N.T. Wright and The Strange Challenge of Truth

PaulI am happy to post this guest post written by friend and fellow Youth Minister Chris Woodrow. Chris is the Youth Minister at Western Heights Church of Christ in Sherman TX. Chris and I attended the recent N.T. Wright lecture at Oklahoma Christian University. As would be the case, Chris took better notes than I did and has put them together in this short write up. I think you will enjoy some of what Wright and Chris have to say. 

Last week I went to hear NT Wright speak at Oklahoma Christian University. His talk on Monday night was challenging, at times confusing, and very heady.

So, a few days of pondering and discussing later, I think I have a pretty good handle on what he was saying…and more importantly, I think I have a “so what?” to take away from it.

Wright’s lecture was titled “The Strange Challenge of Truth”, and he began with a discussion of three “truth traps” that Christians have fallen into the past few centuries. I’ll discuss them below, with additional material that Wright alluded to but didn’t include in his lecture.

Trap #1 – Rationalist Truth

As the Enlightenment began, the “smart” people of the world focused more and more on Reason as the means by which we test everything. Does this make sense? Is it logical? And if it’s not logical, if it can’t be proved, does it have any value? And so as “rationalists”, we began to test our world, and we achieved great advances in science, mathematics, and medicine.

But then the great contest came, as we Rationalists fixed our gaze upon the religious world. Does God make sense? Can God be proved? And if not, should we value God at all? This debate ranged far and wide, eventually producing the Rational Christianity that many of us know and love. Rational Christians used verses like Romans 1:19-22 as a bastion to rally around. Rational Christians produced effective arguments, including the Watchmaker theory: “look at the complexity of our world! Surely that points to an Intelligent Designer!” At the same time, other beliefs about God and creation, particularly the idea that the Sun revolved around the Earth, were proven to be wrong.

Rationalism, Wright argued, can be useful. There is a “danger in grabbing something that makes no sense.” And we can make some rational arguments for God.

But Rationalism can become a trap in two ways. First, what happens to our theology when science effectively proves a Christian theory, like geocentrism, wrong? Second, and more importantly, by measuring God with the standard of Rationality and Reason, aren’t we treating Reason as a higher authority than God?

Most usefully, for me at least, is this idea: is there more to God than what Reason can prove? If so, Rationalist Christianity cannot be the final word on God.

Trap #2 – Romantic Truth

For some, Rationalism wasn’t useful, and so they went to the complete opposite of the spectrum: feelings. In my heart, I know that God is real. Feeling emphasizes the heart over the head, and worship becomes primarily an emotional experience.

The obvious challenge to this version of truth is that it’s individualized and potentially inconsistent. What feels right to me may not be what feels right to you, and so we have to agree to disagree.

The danger of this trap can be summed up as follows: is there more to God than what our Heart can tell us? If so, Emotional Christianity cannot be the final word on God.

Before moving to Trap #3

A disclaimer that Wright didn’t include, but I feel is necessary in this discussion: we shouldn’t merely value head over heart because feelings are inferior. Often, our hearts guide us to challenge what our head believes, to reexamine something until it makes sense and feels right.Emotion is, I believe, a valid form of criticism, and at the same time we have to evaluate our emotions to make sure we know where they’re coming from.

Also, Wright did point out that in our postmodern world, a rational explanation is no longer effective for most people. Persuasive arguments no longer “convert” people the way they once might have done. (As an example, consider smoking: we all know smoking causes cancer, but how many people continue to smoke today?)

Trap #3 – Escapist Salvation

(This trap is not as connected to the other two, but it does have a subtle effect on us, as we’ll see in a moment. )

Many Christians today envision the afterlife as simply “going to Heaven” and becoming pure, non-physcial beings. Our bodies will die and decay, and our spirits will rise up in the clouds or into some other dimension far away. Eventually, the earth itself will die (when Jesus returns), and only our “pure” spirits will survive.

The danger with this idea is two-fold. First, the Bible describes a different sort of ending:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.”

All things are being made new. (See also Isaiah 65:1766:2 and 2 Peter 3:13.) Particularly, the earth is being made new, and heaven is coming down to join the earth! So we do go to heaven, but it’s all the same location, because now God’s home (heaven) is merged with our home (earth). And somehow, our bodies will be resurrected. We’ll be beyond flesh and blood, but whatever that looks like, it’s a resurrected form of our current self, a body that can eat and drink.

Second, and more importantly, this matters because it affects how we think about the world today. If we believe that everything physical is ultimately inconsequential, we’re ignoring how God feels about God’s creation: that it was created as something good, and that life on this earth matters. It’s not just about getting to heaven; it’s about caring for God’s created things here and now, because somehow all things will be made new. The earth isn’t something to escape–it’s something to renew.

So, for the third question: is there more to the Christian life than getting to heaven? If so, we may need to focus more on the here and now.

The Word as Truth

Wright then turned to the Gospel of John, and how John presents God, the Word becoming Flesh, as the truth that can speak into our world today:

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

In John’s worldview, we don’t rise up (with logic or emotion) to truth. Rather, Truth came down to us. God’s own words bring reality, both in thebeginning and the new beginning, which begins with Jesus.

And somehow, we are participants in sharing God’s truth. Adam named the animals. Prophets speak, and new (future) reality is born. This is the idea–that words bring reality–that challenges our standards of objective/subjective truth. And so, even in a challenging world, the goal is to not stop speaking, but to learn how to speak God’s truth.

Speaking God’s Truth (and the So What?)

Our challenge is to see Truth as more than spoken words. Jesus spoke a lot, but he had to do more than speak to bring God’s truth in a way that reached people. He healed. He fed. He showed love and acceptance to “sinners” (i.e. “scum”) in a way that attracted and transformed them. (Think about the story of Zachhaeus–what on earth did Jesus say and do to bring about Zachhaeus’s transformation?)

If you believe in God’s truth–that God wants us to live in a world free from sin, pain, cruelty, and death–then you can share that truth. And the way you share God’s truth is by sharing God’s love. Go read, for example, John 14-15, and see if you can’t see how inseparably God’s truth and love are intertwined.

In our postmodern world, then, our challenge is not to convince people with well-reasoned arguments we developed a long time ago. For most people, it’s going to take seeing God’s love in action, to know that we truly care about them as a person, and not just a demographic. For us to speak of a new world where sin and death are gone, we have to begin sharing that world with others, with forgiveness, hope, and love. Our words and actions can bring healing. They can bring life. They can bring truth.

Do you want people in today’s world to believe? Share God’s love.

Do you want to be a part of God’s new renewed reality? Share God’s love.

Do you want the Spirit of truth to transform your life and the lives of those around you?

Share God’s love.

Posted on by Steven Smith in Struggles Leave a comment

About the author

Steven Smith

Steven enjoys sharing God's Word through speaking, teaching, and writing. He currently serves as the Youth Minister at Fairmont Park Church of Christ in Midland, Texas, and has been working in the church since 2001. He is married to his beautiful bride Celeste Smith and they have two wonderful daughters. In his spare time Steven enjoys spending time with his family, Skiing, Backpacking, Hiking, Paddling, and Camping.

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