Miroslav Volf interviews N.T. Wright about his latest book, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath.
Miroslav Volf interviews N.T. Wright about his latest book, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath. They discuss: Jesus, the God who weeps; the problem with focusing on rational responses to the problem of evil rather than empathic presence and action; the proper translation of Romans 8:28 (hint, it’s not “All things work together for good to those who love God"); waiting for God through the crises of human life; the patience of unknowing; lament as a way of hoping in the dark; Friedrich Nietzsche on our tendency to misinterpret the pain and secret sorrows of others; and finally, the resurrection of Jesus as the center for conquering suffering even in the midst of suffering. This episode also includes a brief remembrance of Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020).
- N.T. Wright, God and the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and Its Aftermath
- John Lewis speaking at the March on Washington, D.C. (1965): Video
- Yale Center for Faith & Culture: faith.yale.edu
- Miroslav Volf Twitter
- How do we flourish when we are in the dark wood, no clearing in sight?
- John Lewis’s legacy
- N.T. Wright, Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, God in the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath
- Is God also in a lockdown?
- Elie Wiesel’s Night
- John 11, Jesus weeps at Lazarus’s tomb.
- Jesus’s weeping is a sign that he is indeed God with us, Emmanuel.
- A world with an explicable place for evil is a world with a dark corner, which is not what was created in Genesis 1.
- The innocent sufferer
- synergei, God working with us.
- The church’s attempt to gain more power then needing to give it away.
- Facing the wait
- God’s patience is woven into the life and prayer and sacraments of the church.
- The sorrow of God in the Old Testament.
- Making room for the garden of Gethsemane
- The resurrection of Jesus is the launching of new creation.
- T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets
Evan Rosa: For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. For more information, visit faith.yale.edu.
N.T. Wright: Paul is saying that God will work things for good, but to accept that as an article of faith-- and our part at the moment is not to stand back as observers and say, "Oh, isn't that splendid? God's working it out and we can see that happening." Our part is to be part of that lament, part of that groaning; our task is to be in prayer at the place where the world is in pain because we know that God's Spirit will be working at that very place. And that's part of the vocation of the church.
Evan Rosa: This is For the Life of the World, a podcast about seeking and living a life worthy of our humanity. I'm Evan Rosa with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture. The past few weeks have shown us that as a country, as a human community, we're just not out of this dark wood. How do we persist? Dare I ask: how do we flourish when the clearing is not insight. This is an episode on weeping, waiting and working with God in the patience of a dark unknowing. And just before we jump in to the episode, an appreciation for Congressman John Lewis--a sharecropper's son who knew a thing or two about these things and died yesterday at the age of 82 years old.
John Lewis: We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We're tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again. And then you holler "Being patient." How long can we be patient? We want our freedom and we want it now. We do not want to go to jail, but we will go to jail if this is the price we must pay for love, brotherhood and true peace.
Evan Rosa: One of the youngest leaders of the civil rights movement, John Lewis was an original freedom writer in 1961 and was beaten badly for it. He spoke regularly against police brutality, spoke alongside MLK at the 1963 March on Washington, and organize the Selma to Montgomery Bloody Sunday March in 1965, where his skull was fractured as Alabama state troopers teargassed and beat the peaceful marchers. A person of public faith in action, John Lewis's legacy maybe best summed up by a quote of his: "Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America."
In this conversation, Miroslav Volf and N.T. Wright talk about the pandemic through a theological lens. N.T. Wright will be well-known to any student of theology, New Testament or early Christianity, the author of over 80 books, including The New Testament and the People of God, The Resurrection of the Son of God, as well as Surprised by Hope, Simply Christian, Paul: A Biography. His latest book is God in the Pandemic: A Christian Reflection on the Coronavirus and its Aftermath. N.T. Wright, affectionately known as Tom, is a Research Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St. Andrews and Senior Research Fellow at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.
In this conversation, Miroslav and Tom discuss Jesus, the God who wept, the problem of focusing on rational responses to the problem of evil, rather than empathic presence and action, the proper translation of Romans 8:28 and hint: it's not "all things work together for good to those who love God." They talk about waiting for God through the crises of human life, the patience of unknowing, lament as a way of hoping in the dark, Friedrich Nietzsche on our tendency to misinterpret the pain and secret sorrows of others, and finally, the resurrection of Jesus as the center for conquering suffering, even in the midst of suffering. Enjoy.
