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Wright and Willard Again

8 January 2010

When qb engages in field research to estimate a quantity like, for example, an emission flux of particulate matter from a feedyard’s corral surfaces, his confidence in the reliability of the estimates improves when he gets the same range of numbers using multiple independent methods.  That kind of convergence is not sufficient for a claim of accuracy, but it is most certainly necessary; if two independent methods do not yield the same answer, then at least one of them must be wrong, and perhaps both of them are.  If they do yield the same answers, they may both be wrong, but as we add independent methods to the mix, and as those methods yield results in the same ballpark, the likelihood of spurious errors goes down, and qb’s confidence in the numbers goes up.

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Convergence of that kind is helpful in other areas, as well, and it is in the area of Christian character that N. T. Wright and Dallas Willard seem to converge most strikingly.  Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Bishop Wright concerning his soon-to-be-released book, After You Believe:

The point about the word “virtue” – if we can recapture it in its strong sense – is that it refers, not so much to “doing the right things”, but to the forming of habits and hence of moral character.

I remember Rowan Williams describing the difference between a soldier who has a stiff drink and charges off into battle waving a sword and shouting a battle-cry, and the soldier who calmly makes 1000 small decisions to place someone else’s safety ahead of his or her own and then, on the 1001st time, when it really is a life-or-death situation, “instinctively” making the right decision. That, rather than the first, is the virtue of “courage”.

In the book I use, as a “secular” example, the lifetime forming of habits exemplified by Chesley Sullenberger III, the pilot who, last January, brought the US Airbus down safely in the Hudson River after a flock of geese got into the engines after take-off from La Guardia. All his instincts had been trained so that when the moment came he didn’t have to stop to think what to do; it just “came naturally”.

The more qb reads of N. T. Wright, the clearer it is that his train of thought is a massive freightliner going one direction and accreting ever more substance, more mass, more momentum, all along the way:  toward the progressive redemption of God’s people in accordance with God’s eternal purposes as expressed in the covenant with Abraham.  It’s not so much that he’s reaching a climax in his intellectual journey; no, he’s been traveling downhill (in the sense of accelerating, not degrading!) for some time now.  The trajectory of his run is unmistakable, and it is a profound gift to us, especially evangelical Protestants.  We need his depth, his rigorous thought, his splendid writing, his dry and self-effacing wit.

Fortunately for us, he’s accelerating on two tracks – the scholarly track and the popular track.  For example, shifting metaphors now to the petroleum industry, RSG is the exegetical supergiant reservoir, and Surprised by Hope is the filling station for the masses.  It would appear, now, that After You Believe will be another such filling station, alongside Willard’s Renovation of the Heart.  These two titans have reached what appears to be the same set of conclusions about Christian virtue and character, though from wondrously disparate pionts of view:  Willard from the philosophical scholarship of phenomenology, and Wright from the pastoral scholarship of hard-core, biblical exegesis.

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And yes, AYB already in my Amazon shopping cart.

qb

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