I know the comments in the April 2008 issue weren’t a review of my recent book Surprised by Hope , but if the more freewheeling nature of Father Richard John Neuhaus’ column in First Things is used as an excuse for serious misrepresentation, then it is time to protest.

Since I happened to be in New York shortly after receiving the issue, I contacted Neuhaus, and he graciously took me to me lunch. I told him a story I heard from a German professor, about a scholar who wrote scathing reviews of his colleagues’ work, then started going to conferences and met the people he was reviewing and discovered he really liked them”so he stopped going to conferences.

I don’t want to go that route. Most of what I say here I have now said to Neuhaus in person. I hope this give-and-take is part of what robust friendship, and indeed fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ, is all about.

Errors abound in Neuhaus’ discussion of Surprised by Hope . I do not “heap scorn” on centuries of Christian piety. I do not claim that I am the first person since the New Testament and the early Fathers to take the thoroughly orthodox view that I do; many Orthodox and Reformed theologians of the last centuries have expounded a similar view. And, despite Neuhaus’ suggestion that I think myself superior to the Angelic Doctor, it is substantially Thomas Aquinas’ view of the Resurrection to which I suggest the Church should return. The views I attempt to controvert are, in terms of overall Christian tradition, comparatively modern and mainly Western.

Second, there is no “pervasive edge of anti-Catholicism” in the book, which is in no sense a denominational polemic. Most of my main targets are in my own church. (Does that make me “anti-Anglican”?) In the quest to speak clearly about eschatology, classic Roman Catholicism is a friend and ally. Among my greatest encouragers has been Gerry O’Collins, formerly of the Gregorian University. When I taught there as a happy guest six years ago, including being introduced to the man Neuhaus calls “John Paul the Great,” I don’t think anyone would have noticed the slightest tinge of anti-Catholicism. Indeed, some of my Reformed critics regularly accuse me of being far too friendly to Rome, but that is another story. More poignantly, on my last visit to a dear but sick friend, before his untimely death, I found him reading Surprised by Hope , and he professed himself delighted. He was Kevin Dunn, my “opposite number” and occasional golf partner, the late Roman Catholic bishop of Hexham and Newcastle.

Nor was I “refuting Catholic ecclesiology” when I quoted Douglas Farrow”and neither was I ignorant of the fact that Doug, a good friend these past twenty years, has recently converted to Roman Catholicism. Doug was rightly attacking a particular form of ecclesial triumphalism, which occurs in many traditions, including some parts of Catholic tradition at some, not all, periods in history”but also occurring, particularly, in various types of liberal Protestantism. In any case, that part of the book was hardly central or particularly load-bearing for the whole.

More important, I was not attempting to claim that the present pope was coming round to my way of thinking or that I was offering him “tutelage.” I was merely noting, as anyone familiar with Cardinal Ratzinger’s work surely knows, that in his 1977 book Eschatology , he offers a remarkable account of purgatory in terms of the fire spoken of in 1 Corinthians 3 and states that this fire, which is a metaphor for the all-consuming meeting with Christ himself, “cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time.” This is a careful and explicit rejection of some aspects of what some Roman Catholics had sometimes taught in earlier times”just as he refers to “what were in part objectionable and deformed practices,” presumably meaning the sale of indulgences and the like.

In other words, Ratzinger was arguing, long before I started writing on this subject, (a) that traditional expressions of purgatory in terms of a linear, temporal progression are mistaken; (b) that at or after death the redeemed person meets with Christ in a moment of fiery judgment that burns away all the dross, and that this is what the traditional language of “purgatory” is attempting to refer to; and (c) that the Reformers were right to react against some practices that had grown up around the doctrine as some people taught and perceived it at the time. All I was doing was hailing this fine piece of work by a great Roman theologian of our day.

As for suggesting that I would do well to consult the pope’s new encyclical, Spe Salvi , and what it says about purgatory”well, Neuhaus should himself read not only what the encyclical says about purgatory (since it repeats exactly the argument Ratzinger had made thirty years earlier) but also my grateful comments on that encyclical in The Tablet last December. Do your homework, Neuhaus, I wanted to say again and again.

Why should Neuhaus imagine such unseemly and pervasive anti-Catholicism? He thinks it is because I “must justify [my] separation from the centering authority of the ancient Church.” How bizarre. Of course, I know that many people brought up in the Germanic world, presented with a stark choice between a very Protestant (and latterly existentialist) Lutheranism and a traditional Catholicism, found themselves facing that sort of question. As Neuhaus said to me over lunch recently, many good Lutherans are taught to remind themselves every day why they are not Roman Catholics.

