Last night, Sarah and I (and her parents – the Lut’eran Ministers) went to an event at the seminary hosted by the Center for Theological Inquiry. It was an interview session with NT Wright, bishop of Durham, who is here in Princeton working on the next volume of his Christian Origins and the Question of God series. Like all of the other theological nerds, I was very excited to see him speak. All semester I have been scanning the study carrels in the library and the crowds of people walking along Nassau Street hoping to see him. My master plan is to *accidentally* spill my coffee on him, apologize profusely, and then offer myself as a study assistant for the remainder of his time here, free of charge. I’m still waiting for that to happen, but at least I have had the chance to hear him speak while he is here.
Because the format was that of an interview, he did not speak on a “topic” per se. Most of the questions focused on how to be an academic in the service of the church–how to hold those two world in tension without using “two bibles: one for personal devotion, and the other for academic study.”
The most profound moment of the night, for me, came when NT Wright answered a question about Modernity and Postmodernity. While acknowledging the great advances of Modernity (he said he didn’t want to have dental work performed by a postmodern dentist–or a premodern dentist for that matter) he went on to explain the freedom that postmodernity brings to the academic and theologian. Modernity, Wright explained, tended to lead to dogmatic statements such as “Now that we no longer believe that sort of thing…” or “Now that we know that all truth is relative...” or “Now that we have taken this or that into our own hands…” that left little to no room for an open, honest conversation about spiritual matters. Postmodernism, on the other hand, called those sorts of statement in question. That, he said, is a good thing. However, he was not idealistic or romantic about postmodernity either, as if postmodernism is the cure for all of the church’s ills. He used the following metaphor. Postmodernism is the equivalent of the Secular Fall Story. Modernism was an age of optimism and progress, in which the church and world were thought to be on an upward trajectory toward achievement of the perfect society – the kingdom of God, if you will. And yet, in reality, the age of “enlightenment” did not make humanity better, more just, or more loving. Instead, it led to two world wars and the horrors of the Nazi death camps – in other words, it led to a humanity that was more efficient at exterminating and destroying each other. The reaction to this effect of the age of modernism has been an extreme reaction against any all encompassing stories of progress or meaning – in the words of Jean-François Lyotard “incredulity toward metanarratives.” This for Wright, signals the “Secular Fall.” Implied in this analysis is the conclusion that postmodernism is not the answer. If anything, it provides the context in which we must try to move forward – looking for ways to participate in God’s work of redemption. How are we going to redeem this world? Part of the answer for Wright lies in culture. We must seek to engage and create culture in ways that help people find their own place in God’s story – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration [my words, not his]. I find this to be a helpful way of thinking about postmodernism – not an answer, rather a reaction resulting from the fall of the secular myth of progress – now, we must begin to look forward constructively and creatively seeking to redeem a world that is all to familiar with its own brokenness.
NT Wright is a good role model for those of us who hope to be intellectually honest, academically precise, and most importantly to encourage people to trust in Christ. In person he is winsome, engaging, and self-deprecating. Last night was a real treat.