoupling, he says, is something that must be addressed “particularly in America.” In short, our general association between the conservative/liberal theological spectrum and the conservative/liberal political spectrum is a false association, in Wright’s mind, and we Americans ought to quit it.
Now I am happy to acknowledge that this is not what Wright meant, and if he tells me he didn’t, I would happy to accept that. But at this juncture, I am not willing to acknowledge that this is not what Wright said. Why? Well, because he said it. In his comment cited earlier, he says:
“This doesn’t mean Americans are wrong in the way they line things up and the rest of us are right, but it ought to give us all some critical distance on all of our polarizations.”
But if he does not intend to say that “Americans are wrong in the way they line things up,” then why must this uncoupling he was talking about occur “particularly in America”? If we mortals need to get a bit more critical distance about what we believe, then sure. What reflective man would disagree with that? But that is not what he said — to use the language of “critical distance,” he in effect said that “it particularly ought to give Americans critical distance on all of their polarizations.”
Wright and I agree that Americans tend to line up theology and politics in a particular way. He is critical of that way of proceeding, and I want to defend it. So I am a bit sorry that Wright appears to be backing off in the criticism, because I am really interested in defending against that particular line. I want us to get a whole lot “worse” in that department, such that we leave the cosmopolitan Europeans aghast. That’s not a bug; it’s a feature. [Abrupt book plug: God and the Atlantic by Thomas Howard]
So I believe that while Americans are in better shape than Europeans on this score, with our D minus beating their F, we still don’t do nearly what we ought to do in connecting the Lordship of Christ with what we are advocating in the public square. As Wright himself has argued, if Jesus is Lord, then the Obamacare czar is not. I just want to push this into every available corner.
In addition, while we are here, Wright said that the whole idea of “a spectrum,” including the theological spectrum was “misleading,” and that we need to be willing to learn stuff in all sorts of odd places. Now I agree with the point about learning from anybody, which I often do alone in my study with loud cries of appreciation. I can learn from renegade Catholics and Jewish university professors. But when I learn from different folks this way, I am reading along a spectrum, and at certain points the color swatch wheel does change colors.
For example, Wright himself notes the existence of people who have a robust faith, and who are “firmly rooted” in God, Jesus, the Trinity, and Holy Spirit. But ten minutes experience in the church should tell us that as soon as we note the existence of people who are “firmly rooted” in the Christian faith, we have established our reference point for a theological spectrum. If Smith is firmly rooted, what are we to make of Murphy, who is not rooted quite so firmly? And what about Chauncey, who has had three years of graduate study in comparative thought and is a bit of theological tumbleweed?
The spectrum is inescapable, and for those who have a robust faith in the man Christ Jesus, we have to recognize those whose faith is ailing, and those whose faith is long gone. A political spectrum is also unavoidable — on every issue. I mean, surely there were some moderates in the NSA who only wanted to collect half our emails.