"Discerning the Dawn: History: History, Eschatology and New Creation" by N.T. Wright

My impression now from other sources and readings - and I think from these Gifford lectures too - is that the challenge to our faith today has a new front of engagement, in addition to the old existential one that is still there. And that new front is this one: Nevermind whether God really exists outside our own heads or not - a new question raised among the young is: is such a God desirable? Why should we want that? So, to put that more succinctly, the question has shifted partly away from “Is God there?” to “Is God good?”. If they aren’t convinced on the latter front, then they have a hard time even caring about the former, and it is on this latter front that Christians are losing ground most catastrophically in the culture wars, even while they expend their resources trying to shore up the former. Lewis did such a good job showing us beauty - that I propose it became the real apologetic fuel for our fires that still burn. And I think Wright is urging some of that same initiative with his ‘broken signposts’.



Brilliance comes late sometimes. I’ve often thought, “Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if these lectures came in a downloadable podcast form so I could listen in the car.” This morning – after what? 12, 13 weeks – I happened to think, “Gee, I wonder IF THESE lectures come in a PODCAST form.”

Yeah. They do, but not everywhere. It took a few download tries. I found Wright’s included in Spotify. Not all podcast apps that have a Gifford Lecture podcast include Wright’s lectures. Spotify has them. I now have the free Spotify app on my tablet. Maybe I"ll remember to download the right lecture, too.


A nutshell overview of Kant’s thinking is available here. But this section is helpful, I think:

In his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?” Kant defines the principle as “man’s emancipation from his self-imposed immaturity.” What does this mean, and what does it have to do with his ethics?

The answers go back to the problem of religion no longer providing a satisfactory foundation for morality. What Kant calls humanity’s “immaturity” is the period when people did not truly think for themselves, and instead, typically accepted moral rules handed down to them by religion, tradition, or by authorities such as the church, overlord, or king. This loss of faith in previously recognized authority was viewed by many as a spiritual crisis for Western civilization. If “God is dead, how do we know what is true and what is right?"

Kant’s answer was that people simply had to work those things out for themselves. It wasn’t something to lament, but ultimately, something to celebrate. For Kant, morality was not a matter of subjective whim set forth in the name of god or religion or law based on the principles ordained by the earthly spokespeople of those gods. Kant believed that “the moral law”—the categorical imperative and everything it implies—was something that could only be discovered through reason.

Kant is relevant here because he saw humans as moral agents. Wright explains the “moral argument” in connection with Kant: Since man is a moral agent, there must be a source of morality, which must be some sort of god. My impression from introductory reading about Kierkegaard and the philosophers whose work he was dealing with is that Kant was nearly obsessed with every aspect of morality.

This intensive morality mixed with a platonic understanding of a (blessed and timeless) separation of our souls/spirits (the good part) and bodies (the bad, sinful, earthy part) are what Wright is talking about, when he brings up eschatology and soteriology. This view of souls going to heaven entirely leaves out physical life in real physical bodies in a real, physical, renewed creation. And there’s nothing to DO except be.

If it’s all only about dealing with sin and getting away from the body, there is no point in dealing well with the physical, as it will all just burn up in the end anyway. This view can not only lead us to be careless about how we treat every aspect of the world we live in, but also the way we think of people, particularly non-christians. It’s hard to employ love for all of creation when we look at other people as dross and the world as disposable.

Calling @vulcanlogician and @MarkD for more help with Kant, if you’re still receiving signals from the BLF. (Miss you both.)

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I have listened to most of lecture now, and the questions have come to the top again that were on my mind since before we decided to do this discussion: 1) can the “signposts” he mentions indicated what he says they do to unbelievers? 2) Are there other (better) explanations for them?

There is more to the lecture than this, and to some degree Wright addresses my questions. However, I think there is a good deal here to discuss.

No. As I said above, I think Wright is reviving the more traditional task of natural theology of looking for an objective basis for believing in Christianity. Though… I suppose we can see Wright going for another goal as well in this “theology/epistemology of love” to provide a basis for seeing how the Christianity can be appealing.