Very few people brought up in England ever think of things in that way, since the Anglican tradition has always claimed (sometimes, granted, with more credibility than others) to embrace both Protestant and Catholic streams. It cannot be, of course, that Neuhaus is projecting his own experience on to me. He, after all, believes in objective truth, not in perspectival postmodernism. But there you are. Oh, and the “centering authority” in the most ancient church was of course Jerusalem; and then the five great sees, working together; and only gradually, and for a long time controversially, Rome. But that’s another story.

Three more refutations to go. First, we are told that the vision of new heavens and new earth, with God’s people raised from the dead to live in and reign over this wonderful new world, is “more suggestive of Joseph Smith than St Paul.” But has Neuhaus read the Book of Revelation recently? Or studied Romans 8:18-26? Or Isaiah 11? Or Ephesians 1 or Colossians 1? I suspect that one of the reasons the Mormons were able to gain credence for their very concrete eschatological expectation was that the Western Protestant church, precisely at that period, was eliminating the ancient concrete eschatological expectation.

Citing 1 Corinthians 15 as though it told against my argument is absurd. It is a cornerstone. The “beatific vision” is, of course, contained within the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 22:4. But”and this is very important”to focus on that ineffably glorious final reality could be to miss, as much of the Western tradition (both Catholic and Protestant) has done, the central point of biblical eschatology and soteriology, which is that humans are saved not for their own sake but so that, through them, the creator God can fulfill at last his salvific purposes for the whole creation. This is not unrelated to the political point to which I shall come in a moment.

Second, Neuhaus picks up my comment about the dying brigand to whom Jesus declared, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” and (a) misreads what I say, (b) accuses me of supposing that my exegesis is a fresh insight not granted to earlier writers, and (c) accuses me of being a fundamentalistic literalist. The point, as many exegetes, ancient and modern, have seen, is not that Jesus isn’t in heaven until after the resurrection. That suggests that Neuhaus has not been attending fully to the entire argument of my book (not to mention Luke’s). “Heaven” (or, in this case, “paradise”) refers to the intermediate state prior to resurrection. That is obvious from the surface of Luke’s text.

What is less obvious but well known to careful readers of Luke ancient and modern (in other words, I never supposed that this was a new idea suddenly vouchsafed to me) is that the word today is emphatic, echoing Luke 4:21 and 19:9, and provides the surprising answer to the brigand’s poignant request (“remember me when you come in your kingdom”), which clearly referred to a time far off in the future. To draw attention to all this, partly in reply to the question I am often asked about “what then happens when we die,” has nothing to do with fundamentalism or indeed literalism, and everything to do with close attention to the text.

Third, I suspect that the real fault of Surprised by Hope , in the eyes of Neuhaus and some others, is the political stance that I have taken in the last section of the book. Far be it from me to suggest that Neuhaus finds himself forced to justify his separation from the great, and deeply Catholic, tradition of serving the poor above all else. It is one thing to throw mud at me, or indeed at Archbishop Rowan Williams, for “im promptu punditry on publicly disputed questions without benefit of serious thought,” and quite another to make such a ridiculous charge stick. How many times does one have to say that to criticize some policies of some Americans is not to be anti-American, just as to criticize many policies of my own government, as I do, does not make me anti-British?

Yes, of course there are other global problems besides simply debt. I acknowledge that in the book. (It won’t do, for fairly obvious reasons, to cite Zimbabwe as a counter-example, a country where debt is not the most pressing problem. There are always particular and special local cases.) Yes, of course there is corruption and tribalism in some parts of Africa”and elsewhere. But these problems have been exacerbated precisely by the relentless profiteering of Western banks and other financial institutions.

When I mentioned Friedrich Hayek, it was because various people have insisted that I should turn to him to discover how wrongheaded it is to give aid to poor or starving people. My point about reading him in a comfortable chair in North America was that there is a vast credibility gap between those lofty right-wing ideals and the realities of squalor and poverty, especially when there is a traceable connection between the two. What about Matthew 25?

