Suggestive echoes

Scallop, by Maggi Hambling. Click for full picture.

“I hear those voices that will not be drowned”

– from Peter Grimes, as quoted on Maggi Hambling’s Scallop on Aldeburgh beach

I’m trying a new strapline out for size: “The reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have”. It comes from the first chapter of N.T. Wright’s book Simply Christian, which I’ve just started reading.

In the introduction to the book, Wright describes “four areas of contemporary concern” that form the basis for his argument in Part I of his book: “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty”.

He doesn’t present any of these as the basis for “proving” the existence of God. Instead, he suggests that:

Each of these … points beyond itself, though without in itself enabling us to deduce very much about the world except that it is a strange and exciting place. We hear each theme, I suggest, in the way that we might catch the echo of a voice, the elusive but evocative sound of someone speaking just round the corner, out of sight.

I find this a far more attractive, compelling and persuasive approach than lining up supposed “proofs” of the existence of God. We cannot prove the existence of God in a way that is likely to persuade a sceptic. We can, however, point to these “suggestive echoes” of a reality that cannot be accounted for entirely in scientific, naturalistic terms.

It may well be that scientific descriptions are developed in the future that show how our sense of justice or of beauty, or our reasoning abilities and consciousness, are linked to identifiable physical structures or processes within the brain. My personal hunch is that this will happen. But this will not remove our sense that justice, beauty, truth, goodness and so on really exist and are not “merely” the outworking of essentially impersonal and purposeless physical processes.

In the opening chapter of his book, “Putting the world to rights”, Wright argues that our sense of justice does arise from a deeper reality, and is not merely a convenient evolutionary illusion. He describes our sense of justice as “the echo of a voice”, “the dream of a world (and all of us within it) put to rights”.

This echo may be an illusion, he concedes. Or it may point to a different world entirely, one we will only enter when this world has gone entirely to wrack and ruin. Or (and guess which one the good bishop favours) it may be that:

the reason we have a sense of a memory of the echo of a voice, is that there is someone there speaking to us, whispering in our inner ear, someone who cares very much about this present world, and our present selves, and who has made us, and it, for a purpose which will indeed involve justice, things being put to rights, ourselves being put to rights, the world being rescued at last.

He argues that this is the position taken, albeit in differing ways, by the three great (and interrelated) religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

There are many differences between these three traditions, but at this point they are agreed, over and against other philosophies and religions: the reason we think we have heard a voice is because we have. It wasn’t a dream. There are ways of getting in touch with it and making it happen. In real life. In our real lives.

This entry was posted in Blogging about Blogging and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Suggestive echoes

  1. Chris Oldfield says:


    Though I’ve not yet read Simply Christian (though I thoroughly enjoyed listening to his address at Calvin College), this has given me even more reason to read it. I’ve thought for a while that all sorts – be it an evangelical paradigm for scripture (a la Carson/Vanhoozer/Goldsworthy/Jensen/), or an atheist refusal to the idea a God who speaks, or post-structuralist doubts about texts and language (Roland BArthes, Death of the Author), the difference is whether we start our worldview with

    – a god who speaks
    – words that we hear

    I think this can go a long way, and I suspect NT Wright would develop this. Interesting.

    Loving your blog/site by the way. Good to hear sensible views on science within an orthodox evangelical framework. I attended a CiS conference last year at the Faraday Institute and was surprised at quite how often unorthodox theology was being put up with just as long as no silly unorthodox “science” was coming in. Particularly in relation to God’s sovereignty. Anyway, that’s utterly off point. Wanted to say how enjoyable your blog was, and please keep going!

  2. John H says:

    Chris: thanks for your comment.

    You may find this post from a couple of years ago interesting – it looks at Peter Jensen’s argument in The Revelation of God that the gospel provides a means to restore our faith in language itself: that God’s use of promises shows how language can be rehabilitated in our culture as something “which may be trusted, and through which genuine human relationships may come”.

  3. CPA says:

    I don’t have any problem with N.T. Wright’s point, but he’s wrong to think that it is not something devout Hindus or Greco-Roman Platonists could enthusiastically agree with. What he’s talking about is theism, which is wider than just the three religions claiming Abraham.

    And even non-theistic religions, like Buddhism or Confucianism can recognize in different ways “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty”.

    As I tried to say here the kind of reductionist Darwinism represented by, say, Dawkins, is a really extreme example. Atheists like to claim Buddhism or Confucianism for their camp, thus making theism an option embraced by maybe half of humanity, with the other half being more or less materialist and atheist. I think that this is wrong, however, and the idea of the world being “unplanned, random” etc. as being a distinctly minority phenomenon.

  4. John H says:

    CPA: you’re right that “the longing for justice, the quest for spirituality, the hunger for relationships, and the delight in beauty” are not limited to the “Abrahamic” faiths.

    I think, though, that NTW would argue that most other religions would tend more towards the second of the two positions he describes: that the human longing for justice points towards a resolution that lies outside or beyond the material world, rather than within a redeemed material world.

  5. CPA says:

    OK, so there’s a two-step process: first some aspirations and convictions about meaning common to all non-reductionist systems (which is what we’re especially cursed with today), then ones based on redeeming (not transcending) the material world.

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Mere Christianity: “fine but leaky”?

  7. Pingback: alastair.adversaria » Links

  8. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » A dyed-in-the-wool faith-head writes…

  9. jason says:

    European religious missionary movements are like a snake slithering through the earth destroying culture and people of colour. False leaders, children of the worst sinners, time is on your tail. The children of Kemet, Ethiopia, and the true Isralites are awakening to these acts of sin. There is no hiding place from the mother and father of creation.

  10. jason says:

    All these so called faiths are false interpretations of Nile Valley culture and folklore. Religion is a primary tool of slavery and oppression. Most indigeniuos people have always had better than religion..a true spirituality manifested in a righteous and natural lifestyle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s