In my first post, Tools for the Task part 1, I discussed N.T. Wright overarching goal or his life work. N.T. Wright has embarked upon what he calls the Third Quest. Wright’s quest is to, in light of the abundance of extra-biblical evidence concerning 1st Century Judaism, develop a historically grounded hypothesis about how Christianity developed. A key quote for N.T. Wright, having reflected upon the first two quests for the historical Jesus is “when all was said and done, they dug a well and found at the bottom a reflection of themselves.” Wright is saying that these theologians used methodologies which were not critical enough and their conclusions ended up being a reflection of their own preconceived worldviews. What happened in the 20th century quests for the historical Jesus is that the theologians did not utilize the proper historian’s “Tools for the Task”. The result is the pop culture misconceptions about Christian origins which I wrote about in Part 1 of this series.
The First Tool for the Task – Critical Realism
In our family, I often ask my older children the question, “What is the worst thing a person can be?” The answer they usually give is, “A compliant thinker”. Next I ask, “And what is the opposite of a compliant thinker?” The answer they give, “A critical thinker”. In my mind, one of the great enemies in the 21st Century is anti-intellectualism. To use our intellect and to be lifelong learners, we must understand what it means to be a critical thinker.
A critical thinker is a person who is constantly pursuing a revision of two perspectives: first, the perspective given to us and, second, our own perspective. In other words, a true critical thinker is constantly aware of how his own preconceptions and the preconceptions of others undermine learning and getting the process of getting closer and closer to reality. This critical approach is the first tool for the task which is the critical side of critical realism. To be critical means being constantly aware of the role that perspective plays in the telling and listening of any and all truth claims. Being critical is in many ways the foundation of the scientific method. We are constantly seeking to re-evaluate and therefore improve our understanding of reality by questioning and challenging both our own understanding and the accepted wisdom. We ask ourselves, “Is there another perspective which can help me see things clearly? What is the tellers stance? What is my stance?" We are always aware that, as subjects, both the teller of the truth and the hearer of the truth participates in the knowing process. Therefore, as learners we must use certain tools to be enable us to be skillful critics of both ourselves and the accepted wisdom in order to be active and skillful critical thinkers. To be a critical thinker, one must be both arrogant enough to question the accepted dogma and humble enough to critique one’s own preconceptions.
So that is the critical part of “Critical realism”. The next term to understand is the term "realism”. I will discuss this term in the next post. As we proceed, with other terms which N.T. Wright spends considerable time defining including, “worldview”, “theology”, “story”, “hypothesis and verification”, we will come to see how incredibly helpful these tools are to understanding both the biblical texts and the origins of Christianity.