Saturday, August 26, 2006

Chapter One: Putting the World to Rights

Chapter one by N.T. Wright of Simply Christian highlights our inner drive for justice. Wright calls it an echo of a voice... a voice that whispered to us to expect or at minimum, to hope for justice, or a world put to rights.

The basic thrust of this opening is that all of us hunger for a world where tears are wiped away and joy comes in the morning. We long to see injustice ammended and wrong doing eradicated. Why do we so long? Because, according to Wright,
...we find ourselves asking: Isn't it odd that it should be like that? Isn't it strange that we should all want things to be put to rights but can't seem to do it? And isn't it the oddest thing of all the fact that I, myself, know what I ought to do but often don't do it?

He continues:
...the reason we have these dreams, the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone speaking to us, whispering in our ear—someone who cares very much about this present world and our present selves, and who has made us and the world for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, things being put to rights, ourselves being put to rights, the world being rescued at last.

Do you agree?

Do we have an in-born hunger for justice?

What is the evidence that God shares that longing? If God, if GOD, then why the whispers and echoes? Where is the loud voice or the evidence of God's interest in putting things to rights?

Has God limited godself to human activity in dispensing justice? If so, do we have any reason to believe that justice will ever be done? If not, what is God waiting for?

The appeal to our subjective feelings of wanting justice as evidence of God's longing for justice is problematic for me. But before I express why, I thought I'd throw these questions out to you and see what you all think.

18 comments:

Dave said...

I don't think people have an inborn desire for justice until we reach more mature stages of moral development. And even then, our desire for "justice" is often tempered by self, clan, tribe or nation centered considerations. We don't yearn for universal justice until we begin to identify with universal humanity.

Wright is building a strategy that will make his answers seem like the most natural and sensible for the questions he wants us to ask.

How's that for a guarded, cynical, jaded first response to his proposals? ;o)

SusansPlace said...

Scripture seems to indicate that the just and injust receive rain, so I don't see God trying to make all things just, this side of Heaven.

It makes sense that life flows more smoothly when there is justice in the land. I am unsure that God has to whisper that for us to understand the value of just systems. Like Dave said, the definiton of "justice" is what causes for problems in the land and even if God is whispering "justice" in our ears...he doesn't seem to be defining it very well. So many idea of what justice should look like. Och ma dearie! :-) Then there is "eternal" justice which is another whole can of worms. Many Christians say that Hell is the ultimate justice and what God has in store for unbelievers. I don't think that type of justice will put the world to rights. I don't hear God whispering that Hell in the answer. Maybe I'm hard of hearing but if that's what it takes, count me out. ;-) Sometimes I think what we "hear" is like that old game of "telephone"...the message gets passed to so many people that it's hardly noticeable when the last person repeats it.
This was a rambly response.

Susan

Bilbo said...

Like Dave, I'm a bit guarded and cynical... This topic reminds me of the lyrics of a Bruce Cockburn song called Justice. The opening lyrics of the song go like this:

"What's been done in the name of Jesus
What's been done in the name of Buddha
What's been done in the name of Islam
What's been done in the name of man
What's been done in the name of liberation
And in the name of civilization
And in the name of race
And in the name of peace!
everybody
loves to see
justice done
on somebody else

If we do seek justice as Wright suggests it is justice on others but not ourselves. "We" want mercy not justice. I think Cockburn is closer to the truth on this one....

Kansas Bob said...

Maybe if we change the word from justice to fairness - seems that I remember that my children, even when they were very young, had an understanding that some things were 'fair' and some things were not. How often do we still look at something bad and think that it is just not 'fair' ... anyone who has lost a loved one 'before their time' thinks these thoughts regularly.

I agree with Bill though that justice (or fairness) seems to be filtered through our own situations - we want justice for others but mercy for ourselves.

Great thoughts! I'm looking foward to hearing from others.

Chuck said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Chuck said...

First off, thanks, Bilbo, for the reminder of that great Bruce Cockburn song. He's been one of my favorites for nearly 30 years, and still speaks deeply to me.

