Part II: Tools for the task

A critical-realist theory of knowledge

The basic argument I shall advance in this Part of the book is that the prob­lem of knowledge itself, and the three branches of it that form our particular concern, can all be clarified by seeing them in the light of a detailed analysis of the worldviews which form the grid through which humans, both individually and in social groupings, perceive all of reality. In particular, one of the key fea­tures of all worldviews is the element of story. This is of vital importance not least in relation to the New Testament and early Christianity, but this is in fact a symptom of a universal phenomenon. ‘Story’, I shall argue, can help us in the first instance to articulate a critical-realist epistemology, and can then be put to wider uses in the study of literature, history and theology (32).

Wright sets out his ‘critical-realist epistemology’ as distinct from positivism, on the one hand, and phenomenalism, on the other. These alternative theories of how we know things are broadly ‘the optimistic and pessimistic versions of the Enlightenment epistemological project’. Positivism asserts that there are at least some things ‘about which we can have definite knowledge’ (32). Phenomenalism is less confident about our knowledge of the external world: all we can know for certain are the sensations of the knowing subject (34-35).

Over against both of these positions, I propose a form of critical realism. This is a way of describing the process of ‘knowing’ that acknowledges the reality of the thing known, as something other than the knower (hence ‘realism’), while also fully acknowledging that the only access we have to this reality lies along the spiralling path of appropriate dialogue or conversation between the knower and the thing known (hence ‘critical’). This path leads to critical reflection on the products of our enquiry into ‘reality’, so that our assertions about ‘reality’ acknowledge their own provisionality. Knowledge, in other words, although in principle concerning realities independent of the knower, is never itself independent of the knower (35).

This dependence of knowledge upon the knower is a matter not merely of the individual’s point of view: it also brings into play both the worldview and the community or social context of the perceiver. Wright stresses, therefore, that ‘critical realism… sees the knowledge of particulars as taking place within the larger framework of the story or worldview which forms the basis of the observer’s way of being in the world’ (37). He goes on to argue at some length that stories are constitutive of our worldviews and of human life generally (38-44). He concludes that a critical-realist theory of knowledge i) is essentially relational, and in that respect overcomes the traditional dualism of subjective and objective knowledge; ii) “acknowledges the essentially ‘storied’ nature of human knowing, thinking and living, within the larger model of worldviews and their component parts” (45).

Literature, story and the articulation of worldviews (47-80)

Wright next attempts to describe a ‘critical-realist account of the phenomenon of reading’ (61). He takes the view that conservative models of reading the Bible which emphasize the immediate personal relevance of the text to the reader and ignore the historical dimension are, ironically, little different from postmodern approaches:

The devout predecessor of deconstructionism is that reading of the text which insists that what the Bible says to me, now, is the be-all and end-all of its meaning; a reading which does not want to know about the intention of the evangelist, the life of the early church, or even about what Jesus was actually like. There are some strange bedfellows in the world of literary epistemology (60).

The critical-realist position is differentiated from the positivist or naïve realist stance, on the one hand, which assumes that the text stands in a straightforward relationship to the world, and the reductionist stance, on the other, which entirely disallows the common-sense assumption that the text expresses the thoughts of its author and refers to objects in the real world. At this point Wright suggests a rather surprising solution to the problem of reference: a hermeneutic of love. Just as love ‘affirms the reality and otherness of the beloved’ rather than attempt to ‘collapse the beloved into terms of itself’, a hermeneutic of love ‘means that the text can be listened to on its own terms, without being reduced to the scale of what the reader can or cannot understand at the moment’ (64).

A theory of literature is required that secures both the public or historical relevance of the text and the dynamic of private or personal address. We examine the text ‘in all its historical otherness to ourselves as well as all its transtemporal relatedness to ourselves, and being aware of the complex relation that exists between those two things’. The importance of the public dimension lies particularly in the fact that by means of the ‘historical otherness’ of the text a worldview is brought to birth. ‘By reading it historically, I can detect that it was always intended as a subversive story, undermining a current worldview and attempting to replace it with another. By reading it with my own ears open, I realize that it may subvert my worldview too’ (67).

At this point Wright briefly introduces structuralist analyses of narrative (Propp, Greimas), arguing that such approaches force us to attend more carefully to the story that is being told (69-77). He suggests that the basic charge that the early church levelled against Judaism was a failure to listen to the story of the Old Testament. More importantly: ‘It might also be suggested that a similar failure on the part of contemporary Christians is widespread, and is moreover at the root of a great deal of misunderstanding of the Christian tradition in general and the gospels in particular’ (70). To address the question of Christian origins, in Wright’s view, is fundamentally to engage in the discernment and analysis of first-century stories and of their relation to the larger stories and worldviews of which they form a part (78-79).

History and the first century (81-120)

A critical-realist theory of history recognizes, first, that history is always constructed from a particular point of view. ‘All history… consists of a spiral of knowledge, a long-drawn-out process of interaction between interpreter and source material’ (86). Wright makes some comments here about the capacity of ancient historians to differentiate facts from the interpretation or distortion of facts (84-85). But this does not mean, secondly, that there can be no factual basis for history. A critical-realist approach must take into account the impact of perspective and bias on the recording of events, but we are not, for that reason, obliged to assume that the events described did not actually take place (88-92).

