The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 1, Natural Theology

In 2018 N.T. Wright delivered the Gifford Lectures, subsequently published in the book History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology. I'd like to devote a series to Wright's proposal about what he calls "the broken signposts" in human life.

But first, some background.

Since 1888 the Gifford Lectures have been devoted to exploring the prospects of "natural theology." Now, many readers may not know what "natural theology" is, or that "natural theology" is very controversial. So, before wading into N.T. Wright, I'd like to explain a bit.

Natural theology is a branch of theological reflection that starts with "nature" and then reasons upward toward God. Natural theology asks questions like, "What does nature tell us, if anything, about God? About God's existence and character?" In addition: "What does nature tell us, if anything, about human moral life and flourishing?"

You get a peek of natural theology in Paul when he argues in Romans that the Gentiles, even without the special revelation of the Torah, should know a few things about God just by observing the world around them:
Romans 1.19-20
For what can be known about God is plain to them [the Gentiles], because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
That's natural theology, learning things about the invisible God through the things God has made.

Now, that might seem to be noncontroversial, but natural theology has been controversial ever since Karl Barth. Barth uttered a famous "Nein!" at the prospect of natural theology, and you'll see Barthians to this day write "Nein!" on social media whenever they encounter natural theology. It's happened here on this blog.

Barth's "Nein!" is rooted in his Christology. Yes, it's true you might be able to reason from nature toward some vague, generic Deity. The "God of the philosophers" as it's often described. For example, you might reason, like Aristotle did, that there must logically be an Unmoved Mover to kick off the causal chain of creation. Or a Necessary Being, like Aquinas posited, to hold up all contingent beings. But the Unmoved Mover and the Necessary Being don't get you all the way to the God who is disclosed in the crucified Jew hanging outside of Jerusalem. Natural theology can't tell you the most important thing you need to know about God: that God was revealed in the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. That revelation boggles the mind, a scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the pagans.

In short, natural theology can't tell you about Jesus, so it's pretty useless. Worse, it can actually be quite dangerous. This was Barth's concern. When theology become untethered from Jesus and wedded to a view of "nature," theology can be used to justify all sorts of dark things we deem "natural," like the Nazi vision of the "Übermensch," their biological/natural account of Aryan superiority. The Übermensch is what you get when nature is separated from the revelation of God in the crucified Jesus. Thus Barth's vociferous "Nein!" to all natural theology.

Still, the Gifford Lectures continue on, though many lecturers do try to respond to Barth. So, how does N.T. Wright respond and proceed?

Wright posits what he calls "broken signposts" in human vocation. A couple of comments about this.

First, Wright contrasts vocation with ethics. A lot of natural theology is devoted to ethics, looking for some rational or biological ground of "right vs. wrong." Wright doesn't do this, preferring instead to speak of human vocation. Wright's vision is more in line with virtue ethics, less about "right vs. wrong" than pondering what human life is for, its telos and goal. As human beings, what are we supposed to be doing with this life we have? What is our job, our vocation, our purpose?

In surveying human life, Wright discerns "signposts" that point us toward this vocation. These "signposts" are examples of natural theology as they are observable to all people across time and place. Each signpost is a clue about what we are supposed to be doing with our lives. However, Wright responds to Barth by stating that these signposts are "broken." Humans struggle with the signposts. We don't know exactly how they work. We feel in our bones that the signposts are pointing us toward something, and we all sense this, this "something deeper" at work in our lives, but we're not sure how to sort it all out.

"Broken signposts" is Wright's way of splitting the different between the natural theology of Lord Gifford and the "Nein!" of Karl Barth. There are "signposts" in the world, places that point us toward God and the divine. And these signposts are visible to everyone. And yet, these signposts are "broken," locations of inspiration, but also of deep confusion and ambiguity. Following Barth, Wright argues that the signposts only make sense when viewed through the prism of Jesus. Only through Jesus do we finally get a clear vision of human vocation, what the signposts have been pointing to all along.

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