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Surprised by Hope: I

The first in a planned series of posts by Doug Morgan on N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope – the text for Eighth Annual Spring Discussion Series on readings in Christian social thought, conducted by the Columbia Union College Department of Religion, in collaboration with the Adventist Peace Fellowship.

Many of us were “surprised by hope” during the recent presidential election. On the several occasions in which I have heard Adventists – somewhat uncharacteristically – publicly celebrate a development in the political realm, cautions have quickly and quite correctly been added about not confusing the hope surprisingly engendered by the election of Barack Obama with the ultimate hope in the second advent of Christ on which the Adventist faith centers.

What I haven’t heard is anything establishing positive connections between the hope for limited, temporary progress that may be achieved by people of good will in sinful human society and the hope for the great and total transformation to the “new heavens and new earth” brought about by Christ alone. The two hopes seem to run on separate tracks, with little bearing on each other, other than the latter perhaps inhibiting the investment of too much aspiration or energy in the former.

In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright, the prolific New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop, challenges us rethink the relationship between our “blessed hope” for the final things of heaven and the resurrection and the mission of the church….

In other words, he challenges us to the possibility of a vital, dynamic connection between apocalyptic hope and action for a better world here and now. And, in case anyone might be already be ready to dismiss the challenge with the thought, “Here we go again, ‘social gospel’ vs. evangelism and individual conversion,” I can assure you that Wright blasts through such tired categories.

Put another way, in terms with a familiar Adventist ring but of current interest in wider Christian circles, Surprised by Hope challenges us to think anew about what it means to be a “mission-shaped church” with an “eschatologically-shaped mission.”

So, why not get a copy and read along with the group meeting at Columbia Union College for eleven Wednesday evenings, beginning January 28 (Copies available at 32% discount through Peace Pursuits – APF’s Amazon-linked online bookstore). And, if you join the discussion by commenting in response the weekly posts (and to other responders), everyone will be enriched.

We’re beginning with Chapter 1, “All Dressed Up and No Place to Go?” and Chapter 2, “Puzzled About Paradise,” for January 28.

First, in the interests of full disclosure: N.T. Wright and John Howard Yoder stand in a class by themselves as the foremost literary guides in my own quest over the past thirty years to work through my heritage of Seventh-day Adventist Christianity and re-formulate for myself a faith upon which I can stake my life.

Part of the significance I find in Wright’s work comes in the form of affirmation. It is gratifying when one of the world’s most influential biblical scholars says, “the idea that every human possesses an immortal soul, which is the ‘real’ part of them, finds little support in the Bible” (28), and much else along these lines that moves in the direction of Adventist teaching and against concepts long-cherished in the dominant Christian traditions.

Such affirmations would trigger little debate among Adventists. However, instances of the three other, and more profound, types of significance in relation to Adventism that I have found in the bishop’s writings most likely will.

Wright has brought me welcome resolution to theological difficulties that not all Adventists will receive with similarly open arms. For example, what and exactly where, in a post-Copernican universe, is “heaven”? Check out Wright’s explanation on pages 18-19 and throughout the book. For me it underscores the transcendent reality of heaven without requiring suspension of what little I grasp from the explosion of knowledge about “the starry heavens above.”

I also find in Wright expansion of the core truth in Adventist doctrines, sometimes in ways that may appear to conflict with less fundamental concepts. In the first two chapters of Surprised by Hope, Wright introduces a running critique of “evacuation theology” in which the Christian hope is presented as Christ taking believers away from this world to heaven (22-26). And nothing could be clearer both from the Bible and Adventist teachings that the salvation story concludes with the descent of the holy city from heaven to an earth made new. What then of the millennium, and other scripture passages that apparently to refer to the saved being taken to heaven? And, what difference, if any, does it all make for life in the present? Wright has much to say that that richly informs discussion on these matters.

Part of the discussion will have to do with where Wright’s conclusions are in contradiction to Adventist understandings of biblical teaching. I think there are substantial points in Surprised by Hope where this is the case. I won’t get into specifics here, but simply note here neither this nor any of the books we select for this series is put forward as unassailable or authoritative or having been screened for “objectionable” content. Rather, we present it as worthy of discussion, perhaps even unavoidable, for Adventists serious about following the way of Jesus in our time.

Finally, a recommendation for getting the gist of Wright’s argument expressed with a fervency and power that the printed page cannot as fully convey: download or listen to his sermon “The Roots, Basis, and Fruits of the Christian Hope,” preached at St. Aldate’s on January 6, 2008. And, for much more in the way of full-text articles, lectures, sermons, as well as links to audio/video recordings, visit the N.T. Wright Page.

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