Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wright: Philemon and Worldview

The journey through N. T. Wright's Paul and the Faithfulness of God continues. Thus far,

The Basics of Philemon

2. Philemon and the Study of Paul
Wright believes that there is a worldview coming to expression in Philemon (23). Here he draws on his earlier work especially in The New Testament and the People of God. "One of the extraordinary achievements of Paul was to turn 'theology' into a different kind of thing from what it had been before in the world either of the Jews or of the pagans. One of the central arguments of the present book is that this was the direct result and corollary of what had happened to Paul's worldview. Paul effectively invented 'Christian theology' to meet a previously unknown need, to do a job which had not, until then, been necessary" (26).

Wright's understanding of worldview involves four core components: 1) an underlying narrative or story, 2) habitual actions or praxis, 3) symbols, a symbolic universe, and 4) common answers to certain worldview questions like "Who are we?" "Where are we?" "What's wrong?" "What's the solution?" "What time is it?" He seems to add "Why?" with this book, and indicate that the why questions point to theology. As he has already set, he considers a mindset to be an individual or sub-cultural perspective within a broader worldview.

Wright is aiming at a "thick description" of Paul. This is a term from anthropologist Clifford Geertz that aims at understanding actions in their deepest, culturally embedded sense, "to attempt to discern those things which people knew easily and without effort even if such 'knowledge' is remote for us and hard to reconstruct" (29). Cultural assumptions are often those of which we are least aware and yet are generally held in common by a whole culture. These assumptions are most key to understanding someone from another culture and yet they are least likely to be stated explicitly because they are so deeply assumed.

The core elements of worldview are "not likely to be topics of regular conversation, whether in a family or in a culture; they are the presuppositions which enable people to make sense of everything else" (33). "Story, praxis, and symbol generate and sustain a set of implicit answers to the five questions. People normally do not talk about these four elements of their worldview... [except] when something has gone wrong [or] when an outsider issues a challenge or a new question..." (33-34).

"The study of Paul's worldview leads to a striking, dramatic conclusion: this worldview not only requires a particular 'theology' to sustain it, but also requires that 'theology' itself play a new role, integrated with the worldview itself" (30). The why question, when addressed to the components of worldview (story, praxis, symbol, basic answers) leads to an underlying theology. "This theology cannot be reduced to a system of ideas" (31).

Two other dimensions quickly come into play. First, culture draws together narrative, praxis, and symbol into particular patterns. Culture brings to expression beliefs and perceptions that either reinforce the prevailing worldview or stand in tension with it.

Second, Wright uses the word "worship" instead of religion so as not to assume the division of religious and secular created in the period of the Enlightenment. "'Worship' is a specific activity in which the other elements of the worldview are caught up, colouring praxis, shaping and influencing narrative, generating symbols, and frequently offering answers to the key questions" (36).

The next part of the chapter discusses how Paul's worldview could only be sustained by constantly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully addressing the question of who the one true God is, what he has done and is doing, and what his doings mean for the community of faith in the Messiah. At the center of this theology, for Wright, is a "Jewish-style (but christologically redefined) monotheism" (37). "I shall propose... that monotheism is indeed at the heart of Paul's theology... as the integrating theme which explains and gives depth to all the others."

The rest of this section goes through some of the "centers" of Paul's thought that have been proposed over the years. "Salvation" was implicitly the center for most of the time since the Reformation (justification by faith). Albert Schweitzer (and now Douglas Campbell) have emphasized participation in Christ as the center. Other "organizing" elements have also entered the scene, vying for attention (Wright has another entire volume coming out on the interpretation of Paul).

First there is the idea of salvation history, the idea that history is the outworking of God's plan of salvaiton. Second, there is the category of apocalyptic, the breaking in of the heavenly realm into the events of the earth. Third is the notion of covenant, that the events concerning Jesus are the fulfillment of ancient promises.

Then there are questions of how history impinges on Paul. Is Paul more a Hellenistic or Jewish thinker? Unfortunately, "he is so many-sided that he can be appealed to this way or that on all kinds of issues, not only in theology and ethics but in culture and philosophy..." (42).