Miroslav Volf: COVID-19 has hit the world very hard. It's probably hit the hardest to those who, at least in material sense, have least resources to deal with the consequences of the pandemic in their own lives: loss of jobs for those who live from paycheck to paycheck, loss of health, loss of lives, lonelienss and anxiety. Life in the lockdown is very hard. And in your book, God and Pandemic, you have written just about those issues very eloquently. You name this plight of many at this global time of trial. And many of those who are Christians who are faithful, who are religious, they ask, "Where is God?" God's world has been envelops in a crisis, but what is God doing? Is God too in a lockdown? Now, you are a New Testament scholar. You are a theologian. And not just a theologian, you're a Bishop, which is to say a pastor. So where is God today? Everywhere except where we need God to be?
N.T. Wright: That's a great question, of course. But I am inexorably taken back to a quotation, which you probably know better than I do from Elie Wiesel's book, Night, about the concentration camp, where a young Jewish boy is being hanged and somebody from the crowd shouts, "Where is God? Where is God?" And somebody points to the little boy who's being hanged and says, "There he is. He is being hanged. He is there with us." And I've been struck by that theme in the New Testament, that one of the first places that I went to for a rather curious reason that I've been-- you know the Japanese artist, Mako Fujimura, he's just written a book published by Yale Press, which you've probably seen. And in that book, Mako talks about John 11 and the scene where Jesus weeps at the tomb of Lazarus, his friend, in Bethany. And, what Mako does with that is quite remarkable.
And I had been reading that just before all this pandemic stuff happened. And so my mind went straight to that and I thought here in John's gospel, we have God incarnate. This is the Word made flesh. And what is one of the most striking things that happens about the Word made flesh is that he weeps at the tomb of his friend. And, some older theologians used to say, "Oh , well, insofar as Jesus was divine, he did miracles and walked on water and etc. And insofar as he was human, he suffered and hungered and wept and died." And I am among those who say that's completely wrong. That actually part of the striking things that Jesus does refer to the authority he has as the true human being, as in Psalm 8, the one who is set in authority over the world.
And part of the sign that he is indeed God with us, Emmanuel, is that he weeps at the tomb of his friend, and that he then goes to the cross and shouting, "My God, my God, why do you abandon me?" in Matthew's gospel and Mark's gospel. And there is a profound mystery about who God actually is. This ties in with something, Miroslav, which you will remember from my Gifford Lectures a couple of years ago, where I talked about how in the 18th and 19th Century particularly, people tended to ask the question of God and the world in terms simply of the Father, and that how is the Father running the world. What is our doctrine of providence of how the first person of the Trinity runs the world? And then Jesus gets brought on stage because we suddenly realized that we're sinners and we need our sins forgiven, so Jesus is will on to do that bit.
But actually, I think all four gospels are saying, "No, if you want to know who the true God really is, read this whole story of Jesus and you will find he is God with us, God, with us in the mess, in the muddle, getting his hands dirty, getting his hands pierced on the cross." And it's after Jesus has said to Thomas in John 20, "Okay, Thomas, come here. Here are my hands. Put your finger in the hole in my hands. Put your hand in my side"--that's when Thomas says, "My Lord and my God." That's when we know who God is and that he has been there with us and for us.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, that's beautiful. And, you will, of course, understand that I won't push back at that issue at all. I'm a student of Jürgen Moltmann and that's been his important line, important contribution, I think, to theology as a whole. Now, like Jürgen, also in your book, you're pushing hard against a kind of attempts to justify God in the face of disaster. And my question to you is why do you do that. Is it because you think that no theodicy can be successful? Is it because you think that no theodicies are found in the New Testament? Is it because you think that theodicies might be harmful in some ways because in justifying God, they justify evil and suffering as well?
N.T. Wright: Yeah, that's a great question as I would expect. And it takes me back to an experience I had about 30 years ago when I was examining for the Final Honor School of Theology at Oxford University, where I am now back again. And one of my fellow examiners, who was setting the systematic theology paper, set as one of the exam questions: would it be immoral to try to solve the problem of evil? And I have never thought of that before. It wasn't my field. I was examining the New Testament papers, but I kept on sneaking a look at that and thinking, I wonder how the students are getting on with that one.
And I realized that what the question was saying was that if you try and give an account of the whole world and everything that happens in it in which there is a logical and valid and explicable place for evil, then you have created a world with a dark corner in it, which is not the world refined in Genesis 1 where God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And it's not the world we find in Revelation 21 and 22, when in the new creation, there is no more sea--in other words, no more chaos monster, no more dark source of evil and despair and death. And of course, the theologian who set the exam question--this will not surprise you--was Rowan Williams. And so it's very typical Roman.