Showing the logical coherence of Christianity would be about showing the logical links inside Christian teaching and not connecting it up with things outside Christianity like history. In that case the academic community and modern historical science would be irrelevant. Showing logical coherence by itself is not a very lofty goal or very difficult. With the freedom to choose whatever premises support the system of belief you are advocating, logical coherence is not so difficult to establish for most systems of thought (it is part of what makes them a “system of thought”).

Now what would be an issue for rationality in general is showing that Biblical history doesn’t have to be understood in a way which contradicts the findings of historical science. That isn’t an issue of logical coherence but is another part of rationality according to the following…

Rationality consists of 3 parts.

  1. Logical coherence is required for something to be meaningful, because if there is logical inconsistencies within a set of beliefs then the meaningfulness of the whole would fall apart.
  2. Consistency with the findings of science is required for something to be reasonable, because if there is something inconsistent with the findings of science then it would go against what can be shown by anyone following the written procedures in science.
  3. Compatibility with the restrictions of a free society is required for something to be moral according to limits of a free society which we all enjoy the advantages of.

It is of course the last of these where the most trouble in modern times lies. But a major portion of the conflicts there isn’t about Christianity as much as the culture which has been attached to it. But I am not sure that means we have license to discard such culture let alone go along with the outright exaggerated attack on that culture. The ideals of a free society doesn’t require agreement with the current counter-culture but only that we make some accommodation for the liberty of people to try out different cultural ideals (as long as they also adhere to the same restrictions, i.e. not forcing their way of doing things on everyone).

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Yeah. I was hoping my memory was failing me and he had steered in a different direction. But it’s unmistakable in Lecture 7. I think he is changing the meaning of Natural Theology a bit, but he is developing an apologetic argument.

Having listened to lecture 7 a few times today there’s no mistaking his point. He says as much and describes it in contrast to other apologetic arguments. Theologically, I think he succeeds in making Christianity appealing, at least to Christians. His preaching is beautiful. But as with the few other apologetic arguments I’ve heard, I don’t think his manage to really answer the concerns of someone who really cannot find a reason to believe that Christianity is true. I’m disappointed to admit that I think the broken signposts he talks about have other explanations that are well-grounded outside of Christianity.

I’m not sure what you mean by this. Do you mean the “science” of doing history (what Wright talks about in some of his earlier lecturs) or science that relies on data from the past? Something else?

I’m not familiar with formal definitions in logic and philosophy. So, I will need to work on understanding your 3-part explanation of Rationality. In part 2 of it, I’m not sure how the findings of science fit, particularly with things that may not involve science, such as history and theology.
Likewise, I’m not sure I understand the relationship between rationality and

It feels late. I’ll need to come back to this later.

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This is a complete surprise to me! And I’m flabbergasted that both you and @mitchellmckain feel like this is what he’s been doing and has done in this lecture! Because my own impression has been exactly the opposite of both of yours. Maybe I’m only hearing what I want to hear, but it seems to me that he has shown zero interest in addressing the standard (he would say Epicurean) apologetic concerns of trying to fire up yet more schemes (or warm over old ones) to hope that a few more skeptics might be impressed this time.

My continued love of these lectures is in large part to do with my impression that he has left that whole rationalist program - if not quite in the dustbin (he’s not trying to be irrational or to say that rationality isn’t important) - but he’s demoted it from its presumed priority one status that the englightenment (from both sides) wants it to be. In fact, as I was contemplating sharing this lecture with someone of skeptical mindset, I thought to myself that this would be seen as entirely inadequate by him because I don’t think Wright shows any interest in answering such skeptical concerns. Even what he does present … all the broken signposts, are only put forward with the caveats that of course other explanations can be made for each of them and they need not be seen as compelling, much less coercing belief. He goes out of his way to keep saying this - only showing interest in how a backward look (from an already accepted, and risen Christ) can also make sense of all these things too, but in a new way.