I agree that the "whispered" voice calling for justice doesn't in any way prove the existence of God or nature of God. I think it says more about our nature, and in some ways the nature of living things in general. Our behaviors are not drastically different from many in the "animal kingdom", where we usually insist that some form of instinct drives them toward self and species preservation. I need to look up the title, but I saw part of a show on the Discovery Channel last week that showed a society of monkeys in an urban Southeast Asian setting. A narrative had been placed around the filmed activities - love, gang wars, family - and it didn't look very different from the same narrative being superimposed upon video of human societies at work.

So I guess I tentatively still hold out hope that the reason for this sense of justice and love is woven within the fabric of the universe somehow, but I'm reluctant to place it within the specific Christian metanarrative, even though I still identify with that story or metaphorical/historical community.

Anonymous said...

I don't hear him saying (in that little snippet, anyhow) that human desire for justice is EVIDENCE of God's desire for justice. I hear him saying that human desire for justice has its source in God's desire for justice. A does not prove B; B (which does not necessarily need or seek proof from A) exists independently of A and RESULTS in A. If A did not exist, B conceivably could, but if B did not exist, would A? That's the question.

julieunplugged said...

I hear him saying that human desire for justice has its source in God's desire for justice.

The issue, though, is that without someone connecting those dots, would we assume that God sourced that desire? That's why I contend that Wright's use of that universal (according to him) experience of longing for justice is more about pointing us to God or validating the evidence of the God of the Bible.

It is a good question, though, of whether or not that desire for justice could exist without a source. That's one worth considering.

Dave said...

I don't want to press back too hard on Kansas Bob, but I don't see "fair" and "justice" as synonymous. I know children are very concerned about "fair" (I work with this all the time professionally) but "justice" has a much deeper and more developed context. Fair is about "getting my share the same as everyone else." Justice is about righting wrongs, restoration, the broader implications on certain behaviors for the larger society, and more.

If Wright had talked about the whisper in our ear re: "fairness" I would agree with him but that would open up a whole 'nother can of worms about God's nature, will, omnipotence, etc. And I don't think Wright would have any answers for our questions about whether or not God is "fair" in those terms. (Nor would most anyone else...)

julieunplugged said...

Ironically Dave, Wright does equate fairness and justice in just that way:

You can test this out easily. Go to any school or playgroup where the children are old enough to talk to each other. Listen to what they are saying. Pretty soon one child will say to another, or perhaps to a teacher, "That's not fair!"

You don't have to teach children about fairness and unfairness. A sense of justice comes with the kit of being human. We know about it, as we say, in our bones.


I found this problematic for the very reasons you mentioned. Fairness among children is usually about getting my share. It's rare to seea child who says, "That's not fair. I got more than him. Give him the same amount I have."

Usually, kids are looking to increase the odds in their own favor or to at minimum, betreated on par with those they see as having advantages.

For instance, if one child is punished for misbhaving, you don't see children stepping forward (having committed a similar "crime") saying they all deserve the punishment. They are usually glad to escape.

Where that leaves me is this.

The idea of justice is as much a cultural construct as fairness and selfishness and more.

Usually our desires aretied up in survival. Once survival is ensured (as children discover this and know it), we can begin to think about sharing our wealth with others (by treating them with fairness and justice).

Julie

Anonymous said...

"The issue, though, is that without someone connecting those dots, would we assume that God sourced that desire?"

I don't think Christianity asks one to ASSUME it, as if obviously God must be the only possible source of human justice, no question about it. I think Christianity asks and enables one to BELIEVE it, even though other possibilities exist, some of which might actually make more sense to us.

"That's why I contend that Wright's use of that universal (according to him) experience of longing for justice is more about pointing us to God or validating the evidence of the God of the Bible."

