This is the fifth post in a series examining N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church. Today we're looking at Chapter 5: Cosmic Future: Progress or Despair?
This is the briefest chapter since Chapter 1, and appropriately so. Chapter 5 serves as an introduction to Part II: God's Future Plan. After spending more than 70 pages looking back at the basics of early Jewish and Christian belief, the cultural context, and the historical basis of Christian belief and practice, we now move "back to the future" to look at how those early Christians understood their future and the future of the world.
These days, we tend to look to the future through one of two sets of lenses. First, there is the progressive set of lenses. When we put these glasses on, we see the world and human society gradually getting more sophisticated, more "developed" (technologically and economically), more, well, progressive. I've heard this in my own life – whether in terms of social justice or personal rights, many will suggest that we are progressing.
What Wright points out, however, is that the "progressive" lenses fail to see (or make sense of) the clear and present examples of our failure to progress. Sin and evil continue to wreak havoc on the world, from disease to war to global warming to poverty to genocide and various -isms which degrade and dehumanize people made in God's own image. If we believe the myth of progress, what do we make of those clear examples of our failure to progress – particularly our global moral failures? A progressive view of the world and human history cannot adequately account for sin and evil.
The other set of lenses through which we often view the world is that which sees the world as rapidly approaching damnation. This view suggests that the world is "going to hell in a hand basket" and our best bet is simply to grin, bear it, and sure as heck hope that something better awaits us on the other side. This world view devalues the created world, viewing it as corrupt and fallen. And though the notion that Creation is fallen has firm footing in Christian thought, this worldview has a weak understanding of redemption. Rather than hoping for and expecting a redemption of the whole world, this damnation worldview sees the world as temporary and sees eternity – a spiritual, other-worldly realm – as the destination for faithful souls. Valuing the spiritual nature over the created nature, then, leads to a disregard for creation and an unholy, self-centered spirituality. Wright begins to outline how this body/soul dichotomy is rooted much more in Plato than in anything found in the Bible.
Wright details the problems in these two worldviews, setting us up for Chapter 6: What the Whole World's Waiting For, where we read these lines on the chapter's first page:
The early Christians did not believe in progress . . . But neither did they believe that the world was getting worse and worse and that their task was to escape it altogether . . . They believed that God was going to do for the whole cosmos what he had done for Jesus at Easter (page 93).
The Lutheran Zephyr responds:
I was grateful for a short chapter . . . :-)
Seriously, I found this chapter helpful, if for no other reason than it identifies the short-comings of the two dominant views of the world. I can't accept either that we're progressing or that the world is inherently evil. I see the brokenness of our society and world today, and cannot claim that we've progressed along some sort of moral scale over the past several centuries or millenia. Our ability and propensity to commit sin is as great as at any time in human history – only now, we have more powerful tools than ever. And yet, within this world I see a God-given value in people, creatures, societies, cultures . . . I see in this world a place God chose to call home, a people God selected as his own, a human condition God gladly took on for himself. How can I just throw that under the bus and hope for some other worldly spiritual utopia? Was/is all this for naught?
But nor do I believe that the answer is somewhere in the middle. It seems that there must be another answer, another way. This chapter whets the appetite in anticipation of what that other answer, what that other way is . . .
Please join us early next week as we look at Chapter 6: What the Whole World's Waiting For. Until then, have a great weekend.