It’s the implications of this new way that have me nervous since all of us still remain so much children of the enlightenment and cannot fathom looking at things any other way. But so is Wright. So how can this be? Obviously two of you saw very different things in this than I have thus far - so I’ll brace to hear what all I’m overlooking in order to hear this narrative of my choosing.



in other words…

It is to distinguish what we can actually prove happened by the evidence from what may have actually happened (which is vastly more than what can be proved).

The key word is “consistent,” or to put it another way compatible. It is not to say we must limit everything to what can be discovered by scientific methods but just, at the very least, not to contradict what the objective evidence shows. The evidence is not the limit of reality but it not reasonable to go against what the evidence does actually demonstrate.

It acknowledges the full range of how people use the word “rationality.” It is not just used in the most limited sense for logical coherence, but also for what is reasonable to believe given the evidence, and it also used for some basic limits of morality to what can equitably be supported. For example, even if you come up with a logically coherent explanation of human sacrifice and not find anything contrary to any objective evidence, people can still say it is irrational in the third sense.

But those are not the words I used at all. I said he was “looking for an objective basis for believing in Christianity.” The issue here isn’t quite so black and white as you make it. Frankly, I think believers justifying their belief has always been a better description of classic apologetics than “convincing the skeptic,” because skeptics have never found any of it very convincing.

And I also explained that this wasn’t all he was doing. But steering us to the scientific work of history is clearly looking for an objective basis for Christianity. So that is at least part of what Wright is doing.

Yes … I think it is likely that a big part of his objective is to keep Christianity alive in the work of academia… i.e. more than simply the study of a peculiar species. …so he finds a place for it in the work of history… at least. But… he also repeatedly connects this with the phrase “natural theology” and it is in trying to see what he means by this which leads to the conclusions we have made above.


Yeah - the whole ‘natural theology’ thing I had set aside there, which was easy for me to do as I guess I’ve never been too invested in that as any sort of starting point. But since a lot of people are willing to do battle on that hill, it does warrant attention. And I agree with you that he wants to do something different with it. And I am probably a bit nervous about that too, perhaps in some of the same ways you are.

Perhaps the cynic can wonder aloud how much Wright might be motivated by ‘science-envy’ on behalf of his own profession which deals more with history. It fascinated me to see him unload on ‘historicism’ in parallel ways to what we often see as ‘scientism’ around here. History doesn’t deliver “assured results”, but nor does science necessarily. At least not in areas dealing more with human life and quality of human life.


And now I think I would soften my earlier expression of Wright allegedly demoting rationality (words I doubt he would own) and say instead that he wants to promote it, but in new ways. Maybe even expanding on it by broadening its basis to include history, as properly abducted.

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Finally, I think we are seeing things that are ripe for discussion and even interpretation. Excellent.

I think Wright’s goals, no matter what his stated theses are, emerge over the 8 lectures. The project is enormous. In some ways, as I have branched out here and there to some of his other work, he is pulling together decades of his work into this one project. Sometimes, I think the scope of the final, published project causes the outline of the project to be “lumpy” enough to pull in themes that are not tightly tied to his thesis. Or his thesis is loose enough to allow for this.

I don’t think we see “science envy” but rather an attempt to legitimate the work of the historian in the eyes of those who are used to the methods of science. In a time where everyone is happy to throw out the uncritical, ignorant, half-baked, bumper-sticker version of their version of postmodern thinking: “That’s just your interpretation; you can make it say anything you want,” Wright is seeking to demonstrate that that is exactly NOT what the work of real historians is about. The public nature of the discipline is essential to his claim. Real historical work can be critiqued and evaluated, can be refuted.

He had to do a lot of heavy lifting to get just to that point.

Part of the work of his readers, then is to find and understand his stated theses, contrast his practical and state theses, dig into his selection of material, his methods, his conclusions. You know.

