Wednesday, October 01, 2008

N. T. Wright's Suprised By Hope (Part Four)

At the end of the second part of Surprised by Hope, Wright turns his attention to the personal dimension of Christian hope. Here he addresses the New Testament teachings on bodily resurrection of individuals at the coming of Jesus (ch. 10) as well as the question of an intermediate state and the final destiny of the damned (ch. 11). I have a brief comment on each of these chapters.

The material in chapter 10 is pretty straightforward and quite helpful. I recommend that chapter alone as an excellent treatment of personal Christian hope. I just want to comment on one particular exegetical move Wright makes that I find fruitful. He argues that the "spiritual body" of 1 Cor 15 does not imply a spirit/body dualism but rather that the resurrected human body will be animated by God's Spirit. The contrast is not between two types of bodies but the between two animating principles, and he offers grammatical support for this. So the risen body will be one driven by God's Spirit rather than the flesh (i.e., fallen powers). If accurate, I think this is a helpful and fruitful approach. Although it fits Wright's tendency to emphasize the note of continuity with the created order, this view helps affirm the bodily character of resurrection without avoiding "spiritual" categories when talking about future hope. And it is fruitful because it grounds this new bodily life in the activity of God's Spirit, thereby providing raw material for developing a more thoroughly trinitarian account of Christian hope. In fact, the whole of Part II of Surprised by Hope can be organized under a trinitarian rubric: the cosmic dimension as the confirmation of God the Father's good creation, the central figure of Jesus Christ as the Son of God coming in glory, and the personal dimension of resurrection as the outpouring of the Spirit of life on all flesh. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that this re-framing of the material brings it closer to the form of my recent catechetical reflections on eschatology.) Anyway, that's just a riff off Wright in order to tease out the dogmatic detail of his argument.

Regarding chapter 11, I must register a bit of a complaint. Although his critique of purgatory is strong and his argument on behalf of God's justice is a helpful response to critics of eternal damnation, his use creative imagination appears in the wrong place. He is decidedly uncreative and unimaginative in his description of the intermediate state, while he is overly creative and overly imaginative in his speculations regarding the fate of the damned. Regarding the intermediate state, he does an excellent job undermining traditional problematic concepts of purgatory and paradise. But when he comes to his own position, he ends up in the same place, speaking of disembodied human identities subsisting in God's presence for the meantime. His view does not seem to be fundamentally different than the alternatives he rejects. It is rather just a tinkering with the details. What he needs is to apply his creative imagination (displaced elsewhere!) to explore what kind of "existence" and "identity" we might have between our death and our final resurrection. Do time and space really operate in the same way here as the do in other discourses? Could it be that the dead have an immediate experience of their future resurrection? Could it be that the whole notion of an intermediate state can be overcome with some creative thinking in light of Easter and New Creation? Again, Wright's emphasis on the continuity of creation (in this case, it's temporal categories) limits his openness to the otherness and newness of our future hope.

This lack of creativity can be set in stark contrast with the creative imagination he employs to speculate about the kind of sub-human existence the damned might have unto eternity. I think he is right to avoid falling into the trap of too easily emptying hell in order to make God look good. But such a stance does not require that one comes up with a speculative model of hellish existence that befits God's justice. This just seems to me to be a misplaced use of imagination. Where was this imagination when trying to wrestle with the pressing practical issue of "where we go when we die"? It seems to me that the intermediate state requires the best creativity to overcome confusion, while the threat of hell should remain a dull point, warning us simply to avoid going there and not consuming our speculative energies. That's how I would prioritize the matter at least.

Well, these are just some explorations and some picky things about chapters 10-11 of Surprised By Hope. The book as it stands is on the right track and remains a strong defense of the bodily resurrection of Jesus and its implications for our own bodily future. Next week we will turn with Wright to discuss what this all means for the present.

Any thoughts?
  • Does Wright's exegesis of 1 Cor 15 work?
  • What are some of the implications of our resurrected bodies being wholly animated by God's Spirit?
  • What do you think of Wright's speculations concerning hell? Am I right to identify a misplaced use of creative imagination?

1 comment:

Scott Hendricks said...

don't have a thing to say, just wanted you to know: I'm reading!