Is Paul more doctrinal or ethical? Wright thinks this false distinction owes much to Kant. Wright himself thinks there was also a politically subversive dimension to Paul. All these aspects of Paul have to be brought into dialog with each other. Wright aims to jumble them all together, "like pieces of the same jigsaw puzle that had somehow found their way onto quite separate tables" (43).

We also need to distinguish between the derivation of Paul's ideas (where they came from) and how he used them in the confrontation of his world (where they were going to). How did Paul use elements of his "history-of-religions" world in the engagement of his world?

We can't choose between sharp antitheses any more. "There is indeed a way of analyzing and understanding Paul in which these several multi-layered dichotomies can be resolved..." (45).  "We are looking, not so much for a 'centre' to Paul's thought-world (and his worldview in the sense explained), as a vantage point, a summit from which we can survey, and see the way to explore, the landscape of the letters and their implicit worlds" (46).

What is this vantage point? First, "Paul remained a deeply Jewish theologian who had rethought and reworked every aspect of his native Jewish theology in the light of the Messiah and the spirit, resulting in his own vocational self-understanding as the apostle to the pagans" (46). Jews do not have a theology in the way Paul and subsequent Christian theology has. But derived from Paul's Jewishness, he confronts and engages his new context in a way that draws on three key elements of his native Jewish  world.

"The three categories are monotheism, election, and eschatology: one God, one people of God, one future for God's world" (46). Paul approaches his world from these three theological peaks, with creational monotheism at the center of his thinking. The either-or distinctions of the past focus on the valleys between rather than the key vantage points.

You can easily see that Wright's desire to be all-encompassing has resulted in significant complexity. He is doing his best to take into account all the pitfalls of past discussion, and the result is indeed like a collection of puzzle pieces he has mixed together on a table--maybe even a mixture of several related puzzles. One of the most instructive aspects of the chapter, if you can see it, is the way he has tried to avoid every extreme.

So he does not want to treat Paul as just a thinker or a practitioner. He wants to take into account "thick descriptions" and "social imaginaries" of worldview and distinguish them from culture and individual mindsets. He does not want to limit Paul to his Jewishness or to Hellenism. He wants to avoid the old, "Is it justification by faith or participation in Christ" dichotomy. He wants to avoid the mistakes of so much "center of Paul" debates, choosing instead the more complicated model of peaks, ridges, and valleys.

All of this prolegomena is to get us ready, and we will see how it plays out. You wonder how this chapter would have been written if he wasn't, to some extent, bound by frameworks he set up twenty years ago. For example, he is too far along to shift comfortably from his earlier language of worldview to Charles Taylor's more sophisticated "social imaginary" (cf. 28, n.80).

It is ironic to me that while he recognizes and criticizes the pitfalls of idealism (27), of reducing reality to a set of ideas or privileging ideas over "real life," he still has a strong tendency to treat ideas in abstraction from the real world in which they are meant to help us operate. He does well to speak of thick descriptions and such, but in my opinion he still ultimately treats the structures of his method as more than heuristic tools. He tends to treat them as realities-in-themselves.

Nevertheless, Wright arguably has all the pieces here, in all their complexity. His categories are far superior to a lot of worldview talk that must surely be considered incredibly superficial and two-dimensional.  A lot of talk of ideas is really about social groups and traditional practices. As Wright implies, ideologies often emerge only when those traditional boundaries and practices are attacked or called into question.

Symbols, practices, stories that provide the significance of those symbols and practices, or the answers to the questions our group asks--these are all part of our "worldviews" and "mindsets." But the ideas are not primary. They are abstractions from our lived-lives in the world. They are the way we anticipate what is to come and how we process change. Ideas are the scaffolding some of us build from which to engage our world. Others simply climb the walls of the world without much scaffolding.

1 comment:

Susan Moore said...

I think it is easy to read the Bible and look at it two-dimensionally; to only view it as a collection of ideas and thoughts.
But Paul did not act from his collection of ideas and thoughts, he acted from his experiential knowledge of God.
I realize in our current secular and Christian culture that so freely proclaims cessationism, that that understanding can be difficult for one to wrap one's head around.
Does Wright 'see' the signs, wonders and miracles of God?