Saturday, 14 February 2015

N.T. Wright and Critical Realism

By now many have seen the following screed against N.T. Wright written by http://thesewaneepurple.org/2015/02/06/letter-to-the-editor-honorary-degrees-to-bring-a-little-less-honor/ by Paul Holloway. Holloway is Professor of New Testament at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, who is quite upset that Dr. Wright will be receiving an honorary degree from his institution. He suggests that Dr. Wright is not an NT scholar but rather an apologist, that he teaches at a third-rate institution, that he's not taken seriously by "critical scholars" in the field of NT. Now, these arguments are all logically fallacious and empirically absurd. NT scholar and apologist are hardly mutually exclusive categories, and in any case N.T. Wright is by any measure a NT scholar; St. Andrew's, where Wright teaches, is one of the most respected schools in the field, and in any case there is no direct relationship between the quality of one's work and the prestige of one's posting; and the interest with which scholars have greeted his recent mammoth volumes on Paul belied the suggestion that he is not taken seriously by critical scholars, unless one plays the No True Scotsman card and says that anyone who takes his work seriously is by definition not a critical scholar. But none of that is my main concern here.

My main concern is that this gives me an occasion to express something that I have long found troubling in Wright's work, namely his definition of critical realism. Whilst ostensibly inspired by Ben Meyer and thus grounded ostensibly in the Lonerganian tradition it is in fact antithetical thereto. in fact, I would go as far as to say that it is utterly incoherent. What Wright means by critical realism supposes a double affirmation: one, that we know the world only through our investigations into said world (thus it is critical); two, that the world exists independent of ourselves (thus it is realism). The difficulty is that if the first is true then then the second can be true only as a consequence of our investigations into the world; it is conclusion, not supposition. But more to the point, such investigation will quickly reveal the second supposition to be false, for in point of fact there is a reality that is not independent of myself, namely myself. It can be true only if I am not a part of reality, which is to say that I am not real; but surely if I am to investigate the world I must first be real, such that if I am unreal the very investigation needed to demonstrate the independent reality of the world becomes utterly impossible.

Thus I reject Wright's account on this matter. In fact, I feel quite ambivalent about Wright. On the one hand I appreciate the fact that he has kept Meyer's name alive in the discipline; on the other hand I think that he misconstrues Meyer's project in fundamental ways due to a failure to more fully engage with Lonergan. Moreover, as a former student of Steve Westerholm I frequently disagree with Wright on more particular exegetical matters, especially in the area of Pauline studies. Yet, unlike Holloway, I do not thus say that Wright is a pseudo-scholar; I simply say that on this matter or that I think him to be is mistaken. That is where Holloway crosses a line, and whilst indicting Wright as someone who is ideologically-driven tells us more about his own ideology. In fact, that ideology is evident throughout his letter: he doesn't like social and theological conservatives and doesn't think that they have a place in the scholarly enterprise; in fact, he just comes across as someone bitter about that time that liberal Protestantism no longer dominates the NT guild, such that now one must make room for scholars from conservative Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, agnostic, atheist, etc., backgrounds. A refusal to do so: that's ideology. And ideology, Lonergan has taught us, is a way to make good a failure of attentiveness, intelligence, reason, or responsibility, without having to undertake the difficult work of cultivating these cognitive virtues. I see little ideology in Wright: yes, he tends in certain directions, like we all do, but I also see him cultivating the above-mentioned cognitive virtues in himself, even if I might at times think his statements on the matter to be demonstrably false (and in fairness, the account of critical realism with which I engaged above was written almost twenty-five years ago).

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