My Most Important Reads of 2021:
#1- History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology by N.T. Wright
It’s no secret that Wright has been a formative voice in my life. This is one of a handful of new books released in the last year or two, a few of which could be included in this list (I haven’t finished the dense and richly rewarding new entry in his grand trilogy, The New Testament in its World, but his new commentary on Galatians, along with its mix of academic and pastoral concern, functions as a wonderful summary of some of his big ideas). It is based on his collection of Gifford Lectures which are available via podcast and at its heart is an appeal to Christians to reclaim the long neglected role of history within the larger field of theological study and scholarship. Not unlike common resistance to philosophy, this resistance to history, or the proper discipline of good history, has led to problematic theology and dangerous cultural expression, and reclaiming history as a discipline that functions in relationship to theology can help us gain a clearer sense of this trajectory.
Of particular concern is the recovering of the promise of “natural theology”. If history is predicated on understanding how it is that God dwells within the created order, and the ensuing struggles that come with this, a neglect of natural theology, which comes in our resistance to history, forces us to then relegate God as an entity that exists somewhere “out there”, a thread of history that binds concerns for locating Jesus within history itself. What natural theology does is it allows us to reframe our questions in the way of the historical text so as to allow it to challenge our present assumptions in a more properly re-contextualized sense, awakening us to this idea of the marriage of heaven and earth in a historical and eschatological sense, and likewise to the goodness of the created order and the call to participate within it.
I do imagine that skeptics of Wright’s ability to operate as both a historian and a theologian effectively, which ironically frames pushback on either side of the divide between religious and non-religious, might leave some resistant to Wrights conclusions (which includes the initial frame of thought that would become his book Broken Signposts, the idea that intuition locates things like love, beauty and goodness in this world while also intuitively recognizing that these things are not quite as they should be in their fullness… the question then being how does an eschatological hope shape this reality in a particular way). That is unfortunately part of the fallout of a world raised to see these disciplines as incompatible. Wright does retain a certain skepticism towards particular claims of modernity as the answer to the historical witness, and to be fair he does retain a bit of an old fashioned appeal. That is part of what endears me to his work to be honest. But I think he fairly articulates and demonstrates with intellectual vigor how modernity demonstrates itself as the cyclical process of history, claiming nothing new nor revolutionary in terms of its central questions and certainly it’s navigating of religious identity and truths. He astutely reflects on a time in history that has been uniquely shaped by and which continues to exist in the shadow of the Holocaust; a piece of history which also perhaps stands in danger of being forgotten by consecutive generations. In many ways this has become the newest measure of moral concern; as long as we aren’t “that” then we are on the “right side of history”, a phrase he deftly takes to task and deconstructs). This is of course where history becomes vital and necessary, especially when it comes to locating Jesus within this history.
To be clear, this book is not an apologetic. It is an academic treaties that wrestles with natural theology as necessary for understanding and expressing Christian beliefs about this world. It just might be my new favorite book by him towards this end, and for me I found it illuminating, entertaining and inspiring.