In other words, he's trying to connect two dots that are already identified--the universal longing for justice and the God of the Bible. You're saying that he starts with the human dot and draws the line to the God dot as a way to convince those who don't believe in his particular God dot that his dot is right. That might be precisely what he is trying to do, but connecting dots only works when the dots are compatible. Maybe he's merely suggesting a dot that seems to work. Surely there are other God dots in the running, too. I personally wouldn't start with the human dot and say, "See, here's what humans are like, so that means this is what God is like." I'd rather say, "If we start with a God like this, (take your pick) what kind of human might we end up with? Is that the kind of human we have?" Either approach is somewhat useless when one believes the God dot to be unknowable or an illusion, but it's an interesting mental exercise anyhow. Talking about evidence does rather pander to the modern "gotta have proof" sensibility, though, so I'm a little surprised he goes that route. I had the idea this book was an explication of Christianity--to describe what is--more than a defense of it.

julieunplugged said...

Hey Anon! Do I know you?

I think you've added some more dimension to the discussion:

I had the idea this book was an explication of Christianity--to describe what is--more than a defense of it.

That is probably the aim of the book. I think you're right. His use of polemics at times makes me feel he is driving his point home as a way of subduing doubt and shoring up his view of God and Christian faith.

Schleiermacher in the 18th century attempted to side-step "proof" related to Christian faith and instead appealed to experience as the basis for what how he did theology. His assertion was that theology was not about apologetics (defense of faith) or proof (modernist need for evidence related to truth claims). Rather, he said the task of theology was to describe the content of the Christian experience as it related to faith.

I don't know if Wright is trying to do that, but he might be. It feels more like an apologetic to me at times, but that could be my baggage interfering. Have you read his book?

I'll try to give some examples of his rhteoric that make me feel pushed.

Julie

Anonymous said...

Usually, kids are looking to increase the odds in their own favor or to at minimum, betreated on par with those they see as having advantages."

Maybe the kids' version of "fairness" (I need to get my fair share) is what justice (a sense that there is a right way for all people to be treated) becomes when it is corrupted. Isn't that what sin supposedly is--a twisting of the good and right and holy desires given by God for the enjoyment and benefit of humankind into a means of protecting the self? What in the hands or heart of a pre-fall God-honorer would bring about the health and survival and unity of the whole might become in the hands of a God-pretender a force for self-gratification, sometimes at the expense of others. I don't really see kids growing out of that. I know lots of justice-preaching adults (myself included) who do it at least in part because it makes them feel better about themselves and their world to think they're helping the downtrodden and disenfranchised. There's some self-gratification, "I must save the world" wrapped up in there, for sure, so has there been a growth in one's sense of justice, or merely a bending of it into a prettier, more morally defensible aspect? I don't know.


Usually our desires aretied up in survival. Once survival is ensured (as children discover this and know it), we can begin to think about sharing our wealth with others (by treating them with fairness and justice).

The Biblical view of justice doesn't strike me as being about sharing our wealth with others or treating them with fairness. It's more about making things "right" according to God's definition, not mine, which means I can't take advantage of others or benefit from their misfortune or use them for my own ends (even if those ends seem good) or decide who deserves preferential treatment or stand by when I see exploitation. Justice isn't communism, it's sinlessness. To do justice, Biblically, means to be without sin in my treatment of others. I think we do have a sense that there is a "right" way for people to be treated, and that's what Wright is calling a universal longing for justice, but we don't really know exactly what that right way is--and we don't do it, either as children or adults.

Kansas Bob said...

Good points Dave about fairness vs justice. I guess, to some degree, justice is in the eye of the beholder ... it is not simple ... that s why we have such a complex legal and judicial system in the US.

For me Micah got it right when he wrote:

He has told you, O man, what is good; And what does the LORD require of you But to do justice, to love kindness, And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

In some sense it takes humility to sort justice out from kindness - and fairness :)

julieunplugged said...

Anon said: The Biblical view of justice doesn't strike me as being about sharing our wealth with others or treating them with fairness. It's more about making things "right" according to God's definition, not mine, which means I can't take advantage of others or benefit from their misfortune or use them for my own ends (even if those ends seem good) or decide who deserves preferential treatment or stand by when I see exploitation.

So how is God wrapped up in this exactly? Is God dependent on my execution of this standard of justice or does God bring it about without me or some blending you want to explore?

Julie

Matt said...

Julie, your original post included, "What is the evidence that God shares that longing? If God, if GOD, then why the whispers and echoes? Where is the loud voice or the evidence of God's interest in putting things to rights?"