I think at the very outset, when he talked about how he described the lecture series to his mother, we have his very broad thesis. Does he accomplish it?

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It might sound a little pun-ish considering the context, but my immediate thought in response is that it is not just about knowing. Besides, I have zero problems with being lectured. I have spent most of my life in one school or another and don’t see my education as being over and done with. AND… I feel everyone has something to teach.

The only reason to make so much of a distinction is to make the point that knowledge/knowing is not so much something you have as something you do. And that frankly resonates very much with my idea that knowledge is what we live by. On the other hand it is always both (by virtue our ability to pass it to others) and I think most of the substance of the distinction you refer to is captured by my distinction between objective and subjective knowledge – though perhaps a clarification can help. While objective knowledge has some epistemological superiority when it comes expecting others to agree, it is subjective knowledge (personal experience) which is more immediate and gives the greater personal certainty. Objective knowledge is after all more of an abstraction.

That would imply there are things you know which you cannot communicate to others. Is that what you are saying? I would be reluctant to call such things knowing – sounds more like feeling or experiencing to me.

If it can be communicated and it is something you live by (which guides you in the living of your life), then I would call it knowledge.

I would agree that first hand experience add something more than what can be contained in that which is communicated.

I am reminded of something one of my pastors said to me about knowledge including more than intellectual knowledge.

So yes… that would indeed be a good reason for making a distinction between knowing and knowledge.

I guess I would include all this in subjective knowledge and conclude quite logically that some portion of subjective knowledge cannot be communicated. After all… if it is communicated then it isn’t a matter personal experience, is it?

I am quite sure you did say things which I didn’t already know… now which sense of the word “know” is THAT about??? LOL

I am happy to listen to your lecture anytime. ESPECIALLY since you are quite attentive to my own lectures. LOL

Even when we can extract some value from postmodernism, it doesn’t mean we don’t have considerable reasons for concern about it as well.


I never cared for Kant’s ethics/morality. His obsession with acting out of duty over sympathy makes him seem too disembodied and less human. I think of it as being too self conscious and self focussed. I see Christianity as suffering from the same concern with moral exceptionalism. Simple decency without weighing one’s moral score seems more attractive to me. Just my two cents worth.

Nicely said. I believe what God refers to is intimately tied up in the world/cosmos. God is as present as embodied beings will allow. For most of nature there is no separation, grace is a given red teeth/claws and all. But for those capable of extreme abstraction and self assertion, grace must be acquiesced to.

I’ve forgotten too much about Kant.

I figure the place for “duty” in morality is in training ourselves so we don’t have to stop and think about things all the time. As an example, I once knew a thief who would only steal from institutions because they had no emotional attachment to what he was stealing, but he came up against a situation where his intended target was a store owned by local people; he had to think through whether that store fell into his category or not. I pointed out that it would be much easier to just learn to not steal any more.

Fair point. There is a place for it in child rearing and in maturation generally.

The thing with Kant’s categorical imperative against lying is that it wasn’t always the right thing to do. I was introduced to his moral philosophy in an intro to ethics and recall that according to Kant one wouldn’t be allowed to lie to Nazis about Jews they were hiding.

If there would be something that would always be the right to do in any given situation, then it would be a categorical imperative.

I really like how John Piper handled ethical questions in his book Desiring God. I once told a friend who asked, that it was probably one of the most important philosophical books I ever read. And I so happened to read it before my intro to ethics. Wow! Pretty phenomenal how God’s love for himself resolves Euthypro’s dilemma.

Mark, thanks. This is helpful.
It clarifies to some degree, I think, Wright’s dissatisfaction with what he calls Kant’s “moral argument”. If our morality is self focussed and self conscious, it seems to me that there is no reason to look to it for any information about God/god.

There are other reasons, I find it the moral argument unconvincing as well, but your comments help with the “Kantian aspect” of it.


