Great writers and thinkers have a way of expressing things that take your breath away. I had such an experience today as I finished up NT Wright’s 2018 Gifford Lectures. I want to share that quote with you:
“When we ‘read backwards’ we discover that this was after all the means by which the true God was revealed. If we though that the seven human vocational signposts would lead along a noble upward path to God [his seven signposts were justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, relationships, all of which, in one form or another, have been the basis of interpretation for more philosophic/ethical approaches to the Gospel], we were gravely mistaken. Perhaps all along we were really wanting – as perhaps Kant was wanting? – to find the God of the ‘omni’s – the omnipotent, omniscient, omnicompetent deity, the celestial CEO of much Western imagination. Instead, the four Gospels tell us of the God who suffered the ultimate injustice, the God with no beauty that we should desire him [read Isaiah 53], the incarnate God denied freedom, whose fresh truth was trumped by the empire’s truth-making machine. The Messiah who healed by the power of love was crushed by the love of power. The one whose own rich spirituality bound him in intimate relationship to the Father found himself abandoned.
Here, then, is the point. The early Christians all insist that the divine revelation took place neither simply before this, in Jesus’ public career, or after it, in the resurrection, but as John makes clear, in the crucifixion itself. That was when they ‘gazed upon his glory, glory as of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth.’ The point is that if we go looking for a god who matches our culture’s expectations, or indeed the expectations of some philosophical theism, we may get the wrong one. There is only on God like this. AS the First World War poet Edward Shillito wrote in his best-known poem:
The other gods were strong; but thou was weak; They rode, but thou didst stumble, to a throne. But to our wounds, only God’s wounds can speak; And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.
Of course, none of this was apparent at the time. Nobody in the hours immediately following Jesus’ death was saying, ‘Well, that was very unpleasant, but at least now we have seen God’s glory.’ Jesus’ followers were hiding in fear, shame, and grief. But the resurrection compelled them to look back and retell what had happened, drawing out the way in which not only Israel’s broken story but the broken signposts from t eh entire human world turned out after all, precisely in their brokenness, to be pointing to the ultimate broken signpost, the cross itself.”
-NT Wright, History and Eschatology: Jesus and the promise of natural theology, The 2018 Gifford Lectures, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2019, pp.241-242.
If only I had this quote twenty years ago, I would have avoided such a long search for an abstraction of God that I could neatly contain within a system. At the heart of Wright’s point is that the Gospels reveal in the cross of Jesus the very heart and nature of God for us, enthroned in power that looks nothing like power at all. God splendor and might run contrary to our definitions of such things.
The Good News is a scandal after all (1 Corinthians 1:23).