The Wisdom of the World and the Foolishness of God

For Sunday January 30, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Micah 6:1–8

Psalm 15

1 Corinthians 1:18–31

Matthew 5:1–12

           The epistle for this week takes me back thirty years to my seminary days and a philosophy class in which our professor required us to memorize 1 Corinthians 1:18–31. The assignment was a clever pastoral reminder. As we were reading Plato, Aristotle, and Kant, he was reminding us that "the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… The foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength" (1 Cor. 1:18, 25).

The "holy fool" Saint Francis of Assisi.
The "holy fool" Saint Francis of Assisi.

           Our professor would have been the first to affirm the legitimacy, the pure enjoyment, and especially the Christian obligation to study the intellectual riches of the world's cultures, whether in art and architecture, law and literature, or engineering and economics. He himself had completed two PhDs by the age of thirty-five, and he rightly warned us of the horrible damage done when anti-intellectualism isolated and insulated the church from culture.

           Paul engaged the cultural elite of his day in Athens' marketplace of ideas. Once some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers who had ridiculed him as a "babbler of strange ideas" (namely, the resurrection of Jesus) brought him to the famous Areopagus. There Paul joined those who "spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas" (Acts 17). Truth is truth, whether sacred or secular, and wherever it is found — in science, poetry, film or in any other human endeavor. Gold from "Egypt" or the Areopagus is still gold, observed saint Augustine.

           Augustine also observed, though, that however much human reason is a divine gift, revelation is a divine necessity. Antigone by Sophocles provokes us to consider civil disobedience. A Mozart opera touches the depths of human emotion. Photos from the Hubble telescope fill us with cosmic awe at the power of science and the scope of the universe. But however beautiful and true are the fruits of human knowledge, and after we have embraced all that is good and noble in them, there's a Grand Narrative that transcends, transforms, and even subverts it all. It's a Story that's different in kind and not just in degree.

The "holy fool" saint Basil of Moscow.
The "holy fool" saint Basil of Moscow.

           Our professor knew what Paul teaches in the epistle for this week, that knowledge is a form of power that stratifies humanity into social meritocracies and religious hierarchies. The Corinthians confessed their faith in a crucified Christ, a story of divine weakness, foolishness and poverty, but had transformed it into an occasion for boasting about human power, wisdom, wealth and influence: "I follow Paul," "I follow Apollos," "I follow Peter," and, in the ultimate attempt at one-up-man-ship, "I follow Christ." And so the Corinthian church had fragmented over "boasting" (1:29, 31, 3:21, 4:7) about various claims of superiority.

           Paul sharply repudiates alls forms of social meritocracy and religious hierarchy. The story of a crucified Christ as the "power and wisdom of God," which story was so repulsive to Jews and ridiculous to Greeks, deconstructs our every lust for power. To make his point, Paul draws upon the personal experiences of both the Corinthians who received the gospel and the apostles who preached it to them.

           In an interesting sociological snap shot of the early church, Paul reminds the Corinthians: "Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth" (1:26). People of power and influence rightly understand the gospel as a threat to all that they care about. In Athens Paul's audience "sneered" at his message (Acts 17:32). The downward mobility of Christians became one of the main targets of their critics.

           Celsus (fl.175) combined socioeconomic snobbery with intellectual elitism to deride Christians: "In some private homes we find people who work with wool and rags, and cobblers, that is, the least cultured and most ignorant kind. Before the head of the household they dare not utter a word. But as soon as they can take the children aside or some women who are as ignorant as they are, they speak wonders. . . If you really wish to know the truth, leave your teachers and your father, and go with the women and the children to the women's quarters, or to the cobbler's shop, or to the tannery, and there you will learn the perfect life. It is thus that these Christians find those who will believe them."

Holy fool Saint Pelagia and courtesans.
Holy fool Saint Pelagia and courtesans.

           After reminding the Corinthians of their own origins, Paul appeals to his own apostolic experience (4:9–13): "For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world."

           The gospel for this week reinforces Paul's ironic contrast between the wisdom of the world and the foolishness of God. The beatitudes of Jesus create a socially subversive counter culture that repudiates pride and power. Jesus welcomes the poor and the peace makers, not the rich and the violent. His kingdom resonates with the meek, the merciful, and the mournful, not the mighty. He welcomes those who hunger for justice, not those who lust for power. Thus the way to a "blessed" life, say Jesus and Paul, is not that of human wisdom and power, but of divine weakness and foolishness.

For further reflection

* What do you think Paul means when he says that "the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power" (1 Cor. 4:20)?
* Consider the Christian tradition of "holy fools" which is based upon this Corinthian text.
* Saint Anthony (d. 356): "Here comes the time, when people will behave like madmen, and if they see anybody who does not behave like that, they will rebel against him and say: 'You are mad' — because he is not like them."
* See Stanley Hauerwas and Jean Vanier, Living Gently in a Violent World; The Prophetic Witness of Weakness (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 115pp.

Image credits: (1); (2) Phil Wyman's Square No More blog; and (3) Amma Guthrie blog.