But I've always hung on to that because when I then hear theologians saying, "Oh yes, of course, God permitted this evil because then some great deed of heroism could emerge or it would bring out some feature of human virtue that wouldn't otherwise have come through--patience or whatever it is," I want to say, "Hang on, so in this case, you're saying that God has allowed half a billion people around the world to die in order that some doctors and nurses could do active, great terrorism, or in order that we in the world might be alerted to the fact that we have sinned and need to repent, or something like that." And it seems to me that's simply the wrong way of going about it.
And that takes me to another bit in John's gospel, John 9, where Jesus' disciples say, "Was it this man who sinned or his parents that he was born blind?" And Jesus says, "The wrong question to ask, but now it is so that the works of God might be manifest in him." In other words, Jesus has come not to explain why we got into the mess we got into. I think that probably is inexplicable in the sense that evil is essentially absurd. It doesn't fit. It doesn't belong. Evil is a misfit. And if we try to fit it in, we will get the whole of the rest of the jigsaw puzzle wrong.
And so rather we are told to ask, not what caused this, but what is God now going to do with it. And that is profoundly unsatisfying to somebody who comes from a rationalist tradition and wants to tie up all the loose ends. But it seems to be the Bible doesn't encourage us to do that sort of tying it all up business. And I rather worry when rationalist theologians try to answer rationalist skeptics with a rationalist apologetic, which I think gives away a bit too much of the shop. So that's where I'm coming from.
Miroslav Volf: Do you find anywhere in the biblical traditions kind of attempt to do something like theodicy?
N.T. Wright: That's a good question. People sometimes look at Romans 9 to 11 and they say that this is Paul dealing with that. But of course, Romans 9 to 11 is very much focused on the future of Israel. And, these are the necessary questions about the justice of God, but in the context of the covenant justice of God, the promises that God has made to his people, Israel, and how those promises are to be fulfilled. And in a way--and I've obviously written a lot about Romans 11 over the last 50 years of so--Romans 11 still leaves the question tantalizingly open with Paul saying kind of God is free to do this if he wants.
The other place obviously is the Book of Job, but the more I read the Book of Job and I went back and studied it again as I was writing this little book, the more I thought the Book of Joe both does and doesn't solve the problem. The fact that Job gets some more sons and daughters to replace the ones you lost, does that actually mean it's now alright? And the answer is yes and no, and I find myself saying particularly no. And the revelation of God in the whirlwind, and God's saying, "Hey Job, consider the hippopotamus and all the rest of it." Yeah. Okay. Fine. You are the great God. You made the world. And I guess I shouldn't have been asking these questions. But it's not saying, "I now see the answer to the question." It's just that I suspect in this present life, I would never even understand the questions I'm asking, let alone any possible answer that might be given.
Miroslav Volf: I suspect that some folks might be inclined to take something like the Deuteronomistic account of sin and curse, or good life, obedience to the law, and the blessing as a kind of implicit theodicy as kind of a moral sketch of the world, and you address that.
N.T. Wright: It's a funny thing because when I wrote that little article for TIME Magazine at the beginning of this whole business, I got some pushback rather fiercely from people saying "Hasn't N.T. Wright read the book of Amos? Doesn't you know that when these bad things happen, it's because God is angry and that it's a call to repent?" My sharp answer to that is that actually this is a pagan response. If you go to ancient Athens or Corinth or Ephasis or somewhere like that, and if there's a famine or an earthquake, they immediately go to the pagan priests and say, "Please, will you inspect the auspices and tell us what we did wrong. Did we not use the proper liturgy for the festival last year or whatever it was?" And then you have to go and offer a sacrifice, maybe a human sacrifice and put it right. I'm not saying that the Old Testament is borrowing from that pagan tradition, but that is the pagan response.
And the early Christians, fascinatingly, never go that route. But to go back to Deuteronomy and Amos, this is very much the covenant scheme. And of course, Amos is interesting in that it applies to nations outside the covenant, not just Israel and Judah, but Mohab and Edom and Philistia and goodness knows what. But the focus is on Israel and Judah, because then you have that great covenant strand, which runs from Deuteronomy to Daniel chapter 9, via passages like the Book of Lamentations, where it's clear that all this stuff has happened to us precisely because we sinned, we messed up; you warned us what'd happen if we did, and we did it. And so that's happened. And particularly the curse of exile, which of course echoes the story in Genesis 3 where Adam and Eve in the garden do the wrong thing, they're exiled from the garden. So Israel is in the large-scale garden, the promised land, and they do the wrong thing and they are exiled from the promised land.
