Yesterday I went up to Grand Rapids, Michigan to hear Tom Wright (aka N.T. Wright, aka The Bishop of Durham, aka "The Bish", aka theological rock star) give a lecture series on the sacraments. It was really good to see him "in person" – he’s just as humble and good-humored and gracious as he seems (and just as brilliant). I searched for pictures of him for this post and found this one:
I didn’t know he played guitar! This was taken from a meeting in a dance club/bar in Toronto where they had a couple concerts with a theological Q & A time sandwiched between them. I bet he was leading them in "Stairway to Heaven". Just kidding.
The official title of the talk I went to was called "Space, Time, and Sacraments" and was all about locating the sacraments (baptism, Eucharist) within the New Testament framework of already and not yet, of creation and New Creation. I came away even more convinced that baptism and the Eucharist are more important than I have imagined thus far. I might have a bit to say about it later.
One thing I love about Tom Wright is his ability to transcend the normal polarizing theological arguments and draw back the curtain on the larger issue. He did that yesterday with the sacraments. He said too often we think we have to choose between only two views, neither of which are true or helpful:
- The Sacraments are a kind of sympathetic magic we perform (idolatry)
- The Sacraments are "bare signs", devoid of any real transforming power (dualism, gnosticism)
Yikes! Many people feel those are their only options: choosing the lesser of two evils. But there is another approach (see there he goes transcending things again): that the Sacraments are places where the future and the past come together in the present, where we, like Jesus Christ himself, die and are raised to new life in baptism (Paul says it that bluntly: "You died" "You were raised"). Where we, like the people of Israel eating the grapes from the promised land, are eating the food of God’s future, and find ourselves linked with the people of God all the way back to Abraham (Jesus said it that bluntly: "This is my body" "This is my blood" "My body is real food, and my blood real drink"). We feed on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and his presence energizes us for mission in the world, to work toward New Creation in the midst of the old, because a bit of the New Creation has come to meet us in the bread and the wine. (Incidentally, no time to get into it here, but with this understanding, the old arguments about "transubstantiation" and "consubstantiation" and anythingelsestatiation don’t make sense.)
Another way Tom Wright transcends the normal arguments and categories is by standing firmly in both the academic world and the church world. He writes thoroughly foot-noted and complex books for the academic world, as well as wonderfully lucid books for popular audiences. He has taught New Testament at several colleges, and is one of the world’s most renowned theologians, yet he’s in pastoral work as a Bishop in the Church of England. Like I said before, he’s a theological rock star!
It was a fun, dizzying, enlightening, invigorating day of theology with one of my favorite theologians.