I have been working through N.T. Wright‘s Gifford Lectures, published by Baylor University Press as History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. (Thanks to Byron Borger at Hearts & Minds Bookstore for bringing this book to my attention and selling me a copy). I am only about forty pages into it, but I am enjoying it so far. It has been a long time since I read anything on natural theology, but Wright’s attempt to connect theology, the Gospels, and history has kept me going. It has been a good intellectual exercise.
I was thus pleased to find Wright’s recent essay at First Things: “Loving to Know.” I commend it to you. Here is a taste:
Western modernity has created a monster. We supposed this monster would do what we wanted. But now, it is rampaging around, and we seem powerless to stop it.
A Jewish or Christian analysis would want to speak here of idolatry. We have worshipped Mars, who leads us to address all problems with tanks and bombs. We have worshipped Mammon, so that turning a profit trumps all else. We have worshipped Aphrodite, and any suggestion that we should resist her infringes on our human rights. And so on. The false gods obtain their power and apparent authority from the fact that they really are aspects of the created world that, for a Jew or a Christian, is itself the loving gift of the wise creator. But when we respond to the idols, rather than to the creator, we are driven not by love but by greed and lust. That’s what idols do: They lure you into the Faustian trap.
The way out is an understanding of creation as the gift of love, to which love is the appropriate response. But we cannot reach that true understanding of creation by a direct approach, for it quickly leads us back to idols. We must start with the center of creation: Jesus himself.
The epistemology of love, applied to history, insists (along with Vico and other early critics of the Enlightenment) that understanding the past means entering sympathetically into the minds of people in cultures very different from our own. It is all too easy to project our own hopes and interests onto “the other.” Pure objectivity about other persons would appraise them at a distance, rather than engaging with them; pure subjectivity would use them to gratify one’s own whims or desires. Love means not just allowing others to be themselves but relishing them as being themselves, as being both other than ourselves and other than our initial hopes and expectations of them. Thus, the historian will study in full detail the thought world of the culture and people under investigation—its symbolic structure, its underlying taken-for-granted narratives, its characteristic praxis, and so on. This is the larger social and cultural structure that I have loosely and heuristically called “worldview.” It is a matter of the historian’s due diligence.
With history as with science, the Christian must never say simply that God is the lord of history and that’s all we need to know. That is like asking your bank manager what you have in your account and receiving the answer, “Money.” Refusing to investigate history is a way of staying on the safe side of Lessing’s ugly ditch. History, like science, is full of surprises. Only when we pay attention to them, allowing our expectations to be modified—including our expectations of what God’s world ought to look like and how God ought to behave in relation to it!—are we actually operating with an epistemology of love.
Read the entire piece here.
I am not sure if Wright realizes that Christian historians have given a lot of thought to the relationship between historical study and love. The place to start is Beth Barton Schwieger’s essay, “Seeing Things: Knowledge and Love in History,” in Confessing History: Explorations in Christian Faith and the Historian’s Vocation. I also address this issue in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.