But at the same time, there is the counter tradition, which you find in Psalm 44 or in the Book of Job, or indeed Psalms 42 and 43. But it's interesting that Jesus and Paul both quote from those very Psalms because those are the Psalms of the innocent sufferer, the one who says all this has come upon us yet we did not play false; we did not deny your covenant. We have not secretly worshiped idols. So what is going on? And that's where the genuine biblical tradition of lament comes. And Psalm 88, the darkest of all, doesn't say it's because I sinned. It just says, "I'm in the dark and God, I'm just handing it over to you." And that's all you can do.
And so the fascinating thing for me--and I don't think I quite brought this out in the book--is the way both those Old Testament traditions reach their climax in Jesus, that according to Galatians 3, Jesus is the one who takes the curse of Deuteronomy upon himself. But simultaneously, Jesus is the innocent sufferer who goes to his death praying Psalm 22, "My God, why did you abandon me?" And it's as though these great traditions in the Old Testament ultimately mean what they mean for us in the light of Jesus. They're only really reconcilable there. And that says to me that actually the answer to the question is found not in a theory, but in a person, and it's obviously the person of the incarnate son dying on the cross.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, that's right. If you have a innocent son of God at the heart of your faith, suffering and dying on the cross, you can't imagine that innocence will be rewarded with great blessing, and sin will be regarded with punishment.
N.T. Wright: And yet, of course, the one place where this echoes in the Old Testament is the Servant Songs in Isaiah, where from one point of view, Isaiah is all about Israel receiving from the Lord's hand double for all her sins. So it's clear that the exile is a punishment for sin, but then the one in Isaiah 53, the servant who stands over against Israel and yet represents Israel, is obviously innocence as well. And that remains a huge puzzle. If all you have is the Old Testament, then Isaiah 52 and 53 is just extraordinary as a puzzle. And that is only resolved in the New Testament.
Miroslav Volf: That's fascinating, I'm thinking that there was one passage in the New Testament, which has served as a foundation for quite a bit of theodicy thinking. And you go long ways to undermine that interpretation of that passage. And that is Romans 8:28, "All things work for good to those who love God," according to one reading.
N.T. Wright: Wrong translation.
Miroslav Volf: Wrong translation. If you read for instance what Aquinas writes about this, you end up with some kind of a theodicy out of this--or even contemporary Thomist. But you interpret this as the Revised Standard Version translates it: "In everything, God works for good with those who love God.
N.T. Wright: It's extraordinary.
Miroslav Volf: It seems very, very appealing, obviously, but can you give us some reasons for interpreting this passage that way?
N.T. Wright: The reason is in the Greek text, and I'm feeling a bit guilty because it was one of my own graduate students who kept pushing me on this one. And I kept saying, "Isn't that overdoing it a bit?" I cite her in the book--Haley Goranson Jacob, and she's published this in her book arising out of her dissertation. And my friend, Brian Walsh, as well in Toronto, he in his reading of Roman has gone this route. But I'm looking at the Greek text we've got in front of me, and the key verb is synergei, which means "work with." And in the Reformation tradition, people have been very frightened of any suggestion of synergism, of working with-- God working with people or people working with God--in case that means we contribute to our own salvation.
It doesn't mean that at all. But synergei is very clear. The other passages where Paul uses that, for instance, 2 Corinthians 6:1, it clearly means working together with God. And, the "syn" bit takes the dative case--if we want to be technical-- that "with those who love God, God works all things with them for good."
And what does that mean? It goes back to the previous two verses because the phrase "those who love God" seems to be picking up the meaning of verses 26 and 27, which is at the point where we are groaning ourselves within the pain of the world, within our own pain, then the Spirit groans within us with inarticulate groanings and God the Father who searches the heart knows what is the mind of the Spirit. And my hunch is that by the way Paul has placed that phrase tois agaposin ton theon near the start of the verse, it's a reference back to that when we're in that position, we are being--if you like--God-lovers because we are being inspired by the spirit to groan in such a way that God the heart searcher knows what's going on. We are caught up in the love of God for the world, which is a painful love because the world is in a mess. And so it's actually a very straight reading of the Greek and in order to get other meanings out of it, you have to ignore or distort what the Greek is actually saying at that point.
And I, again, bear witness to my friends who've written on this because this is one of the frustrating things if you've studied a text for dozens of years, as I had studied Romans, you get stuck in a rut. You get into the way you usually see it. And it took fresh eyes to joggle me out to that and say, "No, hang on, you're quite right; this is what the Greek means." It's almost a stoic sense. Isn't it? I wouldn't accuse Aquinas of being a stoic, but the idea that all things are working together does sound as though there's a sort of divine imminence in all things, which is just trundling along and getting to the right solution anyway. And that's clearly not what it is.
