In the last two hundred years Western thought has overemphasized the individual at the expense of the larger picture of God’s creation. What is more, in much Western piety, at least since the Middle Ages, the influence of Greek philosophy ha been very marked, resulting in a future expectation that bears far more resemblance Plato’s vision of souls entering into disembodied bliss than to th biblical picture of new heavens and new earth. If we start with the future hope of the individual, there is always the risk that we will, at least by implication, understand that as the real center of everything and treat the hope of creation as mere embroidery around the edges. (80)
We first look at two contrary views of the future.
This is simply the myth that, thanks to human ingenuity, things are always going to get better. It became particularly strong with the Enlightenment. After all, in many ways, things did get better! But today we see our limitations much more clearly.
World War II showed the even modern, scientific humans are capable of incredible evil. Many thinkers thought sure that WWII would end the myth. And yet Europe and Japan rebounded from the war quickly, thanks to US aid, and became secular, capitalistic success stories. And so many thought that the cure for war is capitalism.
And so, 20 years later, in the 1960’s, optimism abounded. We thought we’d quickly have routine space travel, cure cancer, and control the weather. But space travel became more dangerous, cancer has gone anywhere, and the weather is, if anything worse!
LBJ promised a Great Society and launched greatly expanded welfare programs to fight a War on Poverty. There followed even worse poverty, higher illegitimacy, and massive drug problems. Civil rights legislation did, in fact, greatly improve race relations, but we now find ourselves at the end of what government can do for us in regards to race. We remain heavily segregated socially, and race is highly correlated with poverty, criminal arrests, and many other social pathologies.
Moreover, the West thought sure it could spread its ideals of democracy and capitalism to the rest of the world, and the rest of world would enjoy a Western standard of living. And we’ve seen that actually happen in some places, but on the whole, it seems quite hopeless.
And even in the countries that have adopted democracy and capitalism, we don’t see Western values. Europe is quickly moving from secularism to Islam. The former communist bloc nations were very open to Western-style Christianity after the Wall fell, but as they become more prosperous, they are becoming harder and harder to convert.
Former Western colonies struggle with corruption and warfare and poverty. 50 years into the future isn’t looking all that good.
Meanwhile, the US, frustrated with its inability to fix the wrongs of the world, is heading toward a new isolationism. We’re deciding that the rest of the world is better off without our values. Or at least we’re better off if we don’t have to pay the price of spreading them.
Around 1900, much of the church bought into the myth of progress, resulting in the social gospel. In the US, immigration overwhelmed the churches, and so they turned to state and federal government to help. And a tremendous amount of good was done.
The movement continues today, as the government seeks to be the solution to problems of poverty, unwanted babies, and ignorance. But we’ve seen that, while some good can be done, it’s not the complete answer, and well-intended programs often do more harm than good.
And yet —
Many people, particularly politicians and secular commentators in the press and elsewhere, still live by the myth, appeal to it, and encourage us to believe it. Indeed (if I may digress for a moment), the demise of serious political discourse today consists not least in this, that the politicians are still trying to whip up enthusiasms for their versions of this myth — it’s the only discourse they know, poor things — while the rest of us have moved on. (81)
As a result of this viewpoint, “evil” has been removed from the public vocabulary. To declare someone evil is to deny that they can be cured through diplomacy and summit conferences — which denies the evolutionary hope. After all, the myth is that we’ll all get better via science and ingenuity — rationally and thoughtfully.
The problem the West faces today, ultimately, is that it has no solution for or even explanation of evil.
Souls in transit
Wright explains an alternative mode of Western thinking, rooted in Plato’s thought. Plato saw the world as imperfect, corrupted, subject to decay, but saw the things of this world as imperfect replicas of the real, eternal things. Thus, in another, spiritual world, there exists a perfect, incorruptible existence.
Hence, we speak of Platonic love, which is a love that’s free of sexual feeling, as sex is earthly, base, and corrupt, whereas love is pure and spiritual.
