Professor Wright’s 2009 work, which he evidently researched for ten years, is 567 pages long and was a U.S. best seller. Importantly, it seeks among many faith issues to resolve differences between both the Judeo-Christian and Muslim worlds and the science/religion ones. It passes through several thousand years of religious history and concludes that practices and doctrines in Christianity, Islam and Judaism all have a ‘moral direction’ towards good. This conclusion is encouraging and timely for all persons of good will, believers and non-believers alike.
One American reviewer, David Van Biema, notes, “…Wright argues that our current globalized highly interdependent culture may well produce versions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism that worship a less prickly and more sympathetic god than ever before.” Another reviewer, Margaret Quamme, notes that religion in its more natural forms is capable of reminding us of what Christians, Muslims and Jews have in common.”
Wright’s approach is neither the dogmatic atheism of Richard Dawkins and others nor religious traditionalism. He even argues—rather bizarrely in my view-- that God can save the world even if he does not exist. For Wright, the three religions can now finally reconcile themselves both to each other and to science.
Large parts of the book are devoted to the God or Allah of the Quran as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and to the Jewish God, Yahweh, in the Torah or Old Testament Bible. For time limitation reasons today, I can speak only to some understandings of the God of Christianity, to which Wright devotes 83 pages.
Understandings of God of Christianity
I found that Wright’s most important points on perceptions, contemporary and historical, of the God of Christianity to be these:
1-New Testament readers can be certain that the Crucifixion of Jesus occurred, partly because it made so little theological sense at the time. Messiahs were not expected to lose their lives; it was not part of their job descriptions. Instead, they were supposed to triumph climactically over evil. The New Testament God did not demand sacrifices from human beings, but instead gave the life of His son to wipe out human sins.
2-The Resurrection of Jesus after his execution illustrates both the possibility of eternal life and the fact that any person can qualify for it if they accept the Resurrection of Jesus (John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but should have eternal life”). The followers of Jesus, Wright concludes, “found a way to turn calamity into a symbol of God’s universal love.”
3-On the much-debated historical Jesus, Wright judges the book of Mark, written about 70 CE or 40 years after the Crucifixion, to be the most reliable of the gospels, partly because Matthew and Luke wrote ten years after Mark and John 10 or 20 years after them. John’s Jesus, for example, is much less modest than Mark’s. For example, when Jesus heals a blind man, John quotes him as saying, “I am the light of the world.” In no previous gospel does Jesus equate himself with God. In Mark’s account, Jesus predicts the “kingdom of God” and that it will come very soon, with those unworthy of citizenship to be cast out of it. Wright agrees with Albert Schweitzer who wrote in 1906 that Jesus was above all an apocalyptic prophet, who spoke for the poor and forgotten (“The first will be last and the last will be first.”). Jesus was serious when he spoke about the rich not getting through the eye of a needle into the kingdom.
4-Paul was clearly the apostle of universal love across ethnicity, class and gender (“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female.”) and was personally vital to the eventual success of Christianity. He was its early CEO, says Wright, in part by the deft use of letters to distant congregations. Paul planted churches across the Roman empire. Part of their appeal lay in the lack of financial barriers to join. There were constant bridges to Gentiles from Paul. He also reached out for help from wealthy sponsors, such as cloth dealer Lydia, the first known European convert to what became Christianity.
5- Early Christians annoyed people, especially the politically correct, and as early as 64 CE Emperor Nero was burning them on stakes because they did not fit the Roman model of religion. Christians as proselytizing monotheists refused to worship Rome’s state gods. The movement nonetheless grew until 312 CE, when Emperor Constantine, inspired by a vision, fought a crucial battle under the symbol of a cross and won. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity was the official faith of the Empire and pagan religions were banned.
6-The Pauline version of Christianity, of course, eventually became main stream and assembled the New Testament as its cannon. By the end of the first century, it was no longer thought of as a species of Judaism; some Christians to justify their separateness unfortunately engaged in antisemitism. Paul’s theology is summarized by Wright thus, “One man, Adam, had brought sin and hence death, into the human race through his weakness, and now one man, Jesus, had through his strength, and through his death, offered release from sin and death…Thus did a story with an unhappy ending—the story of a supposed Messiah who’d wound up crucified—become a compelling message of salvation and eternal life.” Salvation from sin was for Paul at the centre of Christianity.
7-Finally, Wright contends that Christianity is the most effective recruiting organization in world history. It does not just attract members, but causes them to behave in ways that sustains Christianity. Paul, for example, urges Galatians to avoid “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing…” at the cost of not inheriting the kingdom of God.
In fact, I was not able to read all of the book, loaned from a friend, but noticed that a couple of reviewers indicated that the author is not himself a believer. If so, it is of course his privilege, although I did not see this explicitly in any of the parts I read. The afterward, entitled “By the Way, What is God?” is very much of the “on the one hand, on the other” genre.
Let me give Wright the last word from the penultimate paragraph of the afterward; you can decide where he probably stands: “One of the more plausible.properties (of God) is love. And maybe, in this light, the argument for God is strengthened by love’s organic association with truth—by the fact, indeed, that at times these two properties almost blend into one. You might say that love and truth are the two primary manifestations of divinity in which we can partake, and that by partaking in them we become truer manifestations of the divine. Then again, you might not say that. The point is just that you wouldn’t have to be crazy to say it.”