One of the lectures I really enjoyed at this year's AAR/SBL conference was N.T. Wright's "God In Public?" Wright is an excellent speaker and always challenges his listeners, and this lecture was no different. He dealt, obviously, with the question of how believers should respond to the issue of God in public, and here is a brief overview.
For over 200 years, says Wright, God was not viewed as being needed in public (as part of public discourse), but religion was kept, by and large, to the realm of private belief. Now that has changed. Secularists still repeating the statements of Voltaire – religion should not exist and it has nothing to say. According to Wright, this has been debunked. Religion continues to prove its value for society and in public discourse. As for Christians, if you take Jesus and Paul seriously, you have to take the question of religion in public seriously.
We must, says Wright, move past the two extremes of secularism and fundamentalism… the enlightenment dualism of God and the public world no longer works. His proposal: returning to the four Gospels. While this may sound surprising, Wright claims that much of the evangelical preaching in the U.S. and England has focused on the Epistles and not the Gospels (while misunderstanding the Epistles!). The Gospels are all, in various ways, about God in public, through the life of Jesus. Wright suspects that the Western world/church would rather eliminate the canonical Gospels than really deal with them.
The Gospels, he explains, are about God reclaiming the whole world for Godself. Of course, we have to ask the question, “which God are we talking about?” Secularists seem to focus on a God who forces his will upon humans, but the point of the Gospels is that God’s kingdom is not a dehumanizing tyranny, but the coming of a God who opposes dehumanizing tyrants. While we as humans only know the dualism of tyranny and anarchy, God’s kingdom is different than both! The Gospels resist our limitations in three ways:
1. The Canonical Gospels are an integrated whole upon which reflection is difficult – the Gospels are often seen as either a social project, or as Christ's Passion narratives with extended introductions! Appeals for an integrated reading have been met with resistance on both sides. An integrated reading of the Gospels rejects the extremes, and tells us that Jesus did release God’s healing to the world, but did it through his death and resurrection. Jesus did not die to save people from the world, but to save people in order to save the world. The narrative read this way resists deconstruction into power games, because it is grounded in crucifixion rather than coercion.
2. The Gospels demand to be read in deep integration with the Old Testament. We do no service when we ignore the Jewish narrative as the story of how God is saving the world through Israel, culminating in Jesus.
3. Gospels integrated present a full picture of the hope of the early Christians, as the final renewal and bringing together of earth with heaven.
Politically, Wright states that there has been a sort of replacement of the resurrection story with the story of democratic freedom. Theological views that rule out the political should be avoided, but this does not mean our political system is God's system. Wright points to Psalm 2: Though the nations rage, God will appoint his own ruler, and we ought to look at the political implications of the nations learning the meaning of God’s rule. Here again he offers three points:
1. The early church did not actually reject the rule of pagans. God wants the world to be ordered, and human order should be involved in making that happen, instead of simply letting the powerful dominate. The New Testament does not promote a disconnect between what the church does and what the world does; rather, it reaffirms the God-given place of secular human rulers. They get it wrong, but God wants them in place, because any order is better than chaos. But how can this be seen in the Gospels?
2. John 19 (and 1 Cor. 2): The rulers of this age inevitably corrupt the order God desires, but Christ’s rule paradoxically heals that corruption, and that actually heals the rulers. In this way, there is both a judgment and a necessity.
3.The present political situation is to be understood in light of the paradoxical Lordship of Jesus himself. Before Jesus, there was a picture in Scripture of rulers who were judged for their wrongs in the present, but now we anticipate the final eschaton, when all is set right.
Now, says Wright, this all may seem a bit silly, given that we live in the midst of what looks like a system that doesn’t match Wright’s vision at all. But, we must remember that the Church is supposed to be the voice speaking truth to power, and our witness cannot be forgotten, ignored, or subsumed underneath a particular political agenda. The church must get on with the work of justice, beauty and healing that the systems know they should do, but can’t figure out how to do. We must collaborate without compromise, and critique without dualism.
We must critique democracy – the view that emerged from the enlightenment dualism that tried to remove God from public. Early Christians didn’t care how rulers came to power, they cared about what they DID in power! We need, as the church, to develop ways to hold governments to account. This presupposes that the church is holding itself to account! We should encourage readings of the Bible that set forth such reforms. Our culture is moving towards a "post-postmodernism" that surpasses both modernism and postmodernism… we must find methods that do justice to both the reality of the text of Scripture, and also the reality of the world in which we live. How can we do this?
One way Wright suggests is this: Take seriously the biblical witness to God in public, for institutions and systems, and find new ways for the full message of the Bible to be heard again. This is not saying that exegesis belongs only to the Church, but rather that it is a common good which we, as Christians, should seek help from all the world in order to discern, even if that discernment then leads us to critique and challenge the world's systems. Instead of allowing our faith to be privatized or hijacked for political or private agendas, it must be lived out in public as a testimony to the way of life offered by Jesus in the Gospels.