Bishop N. T. ("Tom") Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham, is a well-known biblical scholar. He has produced works that showcase his careful work, such as Jesus and the Victory of God. He has also published books to help any Christian get into the biblical text, such as his New Testament for Everyone series.
Many Church of England bishops seem to become more outspoken on the contentious issues of the day after they retire as Diocesan or Suffragan bishops. Why are they so hesitant to speak clearly into situations where biblical thinking is needed, until such time as they have relinquished their positions of leadership? It's a good question.
Last Thursday, Bishop Tom wrote a letter to The Times, connecting clear-thinking, historically aware, theology with the current debates on transsexualism and transgender.
Sir, The articles by Clare Foges (“Gender-fluid world is muddling young minds”, July 27) and Hugo Rifkind (“Social media is making gender meaningless”, Aug 1), and the letters about children wanting to be pandas (July 29), dogs or mermaids (Aug 1), show that the confusion about gender identity is a modern and now internet-fuelled, form of the ancient philosophy of Gnosticism. The Gnostic, one who “knows”, has discovered the secret of “who I really am”, behind the deceptive outward appearance (in Rifkind’s apt phrase, the “ungainly, boring, fleshly one”). This involves denying the goodness, or even the ultimate reality, of the natural world. Nature, however, tends to strike back, with the likely victims in this case being vulnerable and impressionable youngsters who, as confused adults, will pay the price for their elders’ fashionable fantasies.
The Rt Rev Prof Tom Wright
St Mary's College, St Andrews
Note what he is, and is not saying.
He's not saying that everyone who struggles with questions of their own gender-identity has bought into the entire ancient philosophical school of Gnosticism. Neither is he saying that everyone who promotes transsexual rights has bought into the entire ancient philosophical school of Gnosticism.
What he is doing is identifying the philosophical basis behind the current current flowing through our society. Even if those who are swept along by that current are not consistent with that basis, its root is in Gnosticism. Specifically, there is a downplaying of the significance of the physical world, and the physical bodies that are a key part of who we are. Instead, there is a real me, deeper than anything physical, waiting to be discovered.
Of course, those who are struggling with these issues emotionally and personally probably do not need our philosophical thoughts. They need our prayer, our support, our sympathy and our help. To do that, we need to understand. Books like those by Andrew Walker and Vaughan Roberts will help us.
However, the fact that we need to work on getting alongside those who struggle, in this as in every area, does not negate the importance of being able to step back from our culture. We need also to ask how we've got to the point where so many people are asking questions that most people were not asking 50 years ago. We need to identify the thinking, the worldview, behind the cultural current we are all swimming in. Otherwise, we live in a blinkered world, unaware that we are being swept down the coast in a particular direction, and unwilling to critique the drift and seek to speak a better story.
That's where succinct and informed insights, like N T Wright's letter just quoted, are a great help to us all.