The Broken Signposts of N.T. Wright: Part 9, Natural Theology Revisited

When we revisit the prospects of natural theology through N.T. Wright's broken signposts, we get a sense of how he's splitting the difference between Lord Gifford's hope for the Gifford lectures and Karl Barth's strong "Nein!" about the possibility of human reason ever reaching across the abyss to God.

On the one hand, Wright's seven vocational signposts--justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships--seem to be pointing us somewhere, toward some vision of human flourishing. In this, Wright's vocational signposts are species of the moral argument for God's existence, that we can discern a "moral texture" to the cosmos that points us toward some Value in the fabric of reality that cannot be reduced to or captured by factual, scientific description.

So the vocational signposts can be taken as evidence of "natural theology," observations we make of the world which tell us something about the existence of God and God's characteristics. But Wright is quick to push back upon that conclusion. For two reasons.

First, the vocational signposts don't really escape the criticism of skeptics who would reduce them to some evolutionary or sociological account. The signposts don't imply theism.

Second, as Wright has been keen to point out, all the signposts are "broken." They don't really point anywhere but to our own failure. And in the face of that failure, coupled with the objections made by skeptics, the prospect of natural theology evaporates. As Wright summarizes:
The seven 'vocations', then, are at best broken signposts. They appear to be pointing somewhere, but they lead into the dark, or over a cliff, or around in circles to where we began. Were they just wraiths, the ghosts of our own imaginings? Were they just random impulses in a late-developed evolutionary pattern? Were they, after all, the wrong questions to ask? Should we simply have capitulated to the cool Epicurean cynicism: yes, we feel these things, but they don't really mean anything, and we should silence such irrelevant voices and pursue the placid pleasures available to us here and now? Or should we smile an early Barthian smile and say, Well, there you are, nothing good was ever going to come from all that?

Is there a way forward from this apparent impasse?
For Wright, the way forward is Christology. The goal of natural theology has always been to reason upward toward some abstracted notion of God, the "God of the philosophers." But for Wright, the vocational signposts only make sense when we read them backwards onto Israel's history in light of the crucifixion of Jesus.

Humanity (in Adam) and then Israel was given a vocation by God. And in that vocation we have a glimpse of what it means to "be a human being." But humanity failed. We dropped and broke our vocation, shattering it into a thousand pieces--the broken signposts. Both that vocation and our failure only come into view when we look at Jesus on the cross. The broken signposts won't enable you to reason your way upward to some abstract notion of God. But the broken signposts can bring you to the foot of the cross, where God reveals his glory in the crucified Jesus.

You can't make sense of justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships independently from Jesus. You can't discern human vocation separate from the cross. You can't know what it means to be a human being except through Christ. This is Wright's argument, that human vocation as revealed in the signposts only make sense when read backwards (and now forwards) from the cross. Jesus fulfills Adam's and Israel's vocation.

That is natural theology for N.T. Wright: the cross, as a public event within history and not as an abstract philosophical proposition, is the only true signpost in human history. And through that signpost all the other signposts will find their proper place and expression.

For outside of the cross, all signposts--all our attempts at justice, beauty, freedom, truth, power, spirituality, and relationships--are bound to brokenness, confusion, and futility.

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