I am re-reading (now for the third time, to make sure I got it right) Surprised by Scripture: Engaging with Contemporary Issues, the latest offering by Tom Wright. I read it in response to an e-mail from the author encouraging me to start my thinking about a usable theology of education at that point. The book is fascinating in a number of ways, and some chapters are, as you would expect, better argued than others. The entire book seeks to deal with the impact of Epicurean thinking on the Enlightenment and the consequences for how God is seen in the public sphere. It is a collection of short essays (mostly transcripts of talks to various fora in both the UK and the US) that covers a range of issues chiefly from that particular anti-Epicurean perspective, which in places threatens to overshadow the biblical exposition (partly because the essays are short and there was not the time to apply hermeneutical tools to all the arguments). What is good in this book, though, as always in Wright’s work, is the overarching sense of what the bible is for, what the gospels are for, and why that matters to us now, today, in the place where we are. It is reviewed fully elsewhere (make sure you click on all the pages in this review) and I am not going to try here.
Instead, what I am going to try and do is to explore Wright’s brief epistemology as found in three of the essays that can be found towards the end of the book. The most important of these is entitled “How the Bible Reads the Modern World” – even the title is a beautiful inversion of what might have been written and places the Bible as an authority on the modern world, where the latter might have thought it was an anuthority on the Bible. The following essay, “Idolatry 2.0” covers similar ground as regards a philosophy of knowledge, identifying love as the antithesis of the “modern” gods of mammon (money), Aphrodite (sex) and Mars (war and the lust for power), and it is expounded fully in the political application of this reading of the bible in the essay “Our Politics are Too Small”.
In the first two mentioned, Wright details an argument that expounds how we got into the fix that the Enlightenment gave us – a “split-level” world, where God is assumed to be functionally absent, even when acknowledged in some aspects, and where he has no say at all, nor is expected to have, in the politics and culture of our day. He then proceeds to show (as he does in other essays in the book) how the church has gone along with this thinking, and has essentially agreed with the Epicureans that God is beyond this present world and therefore has to “intervene” (via miracles, angels, revivals, etc) into it. Hence the debates between science and religion, of democracy and theocracy, of evolution or creation all become a zero-sum arrangement where you can favour one or the other but not both. And if you favour one, then you are deemed to “belong” to that party – the fundamentalists or the atheists. This divide, Wright maintains, is false, and ignores the fact that God has never left the world, that he is present in all creation, and that the resurrection of Jesus Christ has inaugurated a kingdom movement of reclamation of the earth for God as king, through the church, but also through Christians acting on behalf of God in political, educational, ecological, legal and economic ways, as well as through agriculture and the arts.
That God has the desire to reclaim for himself the earth he made and all that dwells in it was of first importance for the Hebrew prophets, and part of that is Paul’s insistence that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are in Christ. As we are in the knowledge business, this should therefore definitely be of interest to school leaders!
Knowledge in the bible is not us standing outside something measuring it with a meter of sorts and writing down its properties on a piece of paper or tablet: instead it requires an involvement with its subject matter. As Rob Bell says in his wonderful recent book What we talk about when we talk about God, it is one thing to stand with a clipboard and study lips – it is another to be kissed. Different types of knowledge will come forth from those two experiences!
Wright’s short epistemology is summed up in this section from “How the Bible Views the Modern World”:
In the Bible we find a vocation to human knowing that is always relational, always responsible, always fully attentive to the thing or person that is known and yet always bringing to it the larger world of narrative, imagination, metaphor and art that enables us to know things more fully than merely as a list of facts or a string of formulas (p. 147)
Coming from a deliberately different worldview from that in which we usually look at life (Bell calls the Enlightenment worldview the sea we swim in which is a fantastic metaphor), Wright goes on to expound three necessary outworkings of this way of seeing knowledge:
1. The knowing subject is made in the image of the creator, and thus the subject is called to reflect the creator’s wisdom into the world, and to reflect the praises of creation back to the creator. Knowledge thus involves a praise-filled relationship to God as creator. Knowing about something will therefore automatically be accompanied by the desire to bring that known creation into the ordered purpose of the creator thus
enabling the world and its various parts to flourish, to be more gloriously what they truly are, and to bring praise to their creator.
2. The Bible does not restrict knowledge to one mode of knowing – namely the scientific or empirical way of knowing. To know a woman is not, obviously, to study her from a distance! It has deeper implications, and the bible privileges that mode of knowing as much as, or more than, the empirical type.
The knowing that goes with wisdom in the biblical sense sees the object of study not as an isolated entity to be manipulated or exploited but as part of a much larger world of interlocking connections and mutual relationships (p.148).
3. Knowledge is not known in isolation. All knowing is done in a community of learners. This means that knowledge is humble and can quickly point to its own limits. “True wisdom is both bold and humble. It is never afraid to say what it thinks it has seen, but will always covet other angles of vision”.
Thus knowledge is at its most profound when we are known ourselves, and this then points the way to love as the mode of knowing that will yield the greatest depth and understanding of that which is known.
And what exactly has all this to do with our school? Well, here are some things:
- Let’s refuse to privilege empirical knowledge over any other kind, and let us teach children that there are different ways of knowing.
- Let us constantly honour creation and the creator in our speaking of knowledge.
- Let us not forget that knowledge is a communal and shared experience, that is best acquired together, and best expressed in community.
- Let’s honour the knowledge that children bring with them from their families and their communities.
- Let’s pray for the growth of godly knowledge in our school. If Jesus really is the source of all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, then why not ask him to bring what we need from his storehouse for us.
- Let’s undermine the worldview that says that God is not present in all of his holy creation, and let’s sanctify every aspect of our school life through prayer and worship.
I am sure there is more, but this will do for now.