And so, Paul is saying that God will work things for good, but to accept that as an article of faith, and our part at the moment is not to stand back as observers and say, "Oh, isn't that splendid? God's working it out. We can see that happening." Our part is to be part of that lament, part of that groaning. Our task is to be in prayer at the place where the world is in pain because we know that then, God's spirit will be working at that very place. And that's part of the vocation of the church.
Miroslav Volf: So let's return back to your story of Lazarus. And, I was taken also by your comments about weeping Jesus and weeping Jesus not as a function of his humanity, but also as a function of his divinity. So it's a weeping God. Let me take you back to this story of Jesus who weeps. And I think part of what you do with it, if I understand you correctly, you push against the idea of almightiness of God in the abstract sense, against the idea that somehow power of God is present in a certain way that we expect it to be. Yet at the same time, a few moments after he has wept, he actually displays that power. Jesus Christ suffers and is raised. And in your account of God's renewal of creation, there is power of God at work. So is this that Christ followers should imitate the weeping God and the God even who after the resurrection is present in closed rooms with the disciples, rather than in some display of extraordinary power? What's going on?
N.T. Wright: Yeah, there are displays of extraordinary power and simply sticking with the New Testament, there are remarkable things that happen. Peter goes and raises to life a widow who's died. And Paul in Ephesus does extraordinary things and magicians and people who've been using the dark arts come and burn their books, so there's a great victory. But then of course, what happens in Ephesus--and this is fascinating. If you want to read my biography of Paul, but I go into this in some detail when he talks in 2 Corinthians about being so crushed that he despaired of life itself. It seems to me that Paul had a tremendous success story in the early days at Ephesus and then something went horribly wrong. We're not sure exactly what but the dark powers don't like it when people take the fight to them and they strike back and they don't play fair. And Paul had a very dark time. And it's out of that that he writes 2 Corinthians. And it's in 2 Corinthians that he makes it quite clear that it's when he is weak, that then he is strong and that God's power is made perfect in weakness.
And when he has that great rhetorical climax in 2 Corinthians in chapter 11, and he boasts of all the wrong things because the Corinthians want this hero figure of an apostle. I preached on that not that long ago in an American church, and I said that 2 Corinthians 11 is pushing back at people who say, "Make apostleship great again." That's the slogan they want. And Paul says, "Okay, you want great? I've been in jail. I've been stoned. I've been beaten up. I've been this and that and the other. And when the going got tough, I was the first one over the wall running away." And it's his applied Theologia Crucis--his theology of the cross. And so there is a strength; there is a power, but it then takes you back to what he says in 1 Corinthians 1 and 2, that the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing; but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.
And so, I see this emerging in John 11, that Jesus prays when he's away from Bethany. He weeps when he arrives in Bethany and then he raises Lazarus from the dead. That seems to me how the sequence works. And in the same way in John 20--that amazing chapter-- you have Mary weeping at the tomb, and then she sees Jesus. You have the disciples in lockdown because they're afraid, and then Jesus shows up. And then you have Thomas saying, "I don't believe it," and then Jesus shows up and says, "Okay, here we are." And it's as though John is saying, "These are the loci, the places, the means, the contexts in which you might actually paradoxically expect God to show up in the person of Jesus.
And it seems to me that the church then is constantly going on this dance of trying to get more power than having to give it away or being forced to give it away. You know more about this than I do. The church, when it's weak and being persecuted and suffering, nevertheless, finding a fresh integrity and fresh visions of the true way forward.
Miroslav Volf: We've talked about where is God. We kind of pushed back against the why question a bit so that it's not quite a right question to ask. And then, I think we are together on advocating for actually presence and action, which is what I read presence--kind of empathetic prayer, full presence and action. But those of us who are like we are also have to count with the whole problem of waiting. Before Exodus was, there was certain kinds of waiting with the cries to God. And, after Exodus, there was waiting in a sense, in wilderness and the last book of Revelation ends with a lamb opens the fifth seal, "and I saw under the alter souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and the testimony and then they cry, 'Sovereign Lord, sovereign Lord, how long will it be?'" And this idea of how long-- how do I wait? What do I do as I wait? What do you say to a person who waits, who has to wait?
N.T. Wright: Yeah. As you know, one of my primary fields is the Second Temple Judaism, the world of the Jews between what we think of as the return from exile and the time of Ezra-Nehemiah and so on, and the time of Jesus. We're looking at three or four hundred years there, in which what they were doing was praying the Psalms, not least, struggling to live obediently under difficult regimes, under hostile times. They faced false dorms-- the Maccabean crisis. Many people thought, "Ah, this is it! This is the great restoration for which we've been awaiting." And then it wasn't. And there were different movements, like the Qumran sector was saying, "God is secretly renewing the covenant with us, so come and join us because we are God's future in waiting as it were."