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That’s an interesting point. I’m not connected to young people like I was when I was teaching. The women I talk most with now about “spiritual things” are both Christians, but 17 and 22 years younger than me. They’ve endured the “purity” movement and other such high-pressure, damaging fads, that have driven a lot of people their age away from church, and often faith in Jesus. So many of their peers have just had it with the things that are put onto God or put into his mouth, that they want nothing to do with it or him. “What could there be of value to me here? The MSRP is just to high.”

Honest, @Mervin_Bitikofer, I worked hard to leave my feelings out of this. I think there’s enough evidence throughout the lectures that he is doing some sort of apologetic work here. At the same time, I don’t think he is guilty of attempting anything like that of the Modern Apologetic Industry.TM

In Lecture 1, Wright states his goal for this project to his mother thus:

06:53 I explained that some people used to think you could start from the natural world and think your way up to God from there that other people thought that wasn’t such a good idea but that fresh thoughts about history might lead to fresh ideas about Jesus and thence to God after all and that on the way we might learn something about the nature of knowledge itself.

This does sound like some kind of “soft apologetic” plan to me.

Yes. I am grateful that he’s done it this way. I would have been inclined to give up on these lectures, if he had attempted coersion.

Good one!

Yes, I think, to both of your posts. I’m not a scientist and don’t think like one, certainly not as a matter of habit. You are and do. I think that difference has made it essential for the two of us to negotiate meaning quite a lot. Thanks for doing that.

Your points about subjectivity and personal experience are what I had in mind. However, for some reason, this morning that awful thread came to mind about dooming women to an eternity of child birth. There is no substitute for the kind of knowledge that comes from some forms of personal experience. In the case of THAT personal experience, there is no question of “epistemological superiority” or the inability to communicate that knowledge. Some knowledge is beyond our grasp, simply because of what we are not able to experience.

So, thinking about Wright’s lectures, not mine, In lecture 6 he talked a great deal about various ways of knowing, and two examples stand out to me:

04:25 It is love that believes the resurrection because love is the most a complete form of knowing and the resurrection is the most complete form of event.


36:15 The creational love now revealed in the gospel launched the new world of ecclesial and moral possibility. Thus Jesus’ resurrection, by unveiling the creator’s love for the world, opens up the space and time for a new holistic mode of knowing – a knowing which includes historical knowledge of the real world by framing it within the loving gratitude which answers the creator’s own sovereign love.

I’d like to read your (plural) take on these descriptions of ‘knowing.’ This is not the bare rationalism that some apologists pretend to attempt. Wright seems perfectly content to combine (what he understands to be) the objectives of history with subjectivity.

@mitchellmckain I am also curious about thoughts you’ve stated in this discussion as well as others regarding subjectivity, objectivity and faith. I believe you said you think it is a subjective matter entirely and should remain so, and this:

Do you think there is any reason to believe that Christianity has a basis in reality, and is that even important to you? If not, how DO you see it all, please?

However, Penner and Smith are both Christians who see real value in it, while not swallowing entirely. They are the first two that I’ve encountered just to represent it faithfully.

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Sorry for the delay in getting back to these lectures, travel and jet lag intervened. Re: “Apologetics”, I wonder if @Mervin_Bitikofer and @Kendel are operating with slightly different definitions? Personally, I have not picked up on an “Apologetic” focus from these Giffords so far. In Lecture #2 Wright did mention tangentially that he had written a book on The Resurrection, and I suspect without having read it, that THAT work would have a strong apologetic focus…going into the details of the reliability of the eyewitnesses, the nature of mass hallucinations and such. However, it seems in the Giffords, Wright has only alluded a few times to his use of “abductive reasoning” to the best conclusion for Jesus’s physical resurrection based on historical data (while noting on the side that not all atheists will be convinced of a physical resurrection because of their worldview). But Wright doesn’t spend time in these lectures arguing the details of the evidence for the resurrection per se. Rather, after about lecture 2, he seems to assume it as a “given” and then explores from there the question "how does this perspective of God’s “top-down” physical revelation in history change the narrative --the story-- that people (believers in the Resurrection) find themselves in? How does it change our view of the past, the present, and the future? and how should we respond?

