Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright; New York,HarperCollins, 2008; 332pp.; finished 3/21/8; Rated 10
Eschatology is “my thing”. So when my friend Fr. Mac Culver informed me that I needed to read Bishop Tom Wright’s new book on, as the subtitle says, “Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” I immediately ordered it and dove into it as soon as it arrived.
The book is, simply put, spectacular. Wright chisels away at the popular Christian (both Protestant and Catholic) notion that our eternal destiny is some ethereal “heaven” – some “other place” where we shall spend eternity in some spiritual dimension. Rooted thoroughly in Scripture, Wright shows that our future is, first of all, prefigured (and secured) in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Secondly, it is a future of physicality – a resurrection of our own bodies from the dead, and the enjoyment of a new creation – this creation (this earth included) made new. Wright makes it clear that the new creation has already begun in Christ. Christ himself possesses a physicality in that “new” creation, and all our work as believers is pulling earth and heaven toward one another until, finally, on the Last Day, at the Return of Christ, and the dead shall arise, the two shall become one. Heaven, Wright points out, ought not be seen as another “place” but as another “dimension” toward which we are headed.
The Resurrection of Jesus, then, is not a simple quirk in history – a way for God to deal uniquely with Jesus. It is, instead, the basis of our hope and the downpayment of what is to come for us. He writes, “the resurrection of Jesus offers itself, to the student of history or science no less than the Christian or theologian, not as an odd event within the world as it is but as an utterly uncharacteristic, prototypical, and foundational event within the world as it has begun to be” (p. 67). In another place he plays with the familiar phrase, “He’s just a shadow of his former self” and states that the truth of the matter is that one might well say about the present life that “He’s just a shadow of his future self.”
The last third of the book is the best, in my opinion. Having nailed down the biblical and theological evidence that our future destiny is a physical resurrection, he spends the last hundred pages showing that our future expectations should impact our present thinking and behavior, and that we are “building for the Kingdom of God” in the here and now – that our works will follow us into that new creation which we have already begun to experience in Christ.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Thanks, Fr. Mac, for pointing it out to me.
This is one of NT Wright’s books that I haven’t yet read. I put it on reserve at the library, but since all their copies are checked out it could be a couple of weeks before I get it.
Currently my favorite book on eschatology is “Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination” by James Alison. Following are some quotes from it.
[O]ne of the temptations of the first Christians was to remain enclosed within the apocalyptic imagery, thinking in terms of a rapid, vengeful, and definitive return of Jesus to do away with this wicked generation. Well, if what you are hoping fore is a rapid, rescuing arrival of God, where you will be saved and your enemies will perish horribly, this is, indeed, a certain sort of hope. It is an urgent and drastic hope; but what is hoped for is a rescue, and a violent rescue, carried out by an authority who comes down from on high to sort things out. If in the midst of this sort of expectancy you are called to keep your mind fixed on the things that are above, where the victim is risen at the right had of God, what is apparently being asked of you is the sort of bravery that is asked of those who are on the deck of a sinking ship: to keep up their courage because the Coast Guard is on its way.
However, what we perceive in the apostolic witness is something a little different. As there develops the way in which the apocalyptic imagination is subverted from within, we see ever less insistence on hope and ever more on patience, so that in the letter to Titus we read the following:
Tell the elders to be sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience. (Tit. 2:2)
That is to say, where Paul had spoken to the Corinthians in terms of faith, hope, and charity, now patience replaces hope. Pg 162-163
What we are seeing is that God of the victims does not rush in to rescue the situation; there are no apocalyptic interventions where evil is uncovered and good stands vindicated. Whoever assumes the risk of bringing things to light, stands, more often than not, alone; and even when they do not, this is only thanks to the intervention of other people in solidarity. Here is where there is produced what is perhaps the most difficult and substantial of the changes in the perception of God which we have been seeing. The God of victims becomes present not as a rescuer, but as the One who gives hope to persons so that they may themselves run the risk of becoming victims. The tender and kind hearted Father, absolutely effervescent and vivacious, becomes present as the empowering of the subject to live the absolute twilight of being crushed when she casts light on dark places.
In this way hope suffers a sea change: it is no longer hope of a rescue, but a fixed surety of that which is not seen, where there seems to be now way out, and where death and its system seem absolutely dominant; and it is this fixed surety of that which is not seen which empowers us to the forging of a counter-history to that of the dominion of death. It is for this reason, I suggest, that the word “patience,” and another, “perseverance,” begin to appear in the development of the apostolic witness instead of “hope.” Pg 165
It is not that hope is being abandoned, but rather that its inner structure is being discovered in the degree to which it is set free from the apocalyptic imagination. It is hope that empowers to bear the crushing violence of the world precisely because it keeps the mind fixed on the God who is revealed by the victim seated at the right had of God. Patience means nothing else, it doesn’t correspond to our banal use of the word, but has its root in the same word as “passion,” that is, suffering, undergoing. The inner structure of hope in the “generation” which was born with the frightening resurrection of Jesus is the empowerment to risk suffering to bring light to the world.
In this way we can see that hope has lost nothing of its drastic quality or of its urgency, but that it has been … subverted from within, coming to be a fixing on what is absolutely not seen: the vindication of the victim in the midst of stories which apparently do now end well, and where it is only being fixed on the God who knows not death which allows us to image that the real story one day to be revealed will be very, very different, and that the lightning which will illuminate all will cast a very different light on the monotonous story which we know too well. Pg 165-166