And”another piece of careless disregard for facts”Neuhaus offers as a put-down the remark that “the last time he checked, the accommodations at Durham Cathedral were very comfortable indeed.” Guess what: I don’t live at, or even near, Durham Cathedral. And I share my ancient house with my private office, with the Diocesan headquarters, and with a few large public rooms let out to offset costs. The point, anyway, was not where one lives but the difference between comfortable theorizing about economics and doing something for the poor. Imagine the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Along came an economist, but he, having read Hayek, knew that to help the man in the ditch was only a short-term solution that would encourage a culture of dependency, so he passed by on the other side.”

Moreover”to pick up another remarkably ill-informed point”priests and bishops in England at least (I can’t speak for Europe) do not have time on their hands. I have 250 parishes in my diocese, including some of the poorest and most densely populated parts of England. And we English Anglicans don’t count our parishioners by the numbers that come through the church door but by the total population, all of whom we are called to serve. Happily, that includes many Roman Catholics, who are not at all affected by the kind of polemical attitudes that Neuhaus demonstrates but are relaxed about regarding me as their bishop in some extended but still quite real sense. (When I led the intercessions at the installation of the late and dear Bishop Kevin, whom I mentioned above, he insisted that he and I walk out side by side in the closing procession.)

What saddened me about all this, and led me to seek out Neuhaus for lunch and say most of this to him face to face, is that one might have thought the days were long past when knee-jerk anti-Anglicanism would lead to this kind of misreading and misrepresentation. And I had thought that First Things was the kind of journal where prejudice, and a kind of sneering tone of voice, would be ruled out and clear, well-informed comment would prevail.

Interestingly, when people lapse into postmodern-style spin, their remarks tend to rebound on their own heads. “Impromptu punditry on publicly disputed questions without benefit of careful thought,” eh? “Rambling, convoluted reflection?” Look in the mirror, Father Neuhaus. And thanks for the lunch.

N.T. Wright
Bishop of Durham
Durham, England



RJN replies:


Bishop N.T. Wright offers an extended and spirited, if somewhat overheated, reaction to my comments in the April issue on his book Surprised by Hope . To understand all the issues involved, you might want to read again those comments and the book itself.

It would be tedious to respond to every issue the bishop raises, but a few observations might be in order. Let me say again how much I appreciate his work as a New Testament scholar and, most particularly, his book The Resurrection of the Son of God . Like Bishop Wright, I have long urged a recovery of the eschatological and cosmic dimensions of Christian hope in the Church’s teaching, preaching, and liturgical practice. On that we are in wholehearted agreement. He protests my use of the term anti-Catholic . I perhaps should have said that in this book and in other writings he exhibits a pronounced edginess about what he views as the illegitimate claim to authority by the Church’s teaching office. The invitation to walk in the procession was a commendable courtesy on the part of the Catholic bishop.

As for Our Lord’s words to the repentant thief, I am afraid the interpretation in his book does reflect an excessive literalism, if not fundamentalism, that underestimates the limitations in our understanding of matters that transcend the continuum of space and time. In his response, Bishop Wright greatly softens his book’s statements on the doctrine of purgatory and the discontinuity with that teaching in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger.

On the latter, he writes in the book that this is “a quite radical climb-down from Aquinas, Dante, Newman, and all that went in between.” That would be about six hundred years of teaching and piety that I said Wright treats mockingly. Perhaps I should have said derisively, but I don’t think I can climb down farther than that.

I confess that I missed his short essay on the encyclical Spe Salvi in The Tablet . I have now read what he describes as his “grateful comments” on the encyclical and note that, along with words of appreciation, there is this: “I looked in vain for the positive exposition of God’s kingdom which could offer a genuine vision for the renewal of life within this world as well as beyond it.” It is a pity that he did not look more carefully.

With respect to concern for the poor, Wright again makes the unseemly suggestion that his concern is greater than that of the disciples of Friedrich Hayek. I hold no brief for Hayek, but the bishop apparently missed the many issues of First Things addressing questions of global development, most recently the three-part series on Paul Collier’s much-discussed book The Bottom Billion . He tells me he has not heard of it.

Finally, my chief complaint about Surprised by Hope was and is that, in its admirable advocacy of a re covery of the eschatological, it caricatures and derides centuries of Christian thought and piety, including the thought and piety of almost all Christians today, with respect to their understanding of eternal life. A cosmic and eschatological corrective is needed, but I believe it will only be effective if presented as a development, and not as a severe rupture, in the Church’s faith and life. I, too, trust that this exchange with Bishop Wright will be understood within the context of “robust friendship and indeed fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”