In this lecture (#7 )on broken signposts, he uses the analogy of the road to Emmaeus, of how RETROSPECTIVELY Jesus’s resurrection (he’s just assuming that it happened and isn’t apologetically arguing the point here as I saw it) reframes how one views the brokenness in the world, how it reframes how one sees the character of God (and also morality and justice etc.), and how it changes our perspective of how God is working throughout history…with suffering and grief which always accompany love. Very different modus operandi from most imagined all-powerful deities.

I agreed with Wright here that nature (and observed morality in humans) is a “mixed bag”, so Kant seems off-base. And I agreed with Wright that “Natural Theology” as traditionally done–trying to deduce things about God “bottom-up” from creation probably won’t get one very far.

The way I’ve understood it so far is that Wright says that God’s initiative in history, his objective revelation “top-down” via crucifixion/resurrection requires a response from us “bottom-up” in reciprocal love/trust/faith to be fully understood in a way that is transformative to us as individuals. I’m interpreting that as his “epistemology of love”. Perhaps the individual response is what you’d call the subjective component?


I certainly say subjectivity is the whole point of religion. Science is objective observation and life requires subjective participation. And that is why religion is important. The objectivity of science is insufficient for living.

Furthermore, objectivity is all about reality forcing itself on us… because the laws of nature simply don’t care what we want or believe. It is a necessity for life to exist, but we cannot help our desire to go beyond such limitations.

Both of these observations tell me subjectivity is the essence of the spiritual aspect of reality. It is all about what we want and believe as a part of reality itself.

Yes, because I believe there is an irreducibly subjective aspect to reality itself. In other words reality is not the same for everyone. This doesn’t mean there are no universal truths. I think these universal truths (or you could call them natural law of the spirit) can be found in logical conclusions we can draw about desire and the capacity of different pursuits to achieve happiness and well being. Logically, things which are self-destructive cannot do this, for example.

In other words, Christianity’s basis in reality is all about conforming our desires to these logical realities and that is why it cannot be about forcing something on people. This explains to me why all my experience of life demonstrates that God doesn’t do that. In other words, God Himself chooses not to be a reality which forces itself on everyone. Thus He chooses to be a subjective reality, in that sense. It is part of God’s choice of love and freedom over power and control – that He will always be one we choose to have a relationship with.

Yes I know… much of the Bible doesn’t sound this way at all. But I think that is because it was simply the only way of communicating those universal truths in a way that people could comprehend.


Brilliant post in spite of the odds!

Would you say, then that he is focusing on proclamation, then? Something more like this:

“Here’s the message; here’s how I read the message; take or leave the message.”

I agree with you that he Wright has not made an attempt to argue the truth or historicity of the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He assumes them. I have found myself annoyed at this a few times, wondering, “Don’t you care whether its true or not? After all that work of defining history, historicism and the like?” So maybe my gut reaction, “This seems like an apologetic, but not a very good one,” should be something more like, “If this seems like an unsuccessful apologetic, maybe Wright sees himself as doing something different.”

He has argued a lot to legitimate his methods (of historic inquiry applied to methods of interpretation) rather than material. Maybe I am confusing his “hermeneutic of love” with an attempt to prove something. His quote from Wittgenstein (It is love that believes the resurrection.) is more pivotal than I understood it to be.

Now I feel like I need to listen to the last 3 lectures all over again. Again.

@mitchellmckain I have to read over your reply a few more times. Thank you for taking the time to write it.

I’m glad for this discussion. It helps me process. I think in some ways this is a microscopic and (secular) example of the idea of “communal knowing” that Wright (and others) talk about. Hashing a “text”* over, considering it from different angles and views, looking at it from various lenses of expertise and experience all help.

*“text” - I’m using this in the broadest sense possible, which is part of my training. “Texts” are anything whether written or not that are open to “reading” which is the act of receiving and interpreting the text.