Wright then considers the long-standing reluctance on the part of scholars to read the gospel narratives as authentic history. He suggests some reasons for this: i) there is the natural distrust of miracle stories; ii) many critical methods ‘were devised not in order to do history but in order not to do history: in order, rather, to maintain a careful and perhaps pious silence when unsure where the history might lead’; and iii) there has been a concern that contingent historical events cannot have universal relevance (92-95). Wright argues against this position that ‘it is appropriate for humans in general to listen to stories other than those by which they habitually order their lives, and to ask themselves whether those other stories ourght not to be allowed to subvert their usual ones’. This appeal is not addressed only to the modernist sceptic: it is often precisely the ordinary old-fashioned conservative or fundamentalist Christian ‘who needs to be open to the possibilities of ways of reading the New Testament, and ways of understanding who Jesus actually was, which will call his or her previous stories into serious question’ (97).

In the next section Wright examines how hypothesis and verification function within an appropriate historical method and how they may be applied in the case of New Testament history (98-109). His central contention here is that in the field of the historical study of Jesus scholarship has reached the point where we may assert a coherent hypothesis that accommodates all the data about Jesus and so is able to make sense of the gospels ‘as they stand’ (106-107).

Finally, to the idea that history is knowledge of what happened we must add three further levels of historical understanding. First, history must encompass human intentionality: we are concerned not only with the ‘outside’ of an event but also the ‘inside’ (109-112). Secondly, the task of the historian is not merely to record isolated facts but to describe the narrative that connects and makes sense of the facts: ‘a great many people within the guild of New Testament specialists have written very little history as such’ (113). Finally, we may inquire as to the meaning of historical events. ‘The meaning of an event, which… is basically an acted story, is its place, or its perceived place, within a sequence of events, which contribute to a more fundamental story; and fundamental stories are of course one of the constituent features of worldviews’ (116).

Theology, authority and the New Testament (121-144)

Wright summarizes the aim of this chapter: ‘to suggest what might be involved in a ‘theological’ reading that does not bypass the ‘literary’ and ‘historical’ readings, but rather enhances them; and to explore one possible model of letting this composite reading function as normative or authoritative’ (121).

After some general remarks on worldview and theology (122-131) Wright addresses the question of how to do ‘a specifically Christian theology’, which must include a normative element: not only what is believed but also what ought to be believed (131). He describes two traditional approaches: one which attempts to systematize ‘timeless truths or propositions’, another which ‘seeks actively to engage with current concerns in the world, whether through confrontation or integration’. Wright proposes, instead, a ‘narrative theology’ with a strong historical orientation (132) on the basis of the preceding analysis of how worldviews work:

i) Christian theology tells a coherent story about a creator and his creation;

ii) this story provides a set of answers to four central worldview questions: Who are we? Where are we? What is wrong? What is the solution?

iii) the worldview ‘has been given expression in a variety of socio-cultural symbols, both artifacts and cultural events’;

iv) the Christian worldview ‘gives rise to a particular type of praxis, a particular mode of being-in-the-world’ (132-134.

In the last section Wright proposes a rather creative model for a normative biblical theology. He rejects both a pre-critical ‘biblicistic proof-texting, as inconsistent with the nature of the texts’ and the modernistic dissociation of descriptive and normative readings of the Bible. Instead he argues for a narrative model for linking what is and what ought to be:

Suppose there exists a Shakespeare play, most of whose fifth act has been lost. The first four acts provide, let us suppose, such a remarkable wealth of characterization, such a crescendo of excitement within the plot, that it is generally agreed that the play ought to be staged. Nevertheless, it is felt inappropriate actually to write a fifth act once and for all: it would freeze the play into one form, and commit Shakespeare as it were to being prospectively responsible for work not in fact his own. Better, it might be felt, to give the key parts to highly trained, sensitive and experienced Shakespearian actors, who would immerse themselves in the first four acts, and in the language and culture of Shakespeare and his time, and who would then be told to work out a fifth act for themselves (140).

A good fifth act will show a proper final development, not merely a repetition, of what went before. Nevertheless, there will be a rightness, a fittingness, about certain actions and speeches, about certain final moves in the drama, which will in one sense be self-authenticating, and in another gain authentication from their coherence with, their making sense of, the ‘authoritative’ previous text (141).

He takes the argument a step further by suggesting that the first four acts correspond to creation, fall, Israel, Jesus; the writing of the New Testament constitutes the first scene of the fifth act and provides hints (Rom.8; 1 Cor.15; parts of Revelation) as to how the play should end.

To sum up: I am proposing a notion of ‘authority’ which is not simply vested in the New Testament, or in ‘New Testament theology’, nor simply in ‘early Christian history’ and the like, conceived positivistically, but in the creator god himself, and this god’s story with the world, seen as focused on the story of Israel and thence on the story of Jesus, as told and retold in the Old and New Testaments, and as still requiring completion. This is a far more complex notion of authority than those usually tossed around in theological discourse. That is, arguably, what we need if we are to break through the log-jams caused by regular over-simplifications (143).