And then finally, you get these old people in the Temple, Simeon and Anna, and they know that this baby is the one. And even so, then, a lot of people then say Jesus is the Messiah and then they are disappointed because the Romans execute him. And so you get the two on the road to Emmaus saying we had hoped. And it seems to me that's the utterly characteristic thing that we had hoped and the dashing of hopes and the...
And as you say, even in the New Testament times, you get the same thing with Paul saying, "We wait for it with patience" in Romans 8, "with the souls under the altar" in Revelation 6, and with letters like 1 Peter, where clearly first Peter is written to a situation where many Christians were thinking: "Hang on, Jesus has already been raised from the dead. We've now got the Holy Spirit, so surely all we have to do is to set the car button on "full ahead" and here we are, we're heading for God's new world. And so why are we still suffering?"
And so 1 Peter has to say, "Actually, the present suffering of the church in the power of the Spirit and in Christ is itself part of the means by which the victory that was won on the cross is being worked out. So that's where the comfort comes. And I think that's there in Romans 8 as well, that the suffering of the present time is not just something to be gone through with gritted teeth. It's something actually through which the gospel makes its way in the world. That's a very difficult thing to say. It's on Tertullian about the blood of the martyrs being the seed of the church and so on.
And it can simply inculcate a glorying in suffering as though there's something good about pain, which there really isn't. But it's a way of saying, strangely, those of us who are embraced by the gospel and who feel and know ourselves to be loved by God because the son of God loved me and gave himself for me. Galatians 2 is really central in all my thinking, God-willing. We are told ourselves, yes, and now your suffering, your pain, your cloud of unknowing, it isn't just something you've got to go through. It's something strangely through which God will bring blessing maybe to those around you, or maybe in ways we can't see. So yes, there is a core to a patience, which is a patience of unknowing. But there is also a call to a patience, which is a patience of saying, "Somehow God will take this as well."
In some older Catholic spiritualities, whenever anything went wrong, people would be told, "offer it up, offer it up," as a way of coping. Take that pain and simply give it as a sacrifice to God. Lay it on the alter. that is one way of coping. But I think to know, because Paul and Jesus himself say this, that somehow our suffering will contribute towards, in some strange ways--there in Colassians 1 as you know-- will contribute towards God's victory over the powers in the present. That is one way of coping, but that's something to say to oneself. I wouldn't like to say that to somebody who has lost home and possessions and family, and finds themselves living in a squalid refugee camp in Somalia or on a Greek Island or Palestine or whatever.
And so it's very difficult, except. In prayer. And for me, one of the things that happens with Eucharist is where the whole body of Christ is present and all our brothers and sisters who are suffering are present with us. And as we share the bread and the wine, and I often sense this when I'm celebrating the Eucharist, I'm sharing it with all those people that I can't see, but who I vaguely know about, who are suffering right now and holding them in the love of God. And so the patience of Christ, if you like, it's woven into the fabric of the life and prayer and sacramental life of the church. That's about as best I can do.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, I hear what you're saying. et me try to get at this and maybe slightly from different angle. But one thing that struck me about Romans 8 is about hope. How much hope is present there for in hope we are saved? Now the hope that is seen is not hope for who hopes what is seen. And I remember recently I was reading Martin Luther who has this interesting reading of the unseen-ness of hope. For that which we hope for--this object of hope--and he connects it and correspond that to that which we pray and we don't know what to pray. The two verses come together. And then from this, he concludes that hope transfers a person into the unknown, the hidden, and the dark shadow so that he--the person meaning--does not even know what he hopes for.
Now, you pick that stress on the darkness in your book when you quote T.S. Eliot: I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. Formulation is different, I think, but the idea is similar. So my question is part of this living with suffering, this ability, given by faith, to sit in the darkness, without despairing. And is that something that one can learn only maybe through suffering?
N.T. Wright: I think one learns it as a reality. I can imagine somebody might learn it as head knowledge, sitting in a study with a good meal inside them and friends around them. You could still learn in theory. That might be the case. But it's only when you've actually been there. And when you have found that Psalm 88, which is the darkest of all the Psalms of course--when you found that Psalm says exactly what you want to say right now--one of the great things that the Psalms do-- then you realize that perhaps the most important thing in Psalm 88 is the word "you" or "thou." You have put lover and friend away from me. You have made me sit in the dark, etc. And the Psalmist isn't angry with God. He's just saying you seem to have done this, and here it is. And it's a lament. It's a classic lament. And it seems to me that lament is a way of hoping in the dark.
