At the decennial Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops, traditionalist English bishop N.T. Wright (known as Tom) gave a lecture yesterday about the authority of Scripture. He reportedly spoke to a packed house. The lecture is worth reading in its entirety; it's a wonderful blend of erudition and foolishness. (Hat tip: Thinking Anglicans.)
An unsupportably-provincial view of history
Bishop Wright urges us to read the Bible as though it were a five-act play. Hmm, an interesting concept. He says the play has "Creation and Fall as the first two acts, then Israel, then Jesus himself, and then the act in which we ourselves are still living, whose final scene we know from passages like Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation 21 and 22."
In other words, according to Wright, the story of the universe revolves around a collection of tribes wandering the land bridge between northeast Africa and southwest Asia. The climactic event — the execution of one Jesus of Nazareth, and its aftermath — has already occurred. Since then, all the universe has been killing time waiting for the grand finale.
We're familiar with this view of history, of course. For nearly 2,000 years, that's been the narrative taught by the church.
The church fathers might have been excused for taking such a provincial view. In their day, humanity knew virtually nothing about the universe outside the earth's atmosphere. We knew nothing at all about the origins of our planet, and of our species. (Correction: What we thought we knew was proved inadequate by later-revealed evidence.) Indeed, it's not evident that the fathers, so focused on Israel and its putative history, were much aware even of other human cultures to be found in, say, China, India, and the Americas. The Jerusalem church fathers been taught that Israel was the Chosen People, and (all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding) that's all they needed to know, except of course "Christ and Him crucified."
We of today can't justify taking such a narrow, self-centered view of history. Unlike the church fathers, we know that on our planet alone, all kinds of diverse peoples each have their own history, and there's no plausible reason to privilege any particular one of those histories as the essential narrative of the creation.
Let's also consider that it might not be just our own planet that deserves our attention on this point. Astronomers are busily discovering planets orbiting other stars; it's estimated that some 10% of sun-like stars may have planets. And we're fairly confident that what we used to think of as "the Sun" is but one of hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way galaxy, and that our galaxy is but one of an estimated 125 billion galaxies. Our observations (for example, this week's discovery of water on Mars) give us reason to think that the conditions for life may well exist on more than just our planet.
With all this in mind, you don't have to be a cultural relativist to be unconvinced that the folk
tales of a single small people are truly the central narrative
of the universe. Bishop Wright seems content to assume that it is, however, and that nothing else we have learned about the history of the universe is of any real consequence. His Lambeth lecture reveals what Paul Zahl might call an extraordinarily-high anthropology; others might refer to it less charitably as cultural egotism.
For hundreds of years, humanity has been blessed with the steadily-increasing ability to observe the reality God wrought. We've likewise been blessed with inspirations about how those observations can be fitted together into coherent, testable models of the universe. Moreover, it seems eminently reasonable to conjecture that we are expected to put these gifts into the service of the continuing creation.
Yet the church insists on continuing to espouse an overly-simplistic narrative based on an exaggerated view of humanity's importance in the cosmic scheme of things. At best, this is self-indulgence; at worst, a breach of the First Commandment.
Wright's strong point: The unfinished narrative
Bishop Wright does come close to making an excellent point: He argues that:
... scripture offers precisely the unfinished narrative of God’s heaven-and-earth project,
God’s great design, as Paul puts it, echoing the Law and the Prophets,
to join everything in heaven and earth into one in Christ. And the
unfinished narrative functions like an unfinished play, in which those
who belong to Jesus Christ are now called to be the actors, taking
forward the drama towards its intended conclusion.
Within that unfinished play, he says, we human actors are supposed
to be improvisers, "which as any musician knows doesn’t mean playing
out of tune or out of time but rather discerning what is appropriate in
terms of the story so far and the story’s intended conclusion."