Listening to N.T. Wright in Pasadena on Virtue


Check out the audio to this lecture at: Parables of a Prodigal World


This past Thursday night I had a unique opportunity that I have been hoping would come for quite some time. I got to both listen to and meet N.T. Wright! My friends and I arrived early to ensure that our 3 hour drive would be worth it. We got a seat in the 5th row and listened to the man whose writings and lectures began a deep theological shift in me about 5 years ago. I also purchased one of the few books that they were selling that I didn’t own: The Meaning of Jesus; co-authored with Marcus Borg. I met Tom Wright and he signed my book and jokingly told me that I “now need to go to Oregon to get Marcus Borg’s signature.”

In regards to topic, Tom had some great insights on virtue. The title for the night was: “Learning the Language of Life: New Creation and Christian Virtue.” He began with an illustration about the pilots who successfully landed the plane in the Hudson River a few weeks back. All of the specific maneuvers that they had to make were not looked up in the instruction manual of the plane, but had become second nature to them and so they were able to act accordingly. This he used as a segue into discussing virtue as “what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature.”

From here Tom Wright described the telos of Aristotle which was happiness (eudaimonia). For Aristotle, this included four basic elements, all of which were part of living as a person of virtue: courage, temperance, prudence, and justice. Happiness is arrived at when these four ingredients are properly produced in an individual. According to Wright, the church is in need of moral transformation; producing something similar to Aristotle’s defined view of virtue… but at the same time, something bigger. Our framework is different that Aristotle and the goal is not merely happiness, it is new heavens and new earth!

Tom Wright’s three main points for seeing Moral Transformation were…

1) Virtue needs to be rehabilitated in Christianity
– In order to embody this virtue, Christians need to practice virtuous living. The illustration he used was that of a second language. When someone is learning a new language, it can be frustrating, challenging, interesting, and full of excitement. It is not as though a second language comes easily, but it is through hours of practice until it becomes almost like second nature. Then, when the time comes and someone speaks to you in this new tongue, you are ready to respond appropriately. The same is true of virtue. “Virtue is learning the language of life.”

2) New heavens and New earth reframe the telos for the church…subverting that of Aristotle
– Telos in the Bible
a] the goal is new world in which humans fully reflect the image of the creator (like and angled mirror)
b] this goal is achieved by the kingdom ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus
c] the anticipation of this goal is the work of the Spirit within the believer/ church
“…learning the language of the new world in the present…”

– This reframing is not merely about following rules, but about being genuinely human.

3) Virtue supports and sustains the mission of the church
– Two extremes about mission have been
a] saving souls for a disembodied afterlife
b] building God’s kingdom by our own efforts
– Both these options are wrong. Option ‘a’ is escapism. Option ‘b’ denies that the final kingdom will be a complete act of God’s grace. The mission of the church will be carried out when the telos of new heavens and new earth drive people to act out that reality in the present. Virtue is when the church acts out in love to announce that Jesus want to save them so that they can bear the image of the Creator in a new way for the sake of the rest of the creation.

I want to end this summary of my experience with a quote about our calling to live virtuous lives of love for this world: “Love is not a duty, it is our destiny.” It is God’s love that compels us to live lives of virtue, and this same love will lead us to our destiny…the telos; a healed universe!

Tell me your ideas or thoughts based on the ideas discussed above. Also, if I become aware of audio from this lecture I will post a link as an update…

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  • I know it seems strange, but the first paragraph of this post had me extremely excited. Meeting a man like Tom Wright had to be an amazing experience. By the way, The Meaning of Jesus is a fantastic book!

  • I was fortunate enough to get a good audio of the event, which I’ll be posting on my site tomorrow morning, for anyone who might be interested.

    Grace and Peace,
    Raffi Shahinian
    Parables of a Prodigal World

  • Scott, it was brief but fun.

    Raffi, thanks for the inside info on the audio! When you get the link up, i will crosspost to your site. Thanks for coming by…

  • Sounds like an excellent conference Kurt, and I really enjoyed reading through the summary you wrote here.

    Wright is a major influence for me as well, and actually I got to hear him speak as well, a couple years ago at Calvin Seminaries January series, so I understand the excitement.

    He ended up sitting right in front of me, I shook his hand, he signed my copy of “Paul in Fresh Perspective”, and I was more or less the theology student equivalent of a Trekkie for a few minutes there lol.

    The lecture he gave there was I think three hours on the Sacraments, and was brilliant, not that I expected anything less. N.T. Wright page has the audio if you’re interested.

  • N.T. Wright has been profoundly influential in changing the way I look at mission and eschatology– his writings and lectures took me from “I’ll fly away, oh glory” to anticipating a new heaven and a new earth where God sets things to rights. It has given me a renewed sense of purpose in what the church is supposed to be doing. His remarks here on virtue really strike me as a crucial component of this– I’m definitely going to listen to the audio of his talk. Thanks!