And that is perhaps part of the whole point that as Paul says, if we could see the light at the end of the tunnel, then it wouldn't really be hope. It would be the beginning of sight. And yet, so hope has to reach out. It's one of the paradoxes in 1 Corinthians 13, where he says faith and hope and love all abide. They all are things that last, but the greatest of these is love. And it's as though at the moment, we hope for what we don't see. How will that translate into the ultimate future? And I think there, it must be the case that even in God's ultimate future in the fullness of the kingdom, God will be always the God of new things, the creator who is doing new things, and we will delight in waiting for what God's going to do next. So we don't know what it is, but that will be a move from delight to delight. Whereas the present in the present anticipating that, we are in the darkness and waiting for the light, but not knowing what is that the light is going to bring. And exactly in the position of the two on the road to Emmaus, that God is already doing something, but we can't see it until Jesus is revealed.
And yeah, I find that connection between Romans 8 and T.S. Eliot very profound. Because if we try to grasp at it with impatience, we will grasp at the wrong thing. And pastorally, I've known that many times, as I'm sure you do. People email me; people write to me; people come to see me and they're desperate about something. And part of the pain of the pastoral work is to try to explain to them that they can't simply grasp onto this thing, which they're desperate for at the moment. They have to release that grasp, and we all have to go through this, in order that then God can give them to their empty outstretched hand the much better thing, which he is waiting to give them. But they've got to go through this ungrasping first before they're ready to receive it. I'm talking to myself right now.
Miroslav Volf: Yeah, that's a lesson that one repeatedly needs to learn. So there's a kind of darkness with regard to the future toward which we are stretching ourselves. But there's a kind of a darkness in the pain itself. And Romans 8, too deep for words. And groaning appears a number of times. And reading your text about this, I was reminded of a passage from Nietzsche, Joyful Science. It's paragraph 338, and he writes this: "Our personal and profoundest suffering is incomprehensible and inaccessible to almost everyone. Here, we remain hidden from our neighbor, even if we eat from one pot. But whenever people notice that we suffer, they interpret our suffering superficially."
And Nietzsche's point was that you have this misinformed pity that ends up insulting the sufferer. And as I was thinking about this prayer, and sometimes I feel also, I am misinterpreting my own suffering. Job's comforters have been misinterpreting Job's suffering. And so I was just wondering when Paul emphasizes in such a repeated way the kind of the groaning side-- groaning not just of humans and not just of creatures, but in some ways, groaning of the divine spirit, groaning of God. What lies behind the inarticulacy with which we embrace or with which we stand before somebody else's and our own suffering?
N.T. Wright: Yeah, that is a huge and important question. And I've often said when I was a Bishop and helping to train clergy and so on, I often used to say to young clergy, "Remember that when you stand in the pulpit and look out at the congregation, whether it's congregation of 10 or a thousand, every face you're looking at--it may look bland and impassive and ordinary and nondescript--every face is hiding some secret sorrow. And you have to tread very carefully and not just wave it away because for that person, that is very real right now. And, it's a rare person who has no secret sorrows somewhere in their heart." So I do take that very seriously. I take that warning of Nietzsche very seriously. And thank you for that. I haven't read enough Nietzsche. I should go back and have a look at him.
But I trace this back in the Old Testament all the way back to the sorrow of God. In Genesis 3 and 4 and 5 and 6, God's saying to Kane, "What have you done? What's happening? Your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. And God's saying to himself, "I am sorry that I have made humankind." And it says it grieved God to his heart that God's heart was sorrow. If God's heart is sorrowing, there are lots of theologies out there, in the more sort of classic mode, which really don't want to know about the possibility of God grieving. And it seems to me that's pretty basic to Scripture actually. And then, in Isaiah 40-55, we have God, like a mother giving birth, groaning and panting and gasping and shouting out. This is a very unseemly behavior for any self-respecting God, one would have thought. And yet that passage, Isaiah 40-55, by anyone's standards, surely is central to the biblical tradition.
And I've been reading recently. I think I've got it on my desk somewhere. Yeah. Abraham Heschel's book on the prophets and the whole thesis of Heschel on the prophets, as I understand it, is that we have misinterpreted God if we've thought of him in a high and dry way. And that actually the prophets have the ear of the heart of God, if I can put it like that. And that this is a grieving groaning, struggling, suffering heart. And, that's a wonderfully profound Jewish vision, I think there, which takes us into a sense that the prophets are not simply saying what a terrible thing is going on. They're saying it on behalf of God, and it's out of that prophetic tradition that Paul and of course, Jesus himself, express that pain.
