Tuesday, October 18, 2011

N. T. Wright on the Implications of Baptism for the Christian Life

I share below an important passage from Anglican bishop N. T. Wright's book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. In it, Bishop Wright briefly teases out the practical implications of Holy Baptism for the Christian life. He touches on the sometimes painful renunciations and surprising rediscoveries we face when we live into our baptisms. And he discusses the difficulties of morally discerning and differentiating those aspects of our lives that need transformation from those which can be affirmed and celebrated as they are, our need to be in relationship with sources of wisdom beyond ourselves, the role of rules in the Christian life, and the joy of following a different path from the world's. An entire book could be written to flesh out what this passage entails. Actually, it has been written ... by Bishop Wright. It's called After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. But perhaps more of that another time.

Christian living means dying with Christ and rising again. That ... is part of the meaning of baptism, the starting point of the Christian pilgrimage. The model of pilgrimage is helpful, since baptism awakens echoes of the children of Israel coming out of Egypt and going off to the Promised Land. The whole world is now God's holy land, and God will reclaim it and renew it as the ultimate goal of all our wanderings.

We begin our pilgrimage with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our goal is the renewal of the presently corrupt creation. This makes it clear that the route through the wilderness, the path of our pilgrimage, will involve two things in particular: renunciation on the one hand and rediscovery on the other.

Renunciation. The world in its present state is out of tune with God's ultimate intention, and there will be a great many things, some of them deeply woven into our imagination and personality, to which the only Christian response will be "no." Jesus told his followers that if they wanted to come after him they would have to deny themselves and take up their cross. The only way to find yourself, he said, is to lose yourself (a strikingly different agenda from today's finding-out-who-I-really-am philosophies). From the very beginning, writers like Paul and John recognized that this isn't just difficult, but actually impossible. We can't do it by some kind of Herculean moral effort. The only way is by drawing strength from beyond ourselves, the strength of God's Spirit, on the basis of our sharing of Jesus' death and resurrection in baptism.

Rediscovery. New creation is not a denial of our humanness, but its reaffirmation; and there will be a great many things, some of them deeply counterintuitive and initially perplexing, to which the proper Christian response is "yes." The resurrection of Jesus enables us to see how it is that living as a Christian isn't simply a matter of discovering the inner truth of the way the world currently is, or simply a matter of learning a way of life that is in tune with a different world and thus completely out of tune with the present one. It is a matter of glimpsing that in God's new creation, of which Jesus' resurrection is the start, all that was good in the original creation is reaffirmed. All that has corrupted and defaced it - including many things which are woven so tightly into the fabric of the world as we know it that we can't imagine being without them - will be done away. Learning to live as a Christian is learning to live as a renewed human being, anticipating the eventual new creation in and with a world which is still longing and groaning for that final redemption.

The problem is that it is by no means clear what to renounce and what to rediscover. How can we say no to things which seem so much a part of life that to reject them appears to us to be the rejection of part of God's good creation? How can we say yes to things which many Christians have seen not as good and right but as dangerous and deluded? How can we ... avoid dualism on the one hand and paganism on the other? Somehow we have to work out which styles of life and behavior belong with the corrupting evil which must be rejected if new creation is to emerge, and which styles of life and behavior belong with the new creation which must be embraced, struggled for, and celebrated.

This takes nerves of steel, and a careful searching after wisdom. We are to be informed by the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus; by the leading of the Spirit; by the wisdom we find in scripture; by the fact of our baptism and all that it means; by the sense of God's presence and guidance through prayer; and by the fellowship of other Christians, both our contemporaries and those of other ages whose lives and writings are ours to use as wise guides. Listing all these in that fashion makes them sound as if they are separate sources of teaching, but in reality it isn't like that. They work together in a hundred different ways. Part of the art of being a Christian is learning to be sensitive to all of them, and to weigh what we think we are hearing from one quarter alongside what is being said in another.

Only when we have set all that out quite clearly can we ever speak of "rules." There are rules, of course. The New Testament has plenty of them. Always give alms in secret. Never sue a fellow Christian. Never take private vengeance. Be kind. Always show hospitality. Give money away cheerfully. Don't be anxious. Don't judge another Christian over a matter of conscience. Always forgive. And so on. And the worrying thing about that randomly selected list is that most Christians ignore most of them most of the time. It isn't so much that we lack clear rules; we lack, I fear, the teaching that will draw attention to what is in fact there in our primary documents, not least in the teaching of Jesus himself.

The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God's future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice. ...

We have lived for too long in a world, and tragically even in a church ... where the wills and affections of human beings are regarded as sacrosanct as they stand, where God is required to command what we already love and to promise what we already desire. The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out - which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness. The logic of cross and resurrection, of the new creation which gives shape to all truly Christian living, points in a different direction. And one of the central names for that direction is joy: the joy of relationships healed as well as enhanced, the joy of belonging to the new creation, of finding not what we already had but what God was longing to give us. At the heart of the Christian ethic is humility; at the heart of its parodies, pride. Different roads with different destinations, and the destinations color the character of those who travel by them.

~ N. T. Wright, Simply Christian (2006)


Joseph N. Davis said...


I found this post as I was searching for information about what N.T. Wright has said about baptism. You put this up years ago, but I am glad to read it today. I particularly like this passage:

"The implicit religion of many people today is simply to discover who they really are and then try to live it out - which is, as many have discovered, a recipe for chaotic, disjointed, and dysfunctional humanness."

I have Simply Christian and have been meaning to read it. The passage you have quoted makes me want to read it more.

Joseph Davis+

Fr. Bryan Owen said...

Hi Joe. I'm glad you came across this quote from Bishop Wright here at "Creedal Christian," and that it has encouraged you to read all of Simply Christian. It's a very fine book, and one that I'm sure will enrich your life.

Blessings upon you, your family, and your ministry.