In my mind, I'm trying to come up with a way to be succinct with an answer to this, but -- like the scope the question encompasses -- there's no way to do that. If you look at the Bible carefully, it is a continuous series of events of God working through one man or one woman: Abraham, Moses, David, un up through Job, Jonah, the prophets, and into the New Testament of the apostles, the disciples, and Christ himself. In many instances (obviously, not konwing how these words translate in the original Greek), God doesn't shout -- he speaks or calls. He "called" to Moses out of the burning bush; he "said" that Jesus was His well-beloved son; he "said" to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. None of these are a loud voice; you can call out gently -- in fact, if it is a choice between the burning bush scene in "The Ten Commandments" and in "Prince of Egypt," I prefer the Disney version because the voice of God coming out of the burning bush as a whisper is a much more wondrous and emotional event to me.

One of the wonderful things about Fred Buechner's writing is that the central part of much of what he puts on paper is trying to find the voice of God in our lives. Deep down, all of us would at some point like to hear the shout of God to let us know that He is there. But as Buechner points out, if you take the time to sit and think about your life and what has taken place, you will be able to find where the voice of God was there the entire time -- we just aren't always sure where it is or what we should be listening for.

So, to answer your question, it doesn't always take a shout or a loud voice to express a desire to solve a problem. In my opinion, often it just takes a gentle nudge or a whisper to one person to get the ball rolling.

PatrickHare said...

Julie -

I'm new to the conversation, so there's a real danger that I'm dumping all my own baggage in the entryway here without understanding the household dynamics. I'll try and not outstay my welcome.
At the risk of anthropomorphizing here, it seems that animals don't seem to suffer from the same sense of "oughtness" that we humans experience. There seems to be something unique about the experience of human creatures in the area of ethics that sets us apart from the rest of the fauna around us. The biblical narrative hints at this when it says we are made in the image of God.
I certainly agree that our notion of justice/fairness is distorted, particularly towards ourselves and people like us. At the same time, some distorted sense of justice does seem to be consistent with the notion of our being "broken Eikons" as our friend Scot McKnight likes to call us.
When we have administered justice unfairly in our own interests and we are called on it by a prophet in our lives, we often understand what they mean - it's not as though they are speaking an entirely foreign language. Now we may be so blinded that we can't always see it. But the possibility is there. I think of the slow gains of the civil rights movement, the women's movement, etc., as examples of slow steps towards systemic justice.
If our notion of justice doesn't come from an outside source, and if this notion at its best causes us to act in non-self-interested ways, where does it come from?
Why does Jesus resonate so much with you? To what does his self-sacrificing life appeal? Why do you follow him rather than Donald Trump? Just your own preferences?
I think the cross is the evidence of God's interest in putting things right, and that God partners with us humans in dispensing justice through the church, broken as it is. (I think God also partners with humans outside the church as well, but that the church, properly functioning, should be the primary vehicle)
I hear your discomfort about being identified with the mixed-bag of folks who call themselves Christians. I used to look for a church where people were all like me, viewed their faith and their politics like me, and were at the same level of functioning as me.
Yet I have found that I have experienced the most growth by being in relationship with those who are most different from me. I have certainly been transformed by being in relationship with them, and perhaps I have had an impact on their lives as well.
So as much as my crazy uncle Southern Baptists and black sheep brothers in the Religious Right make me want to divorce the whole family, I feel called to be one body with them.
So yes, there's some confusion when friends outside the church hear me apply the same label to myself that these other folks claim - hopefully there is something about the way that I live my life that will help redeem the name Christian. And hopefully there is something about my being in relationship with those that feel like an embarassment to the faith that will transform the both of us.
Thanks for your honesty and transparency on this site and for your always thoughtful posts to jesuscreed.org.
Patrick Hare

julieunplugged said...

Hi Patrick.

How nice to have you visit here. I want to interact with your post and Dave's in a new blog entry so I hope you'll come back and read my response then. This thread of comments is getting pretty long and I think it might work better to post some of my resulting thoughts now that I've read some of yours.

Julie