Culture At Large

So heavenly minded, we're no earthly good? N.T. Wright on "simple Christianity"

Andy Rau

I drove over to Calvin College again this afternoon to attend today's January Series lecture by N.T. Wright, a Church of England bishop and scholar whose latest book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense, makes the case for the Christian faith in a spirit reminiscent of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity. The auditorium was packed--I underestimated Wright's popularity, and should have arrived earlier to get a better seat--and his lecture was a presentation of his ideas and arguments from Simply Christian.

What are those ideas and arguments? Wright (who can weave sentences with truly impressive wordsmithery... or maybe it's just his British accent) argued that Christianity today is being pulled in two opposing theological directions, and that neither of them accurately accounts for the core story of the Gospel. The two unhealthy directions are pantheism and deism--theological terms that might strike you as archaic today, but which Wright (acknowledging some oversimplification on his part) links to modern conceptions of Christianity.

Both pantheism and deism, Wright argues, arise in response to the basic human hunger for true spirituality, and specifically in response to the claims of Christianity. The modern-day pantheist applies an overly humanist filter to the Gospel story--he sees Jesus as a good and spiritual person, the Bible as a potentially useful source of spiritual inspiration, and the Earth and humanity as extensions of the divine. The modern deist sees God as a distant and scarcely-knowable entity, Jesus as an untouchable and barely-human holy visitor from afar, and Creation as a doomed environment that must be endured until we escape from it to a faraway heaven. The pantheist perspective is a danger to which liberal Christians are susceptible, whereas the deist approach is a pitfall for orthodox Christians.

Presumably because his American evangelical audience is more orthodox than liberal, Wright spent more time critiquing the deist perspective that he sees threatening American evangelicalism. Evangelicals, he says, are in danger of reducing Christianity to little more than a "ticket to heaven" with an excessive focus on the Cross without much concern for the Holy Spirit-inspired service that should follow the acceptance of Christ. Our focus on--even anticipation of--the Second Coming has encouraged a blindness to the extreme need for Christ-like service in the world around us. The temptation to view the Bible as if it fell like a meteor straight from heaven to Earth and to read it as a simple checklist of "do's and don't's" can cause us to miss the forest for the trees. Wright briefly noted also that the recent confluence of Christianity and foreign policy, at least as the outside world interprets it, just sets people up to reject Christianity in the event of those policies' failure.

I don't know too many Christians, orthodox or otherwise, who (even if they might quibble with some of the specifics) would disagree with Wright's central warning: that it's easy for American evangelicals to become "so heavenly minded that they're no earthly good," as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it. So what, then, does Wright suggest is a better way to understand Christianity, a way that falls into neither the pantheist nor deist trap? His answer is to make simple, Christlike service a major focus in our lives. The story of Christianity is the story of God bringing redemption to his creation--and our role in that story does not begin and end with simply accepting Christ; it involves being living witnesses for Christ to the world around us. Non-Christians, Wright notes, are more likely to be drawn to God when they see concrete examples of Christians feeding the hungry, tending to the poor and sick, and living in peace than if they see us making bombastic theological claims or getting tangled up in ugly politics.

If Wright's argument has a weakness, I think it's that his suggestion--"reflect Christ with a life of service"--isn't terribly specific. Much of the cultural debate in the Christian community today is not over whether or not we ought to (say) help the poor or feed the hungry; it's over the specific means by which we ought to do so. And while I saw no evidence that Wright is preaching a "salvation by works" Gospel, I think his perspective is at least open to critique from that angle.

But overall, I think Wright is on target with a simple message that most Christians would agree on, but which we find distressingly hard to actually do: live Christlike lives. If the world's encounter with Christianity came through loving, peaceful, gracious, helpful Christian lives, and not through angry politics or theological bickering, the Kingdom of God might not seem quite so distant as it sometimes appears today.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Theology