Thursday, May 04, 2006

Spiritual voice (26): from N.T. Wright's "Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense"

[This is the first time in this blog’s ongoing “Spiritual Voice” series that an author still with us is featured. N.T. Wright (1948- ) is the Anglican Bishop of Durham, England, is a respected Biblical scholar, and is the writer of several spiritual books. He has written three massive and outstanding volumes in his series entitled “Christian Origin and the Question of God.” The latest in the volume is on the resurrection of Jesus, the second is on Christology (“Jesus and the Victory of God”), and the first is on the New Testament and the People of God. His books have been noteworthy for their scholarly rigor and depth, for their spiritual freshness, yet for their accessibility to lay readers. Personally I enjoy his writing style. A professor of mine once described his writing to me as “florid.” He meant that in a good way. N.T. Wright’s works have always been solidly orthodox, yet wonderfully insightful. The following excerpt is the first few paragraphs from his latest book, “Simply Christian,” which Anne Rice describes: “This will become a classic.” I like this excerpt because it picks up an overarching theme of this blog: that beckoning “voice” within all of us.]

I had a dream the other night, a powerful and interesting dream. And the really frustrating thing about it is that I can’t remember what it was about. I had a flash of it as I woke up, enough to make me think how extraordinary and meaningful it was; and then it was gone. And so, to misquote T.S. Eliot, I had the meaning but missed the experience.

Our passion for justice often seems like that. We dream the dream of justice. We glimpse, for a moment, a world at one, a world put to rights, a world where things work out, where societies function fairly and efficiently, where we not only know what we ought to do but actually do it. And then we wake up and come back to reality. But what are we hearing when we’re dreaming that dream?

It’s as though we can hear, not perhaps a voice itself, but the echo of a voice: a voice speaking with calm, healing authority, speaking about justice, about things being put to rights, about peace and hope and prosperity for all. The voice continues to echo in our imagination, our subconscious. We want to go back and listen to it again, but having woken up we can’t get back into the dream. Other people sometimes tell us it was just a fantasy, and we’re half inclined to believe them, even though that condemns us to cynicism.

But the voice goes on, calling us, beckoning us, luring us to think that there might be such a thing as justice, as the world being put to rights, even though we find it so elusive. We’re like moths trying to fly to the moon. We all know there’s something called justice, but we can’t quite get to it.

You can test this out easily. Go to any school or playgroup where the children are old enough to talk to each other. Listen to what they are saying. Pretty soon one child will say to another, or perhaps to a teacher: “That’s not fair!” [emphasis his throughout]

You don’t have to teach children about fairness and unfairness. A sense of justice comes with the kit of being human. We know about it, as we say, in our bones….

So why can’t we fix injustice?

It isn’t for want of trying. We have courts of law and magistrates and judges and lawyers in plenty….

And yet we a sense that justice itself slips through our fingers. Sometimes it works; often it doesn’t. Innocent people get convicted; guilty people are let off. The bullies, and those who can bribe their way out of trouble, get away with wrongdoing---not always, but often enough for us to notice, and to wonder why. People hurt others badly and walk away laughing. Victims don’t always get compensated. Sometimes they spend the rest of their lives coping with sorry, hurt, and bitterness.

The same thing is going on in the wider world. Countries invade other countries and get away with it. The rich use the power of their money to get even richer while the poor, who can’t do anything about it, get even poorer. Most of us scratch our heads and wonder why, and then go out and busy another product whose profit goes to the rich company.

I don’t want to sound despondent. There is such a thing as justice, and sometimes it comes out on top. Brutal tyrannies are overthrown. Apartheid was dismantled. Sometimes wise and creative leaders arise and people follow them into good and just actions. Serious criminals are sometimes caught, brought to trial, convicted, and punished. Things that are seriously wrong in society are sometimes put splendidly to rights. New projects give hope to the poor. Diplomats achieve solid and lasting peace. But just when you think it’s safe to all goes wrong again.

And even though we can solve a few of the world’s problems, at least temporarily, we know perfectly well that there are others we simply can’t and won’t.

Just after Christmas of 2004 an earthquake and tidal wave killed more than three times as many people in a single day as the total number of American soldiers who died in the entire Vietnam War. There are some things in our world, on our planet, which make us say, “That’s not right!” even when there’s nobody to blame. A tectonic plate’s go to do what a tectonic plate’s got to do. The earthquake wasn’t caused by some wicked global capitalist, by a late-blossoming Marxist, or by a fundamentalist with a bomb. It just happened. And in that happening we see a world in pain, a world out of joint, a world where things occur which we seem powerless to make right.

The most telling examples are the ones closest to home. I have high moral standards, I have thought about them. I have preached about them. Good heavens, I have even written books about them. And still I break them. The line between justice and injustice, between things being right and things not being right, can’t be drawn between “us” and “them.” It runs right down through the middle of each one of us. The ancient philosophers, not least Aristotle saw this as a wrinkle in the system, a puzzle at several levels. We all know what we ought to do….but we all manage, at least some of the time, not to do it.

Isn’t this odd?....

There are three basic ways of explaining this sense of the echo of a voice, this call to justice, this dream of a world (and all of us within it) put to rights.

We can say, if we like, that it is indeed only a dream, a projection of childish fantasies, and that we have to get used to living in the world the way it is. Down that road we find Machiavelli and Nietzsche, the world of naked power and grabbing what you can get, the world where the only sin is to be caught.

Or we can say, if we like, that the dream is of a different world altogether, a world where we really belong, where everything is indeed put to rights, a world into which we can escape in our dreams in the present and hope to escape one day for good---but a world which has little purchase on the present world except that people who live in this one sometimes find themselves dreaming of that one. That approach leaves us with the thought that things will be better somewhere, sometime, even if there’s not much we can do about it here and now.

Or we can say, if we like, that the reason we have these dreams, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us, whispering in our inner ear---someone who cares very much about his present world and our present selves, and who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, things being put to rights, ourselves being put to rights, the world rescued at last.

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