As I was writing my previous post, I went looking for something I could link to to illustrate NT Wright’s emphasis on the need (for Christians) to struggle with scripture. Didn’t find anything. I think I read it in one of his books. Anyway, I did find this video on “Nightline: Bishop Tom Wright (Life After “Life After Death”).” (And here’s the article: Bishop’s Heaven: Is there Life After the Afterlife?)
This segment highlights the difference between popular views of life after death (i.e., that physical reality is ultimately going to be scrapped as if one of God’s mistaken thoughts) and more considered and “orthodox” (for lack of a better word) eschatology (i.e., that physical reality and society has “fallen,” but will be reformed and renewed). The narrator says something like, “NT Wright’s view is a radical departure from what Christians have believed for centuries.” But it’s only a departure from what the POPULAR view has been for centuries. It’s never been the considered or “orthodox” view, whether in the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, or Protestant traditions.
Anyway, here’s how NT Wright puts it in this Nightline clip:
If you really believe that what happens at death is that you leave behind the world of space, time, and matter. You’re never going to be bothered with it again. You’re never going to have a physical body again. And that ultimately God is gonna throw this whole world on the rubbish heap somewhere, then what’s the fuss to work for justice in the present? What’s the fuss about AIDS? What’s the problem about global debt? You know, these are trivial and irrelevant. What matter is whether you’re going to heaven tomorrow or next week.
Though I work in a very tough area of Britain. There are all sorts conditions of poverty and deprivation. And if all I thought was, Oh well, if I teach these people the truth, then they’ll go to heaven when they die. Then why would I bother working with often desperately needy people? It’s because I believe in God’s kingdom of justice and peace this gives me the energy and the focus to work for the kingdom of God in the present.
NT Wright is talking to Christians, basically saying, no matter why you think what you think, think about how your belief affects your way of being in the world. 1) If you believe in the popular view of “life after death,” and the world is worthless (though, then, why did God create it?), then you’re not gonna be as good at or as motivated to focus on creating a world of justice and peace. It’s the whole dualism dichotomous thing, too: heaven versus earth, matter versus spirit. And social justice just ain’t gonna be your thing (and it’s not for evangelicals in the last fifty years – NOT to say that evangelicals are not also really good at social justice. It’s just that it’s not their forte (though it was in the 19th century when evangelicals were in the forefront of the anti-slavery movement).
2) But if you look at the New Testament a little more closely, with a more critical eye toward “what is really being taught in this text” as opposed to “what popular belief SAYS about this text,” then, as Christian tradition has said all along, there’s a promise of a “new heavens and a new earth wherein dwells justice” (Isaiah, Peter, Revelation, and I think elsewhere). And if so, then your work toward social justice is going to be oh-so much more charged up, powerful, and meaningful. And probably more effective.
Some non-Christians (or non-religious people in general) would say, of course, “I don’t gotta have some after-life AT ALL to inspire me to work for peace and justice.” That’s the more existentialist view. And I admire that. I have to tap into that view myself sometimes – when the faith is flagging a bit.
Anyway, it’s all goes to show that, of course, ideas matter in the public and “secular” realm, very much including religious ideas.