Of Heaven and Labels

I just stumbled upon an interview with N.T. Wright concerning what he believes to be a widespread Christian misunderstanding of heaven and the afterlife. I appreciate his words immensely - as my own biblical and theological understandings have developed and continue to develop, I find myself saying similar things about the "location" of heaven and the "timeline" of human death/resurrection. (You want proof? Here's a paper I wrote last spring where I was asked to lay out an attempt at a coherent eschatology.)

I find it interesting that Wright, as a theologian, is touted as a "conservative" or an"evangelical" theologian, because to me, he seems to break the mold on both these terms, or at least our current culture's connotations of these terms.

If you look up the term "evangelical," you find that it can mean exactly what it says, and that it can also mean something very different. It can refer to any Christian persuasion for which evangelism - sharing the good news of God in Christ - is important (wouldn't that be most all of us?). It can also refer to a particular brand of conservative Christianity.

But then...what do we mean by conservative?

Often this word is associated with right-wing politics, literal biblical interpretation, and the doctrine of the infallibility of scripture. But conservative can also mean exactly what it says - seeking to conserve or to be cautious. If you asked me to label myself in terms of conservative and, well, not conservative, I don't think that all of my thought, politics, and theology fit nicely into one mold or another. I don't know that being biblically conservative necessarily means being a biblical literalist or infallibilist. To me, it means being careful in interpretation and striving for theological accuracy. And to me, this has been my impression of the work of Wright. I'm not sure that his insistence on the reality of Jesus' resurrection makes him any more conservative than most Christians (mainline, fundamentalist, what have you). And his biblical "conservatism" in refuting a puffy-clouded, immediate, other-worldly heaven turns out to be a new and radical idea for most Christians, and flies in the face of the traditional view of death and the afterlife that is widely accepted by Christians on the right and left alike.

So, I guess what I am saying is that I would consider myself liberal in many ways, even theologically, and yet Wright and I end up with similar theologies, despite his label as an "evangelical" or a "conservative." More proof that labels really mean nothing. More proof that we shouldn't cut off discussion and dialogue with one another based on pigeon-holes and assumptions.

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