Gnosticism is a Second Century phenomenon, built on Platonism, which is much older than Christianity. In Gnostic thought, the creation itself is the Fall. It took a spiritual existence and made it material, and hence imperfect and corrupt. However, there is a perfect existence available outside this world.
Hence, we find the modern media and academics fascinated by discoveries of Gnostic texts, like the Gospel of Judas or Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Indeed, many consider this the “real” Christianity as it existed before it was corrupted by the Catholic Church. Hence, we have the Da Vinci Code.
Christianity is infused with Gnosticism in several ways. Asceticism, for example, is the notion that we must discipline and punish ourselves to mortify the flesh so we can become more spiritual. That which gives earthly pleasure is, therefore, sinful.
Examples are easy to find. Those who consider sex in marriage wrong or distasteful and those who consider it wrong to discuss sex in “polite society” are Gnostic. Sex is too bestial, too non-spiritual, and so we can’t talk about it.
Just so, the notion that the consumption of alcohol is always, everywhere wrong isn’t found in scripture but in looking down on earthly pleasure.
Lent, as often practiced, which requires giving up something pleasurable in order to please God assumes that God is pleased with our suffering. Not so.
The idea that it’s wrong to talk in church — in the auditorium or sanctuary — before services, that God wants silence and meditation, not joyous conversation — is Gnostic.
Just so, the notion that God is too good for everyday clothes and we must wear special, formal wear to be in his presence is Gnostic — as is the unconscious assumption that God lives at church and not in our bedroom or bathroom. Hence, we try to create spiritual spaces, holy enough for God, so that we pass from a Godless, secular world to a holy, Godly space when we worship, thus requiring different clothes and speech.
Indeed, anything that divides the world into “spiritual” and “secular” creates a danger of Gnosticism. Of course, there is sin, and alcohol, sex, and worship can all be done in ways that are sinful. It’s just that Gnosticism gets involved when alcohol and sex are seen as inherently wrong and worship as something that is only holy when separated from worldly conduct such as visiting with friends and wearing ordinary clothing.
Another element of Gnosticism is the idea that we escape this dreadful existence through acquiring certain, secret knowledge (gnosis). Well, when we turn our churches into study clubs, imagining that salvation comes from having the right “positions” on the “issues,” we are quite Gnostic. That’s not to deny the value of study, just the sin of imagining that study saves, that we can earn our salvation by finding the secret answers in the silences of the scriptures.
Now, Wright argues that our usual view of heaven is Gnostic, or at least Platonic, when we see this world as something “I’m just a’passing through.” The world, in such a view, is not holy, God made, and intended to last forever. Rather, it’s a “vale of tears” to be endured until we escape it.
Thus, Wright warns us against a view in which the world becomes disposable. After all, if we’re simply enduring until we die, who cares about how well we care for this world? It’s the next one that matters. Indeed, this evil world is hopelessly irredeemable. Our task is to escape it.
And this notion, prevalent in certain strains of Church of Christ thought, leads to the notion that, for example, there’s little reason to help the poor. After all, their plight is hopeless. We’ll always have the poor with us.
Just so, environmentalism is seen as a waste of resources — not our concern. We need to be worried about the next life, not this one.
And the vast social problems that infect this world, well, they’ll all pass away in time. God’s wrath is coming, and he’ll burn it all up.
Thus, our work on earth is to be pure and holy, and our involvement with the world is purely to escape it. We hide in our church buildings, fellowshipping with our fellow saints, studying for the great True-False Test in the Sky. Evangelism matters, because it’s commanded and because we want as many others to escape as possible. But we save people so they can go to heaven when they die — not so they can make a difference in this world. We save them to escape the world with us.
Hence, this world is only made better by saving the lost because those people will become somewhat more moral. But they won’t feel any responsibility to the world other than to do evangelism, creating more people ready to leave this world behind. And as a consequence, saving the lost does very little good for this world at all.