Full of Grace and Truth (Part 2)

N.T. Wright, Bishop of Durham

(Part 2 of 2)

Because it really is dark out there, and alas sometimes in here too. The great revolution of thought which happened in Europe over three centuries ago, associated with Descartes in particular, was the attempt to grasp truth as it were from scratch: by doubting everything, we would see what we could be sure of and build out from there. We would know the facts, and the facts would set us free – free from God, free from any responsibility except to our own self-interest. There’s a straight line from Descartes to Dawkins: we can doubt God, but we can’t doubt the facts, the empirical evidence. And the results of that arrogant attempt to possess truth are all around us, etched in the horrors of the twentieth century and now already the multiple follies of the twenty-first, as we in the West blunder blindly on, believing firmly that because we know the facts and have the technology we can do what we like with other people’s countries, other people’s stem cells, other people’s crops, other people’s money, other people’s lives. And meanwhile the worm in the apple has hollowed it out more or less completely: the ‘truth’ which we thought we knew has been eaten away not just in theology and philosophy but in its heartland of physics, by Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and in its deeper heartland of the human being, where Descartes began. We have become a society paranoid about truth: so we make each other fill in more and more forms, and set up more cameras to spy on each other, to check up on one another because we want the truth, we want an audit trail, we want more and more Enquiries and Judicial Reviews and Investigations, but we can’t get at truth because Descartes’ experiment has itself made it impossible, has generated a world of suspicion and smear and spin. The project of truth without grace has become one of facts without trust, and has finally run into the buffers in the smashed cities of Iraq, in the Snooping and Sniggering Society, in the tail-eating philosophies of postmodern deconstruction. That is the darkness where we have waited for too long in Advent hope, waited for a fresh word, a living Word, the tabernacling of glory in our midst, and for truth to be called forth to its long-awaited marriage with grace. Only when we receive this world as a gift from the creator can we understand truth; only when we see one another as bearing his image can we relearn trust. My friends, Christmas sets us a cultural and political agenda which we must pray will enable us to shine a bright, searching light into the world where ignorant armies still clash by night.

But if the world has tried to have truth without grace, the church has often been tempted towards grace without truth – as Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it, ‘cheap grace’. God has become a benevolent old softie, ready to tolerate everything, to include everyone, to throw away all those unpleasant old moral standards and say it’s all right, do your own thing, if it feels good it must be OK. And once again the results are all around – both in the anti-moralism of the arch-liberals and the anti-authoritarianism of today’s new conservatives, who don’t realise that they are simply producing an ecclesiological parody of the do-it-yourself morality they so detest. But no: grace and truth must meet together; if it really is grace, it really must produce truth, a rich, deep personal, moral and ecclesial integrity which is deeply true to the created order and to its recreation in Christ, to the deep structures of God’s wise and loving ordering of his world and of us human beings. Cheap grace – assuming, in whichever direction, that God is on your side because your agenda seems to urgent, so obviously right, and not troubling to ask the hard questions – is to genuine grace as ‘facts’ are to ‘truth’: a late modern parody to be named and shamed and rejected in the name of the Christmas message, of the grace and truth which we find in the baby in the manger.

But if that larger, global picture gives a brief indication of why John’s repeated ‘grace and truth’ matters, and matters urgently, in the wider world and church, we cannot of course ignore its message for our own lives. One of the great truths of spirituality is that you become like what you worship. We beheld his glory, says John: we gazed at it, long and lovingly, with adoration and worship, so that the marriage of grace and truth which we see and know in the Christ-child can be born in us as well, so that we can be people, we can become communities, in whom God’s grace generates and sustains a human integrity, a wholeness and holiness of character. And the definition of mission – mission to which we as a Diocese have firmly committed ourselves as a priority – can be restated in exactly the same terms: we are to become people in and through whom God’s grace overflows to the world around, producing a new integrity, a new truth and truthfulness, at every level from politics to university study to sexual morality to ecology (where the image of grace from above producing fruitfulness below is especially poignant), and reaching out into human hearts and lives and imaginations with the news that there is such a thing as truth, because there is such a thing as grace, because there is such a person as Jesus, and because in him we see and know God’s living word made living flesh and are summoned to become living words in living flesh ourselves. Grace and truth have met together; justice and peace have kissed each other; truth springs up from the earth, and justice looks down from heaven. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace; for the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Come to him today, taste his grace and truth in bread and wine, and become yourselves wedding guests, feasting at the marriage of heaven and earth.


Article excerpted from the sermon, Full of Grace and Truth (2006), originally appearing on N.T.Wrightpage.com; Used by Permission of the Bishop of Durham, Dr N. T. Wright

 

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