God in Public: How the Bible Speaks Truth to Power Today, by N. T. Wright
[The essays in this compilation] have to do with society and culture as a whole rather than simply the challenge to individuals.
I have been grappling with how to understand and articulate the conclusion I seem to be reaching: liberty – even as the most devout libertarian sees it – is not achievable or survivable absent the foundations on which it was built in the west and absent the cultural foundations that Christianity offered.
I know the title of this post as well as the title of Wright’s book is blasphemous to many libertarians and others who hold to the view that one of the greatest outcomes of the Enlightenment is the separation of church and state. I only consider – this isn’t the same thing as the separation of church and society. Yet here we are.
I have only read the two-page preface and the first five pages of the first essay and find that there is enough for a post. Let’s see.
To place some context for Wright’s work and also my interest, Wright offers that there is a crisis in Western democracies. Yet, Western democracies reflect, in many ways, the fulfilment of the Enlightenment. Sure, we can debate the meaning of liberty, equality, fraternity, property, the pursuit of happiness; we can point to Enlightenment thinkers that support a more libertarian version of these terms.
But we can also point to Enlightenment thinkers that provide a philosophical foundation for the version that found itself in the French Revolution and in Karl Marx. These Enlightenment concepts are empty vessels; without an underlying foundation, these vessels can be filled by anyone with a “reasonable” idea.
Wright offers three images that “bring into focus the question of ‘God in Public.’” First is Tony Blair looking for answers in the Qur’an in the aftermath of September 11; one can also imagine a leader in Iraq or Afghanistan reading the Bible for the same reason.
Second, the UK government’s decision a few years ago to do away with funding for second degrees if the degree was not at a higher level than the first. This has especially impacted the pursuit of theology degrees for those considering a path to ordained ministry.
Third, in 2009 the British weekly, New Statesman, ran a special edition: ‘God: What Do We Believe?’ There was only one overtly Christian contributor, and she was allowed all of three sentences. But there was one piece, from Sholto Byrnes. Wright summarizes Byrnes’ thoughts:
…our moralities of scientific certainty, human rights, and ecology, just as strident and self-righteous as any puritan preacher, constituted a secular form of an earlier vision of God and his purposes, and that without that vision they were actually baseless.
How does Wright see this playing out today?
There is a deep uncertainty about who we are and what we’re here for, and I suggest that this malaise is directly linked to the banishment of God from the public square two hundred years ago.
Banishing God from the public square: one of the Enlightenment’s crowning achievements. Does “uncertain” man seem like a good candidate through whom freedom can be advanced and sustained? We see where free minds and (relatively) free markets have led – take a look around. These are certainly characteristics of a free society, but these are not a foundation on which liberty can be built.
Wright offers other reasons why the question of God in public must be addressed: Gnosticism and empire. Regarding Gnosticism, Wright offers The Da Vinci Code. Why was this novel so popular? One conspiracy inside the other, with the story of Jesus and Mary Magdalene at the heart of the biggest conspiracy ever known in the west.
When combined with empire…
…when people sense that the world is run by very rich and very powerful people, and there’s nothing they can do about it, they tend to shrug their shoulders and suppose they’d better turn inwards, away from the public sphere.
And this is precisely what the rich and powerful people want the rest of us to do. There is nothing to see here; move along. For this reason, we accept enslavement, bullying, and war as the manifestations of freedom, justice, and peace.
Tomorrow’s world will be dominated by these confusions. And if the Christian gospel can bring not only clarity but a fresh sense of direction we should all be grateful.
Is it possible that the Christian gospels could be an antidote to the confusion of today’s world; as Wright offers in the title of his book, speaking truth to power? If one has liberty in mind, it might be worth finding some antidote to our current condition.
Because chanting NAP, NAP, NAP isn’t going to cut it.