Tom Wright, the leading New Testament scholar, has warned that modern secularism could lead the world into a 'dark place' similar to that of pre-Christian times.
In a wide-ranging interview with The Tablet, the celebrated St Andrew's professor also said that the 'contemporary post-enlightenment secular world' has been 'living on borrowed time' and that now 'the worm has turned'.
And he said that 'we in the western Churches have since the 18th century colluded with the Enlightenment idea which says that religion is a purely private matter, and that it has has nothing to do with public life'.
In the interview with Ruth Gledhill in this week's new issue of the Catholic weekly, Wright recalls when Pope Benedict XVI warned 10 years ago that, in Wright's words, 'the modern human rights movement is rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and if you cut off those roots the fruits will go bad, and society will collapse into a cacophony of competing special interest arguments'. Wright adds: 'And that's exactly the point we've reached now.'
He goes on: 'We lack a clear idea of what a modern civil society ought to look like. And that's dangerous. Europe has torn itself apart twice in the past hundred years...I don't think we can say that secularism is the great gospel that is necessarily going to triumph. On the contrary, it seems to me that secularism, if you're not careful, leads to a pretty dark place. It's the same dark place that much ancient philosophy was in before the arrival of Christianity.'
Wright continues: 'And, as Benedict pointed out, we have been living on borrowed time, feasting on the fruits of other people's labour. But the worm has turned. Now the people who we have exploited and ignored are – quite literally –being washed up on our shores. It is becoming clear that our freedoms and our sophisticated modern comforts have been purchased at a terrible cost for people in many other parts of the world.'
Elsewhere, the theologian, also known as N T Wright, is dismissive of the idea that the so-called 'Arab Spring' would bring about liberal democracy in the Middle East, saying: 'The last seven years have shown that that's simply not how things work. Life is more complicated than that.'
Wright, who has just produced a new biography of the Apostle Paul, says: 'I think if we said to Paul now, looking back in retrospect, how did you turn the world upside down, he would instantly say, it wasn't me, it was Jesus who did it. What Paul is doing is making it happen, making it work.'
He continues: 'When Paul talked about Jesus as Lord, people's lives changed. It is too easy to forget how much was changed for the better. I studied ancient history before I studied theology. And the ancient Roman world was a pretty brutal place.'
Asked by Gledhill if the church of today is having a problem finding its voice, he says: 'I think the church has always had a problem finding its voice. But again and again through history, it's been remarkable how – from a Christian point of view – God has raised up people to speak new words. Think of Pope Francis. Nobody saw that coming. Think of Mother Teresa. Nobody saw that coming.'
And asked about women's ordination, which he favours, he floats the idea of female priests in the Catholic Church. 'I ordained a lot of women when I was bishop of Durham. And I was in favour of women bishops, which has now happened,' he says. 'Many Roman Catholic friends have said to me, good on you, go for it; we are hoping we will do that one day. I know what the official Catholic line is of course. But I think there are lots of people in Catholic circles who are saying, actually we should do this – it is just a question of figuring out how.'
Wright also reveals why he does not take part in social media. 'I don't have the time, and, anyway, I am a bit suspicious of putting stuff out there and not quite knowing what's happening to it,' he says. 'What does the trick in communicating in Christian terms, is meeting a real human being, who can look at you and pray with you and hug you and smile with you and weep with you.'
'Paul: A Biography' is published by SPCK at £19.99. Tom Wright offers online courses on St Paul, Acts, Romans and more at http://ntwrightonline.org/courses/