Jesus says my soul is exceedingly sorrowful. And for many, many years, the scene of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, there's been one of my mainstays of comfort that whenever I'm anywhere near Gethsemane, I remember Jesus sweating drops of blood. And at the time of the cross when they mocked Jesus and they said, "If you are the son of God, come down from the cross." And the whole point is because he's the son of God, he must stay on the cross. That is how the world is to be redeemed. And for me, that has for many years been at the very center of my Christology, if you like. And anyone who can have a Christology which doesn't have, or which has to struggle to make room for Gethsemane, that is not reading the Bible, it seems to me.
Miroslav Volf: I'm fully with you. We've been talking, and I've enjoyed it quite a bit. But we've been talking for a while and I want to let you go eventually. I want to ask one last question and, perhaps on a bit of more hopeful note. So, stay with Romans 8, which I think you said, in one of the most compelling or greatest episodes of Paul--the greatest chapter. So, in the midst of this, describing this deep suffering and Paul knew it, and in the midst of the innocent suffering, one encounters in the chapter Paul as, in a sense, full of hope. He quotes Psalm 44: "For your sake, we are being killed all day long. We are counted as sheep to be slaughtered." I mean that's a very strong language and yet he writes, "In all these things, we are more than conquerors." Now, that's resilience. How is such conquest of suffering in the midst of suffering possible?
N.T. Wright: It has to be because of the resurrection of Jesus, that if you take away the resurrection of Jesus, as of course, an entire swathe of liberal theology had done for more than a hundred years before you and I were born, then there is no explanation. It's just whistling in the dark. But the resurrection of Jesus is the launching of the new creation and the whole thesis of Romans 8 is that God will do for the whole creation at the end what he did for Jesus on the third day after his crucifixion.
And somebody emailed me just this morning about new creation and how do we know what new creation is? I said the only model we have and the only reason we really have for believing this is what God did for Jesus. The tomb was empty and his body was transformed into a new sort of physical life for which there was no precedent and of which there remains no full subsequent example. However this is so important in Romans 8:9-11, that the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies. And the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will bring about that new creation.
And so the pneumatology, the sense of who the spirit is and what the spirit is doing which grows straight out of that resurrection message, is so profound. And it's one of the things I love about Romans 8 as I think I said in an email to you earlier, that Paul ascribes to the Spirit the same role within the new Exodus new creation, that the pillar of cloud and fire have in the tabernacle in the original Exodus story. You cannot get a higher view of the Spirit than that.
So if that spirit then dwells within us, then we have that "more than conqueror" line at the heart of our faith. And it produces both the resilience in terms of the emotional resilience, and then in verse 38, the intellectual resilience, because "I am persuaded." It's something you can think through so that if the emotional resilience is flagging as it does, then one can fall back on the fact that this makes sense. God raised Jesus. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead dwells within us and will raise us and will give life to the whole creation at the end. That's where it has to come from.
And so ultimately, it's a kind of a QED for Orthodox theologian. We come back to the Trinity. The Trinity-- not as an abstract formulation that we put a mental check by in a box, and so we say, "Well, we don't understand it but we're supposed to believe it,"--that the Trinity as the vibrant heart of the Christian faith, perhaps showing itself to be what it is most, especially when things seem to be dark and dire and full of the power of death.
Miroslav Volf: Tom, thank you so much. Thank you for writing the book. I think it's very timely and sums up the entirety of the scriptural witness to suffering and to hope. And thank you for this conversation.
N.T. Wright: Bless you. It's very good to talk to you. I wish we could have more conversations together, but even by this means, thank you. I'm really grateful to you for taking all this time.
Miroslav Volf: That's fantastic. All the best.
N.T. Wright: Bye-bye.
Evan Rosa: During the conversation, Miroslav and Tom made reference to T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, specifically a passage from the second of those, "East Coker." And I thought that would be a good way to end this particular episode.
"I said to my soul, be still and let the dark come upon you, which shall be the darkness of God. I said to my soul, be still and wait without hope for hope would be hope for the wrong thing. Wait without love for love would be love of the wrong thing. There is yet faith, but the faith and the hope and the love are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought for you are not yet ready for thought. So the darkness shall be the light and the stillness, the dancing in order to arrive at what you do not know, you must go by away, which is the way of ignorance.
Thanks for listening today.
For the Life of the World is a production of the Yale Center for Faith & Culture at Yale Divinity School. This episode featured theologian Miroslav Volf with N.T. Wright, former Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, Research Professor of New Testament at St. Andrew's, and Research Fellow of Wycliffe, Oxford. I am Evan Rosa and I edited and produced the show.
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