“We are not purveyors of ready-made meaning. This commitment to truth, as pilgrims rather than arrivals, is what allows us to confess that as Christians . . . we are first and foremost explorers rather than illustrators.”1
One of Christianity’s hidden strengths is that it flourished when it was weakest. That is to say, when it was in the minority, culturally and religiously speaking. From the beginning the apostles, reflecting what Jesus directed, cared for the poor among them and those who had no standing in the culture—women and children. They opened their arms to those from outside their group, they pooled their resources and provided for themselves and for others. They were mocked or ignored: they persevered. They were persecuted, harassed and slain: they went underground and thrived. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” wrote the Christian apologist, Tertullian, in the year 197 CE.
The strength-in-weakness theme takes an even more prominent place with the Apostle Paul. He spends years and travels thousands of miles to proclaim “Christ crucified”, a message that is anathema to the Jews and ridiculous to the Greeks and Romans. Paul sees the crucifixion as part of a story that begins with God humbling himself to be poured into human form and ends with Jesus dying on the cross. He is acutely aware that claiming God incarnate was a prisoner executed by Rome as a seditious threat defies logic. It is, in fact, horrifyingly offensive.
The Crucifixion is central to Christianity. The heart of redemption theories, it is emphasized in creeds and liturgies—it is Christianity for most people. Yet, we probably cannot grasp just how humiliating a death it was, to say nothing of how deliberately cruel the physical torture.
The fact that Jesus was crucified outside the walls of the city where people dumped their garbage, where slow-burning fires were constant, and where he was visible to any who wanted to watch him die in torment, testifies of the brute indifference of the religious and political establishments.
I do not fully understand the connection between the crucifixion then and my salvation now. Faith seeks understanding, but is not reliant upon it. Among the many atonement theories put forward through the centuries, the Christus Victor one appeals to me the most. Jesus, fully human and one with God, overcomes the powers that be, both human and supernatural, to ransom us by his own death. In a world of terrorism, hostage-taking, and capricious violence, Jesus’ willingness to die in my place rings true to life for me, astonishing though it is. There is more going on in the seen and unseen realms, than we can fully account for through reason and observation. Faith claims a place next to the risen Christ.
Paul makes a claim that reverses and turns upside down the usual relations between power and people. He says:
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”2
How would we interpret this today? Christianity has traveled far since those days. It’s still the most populous religion in the world, despite declining allegiance in the Western world. It has formed the cultural bedrock of most of the industrial nations. Many of its institutions still wield power in the secular realm. In America, Christians of the evangelical variety even have an in-house advocate with a direct influence on the President and his political agenda. But there’s little inclination among many of them to identify with “what is low and despised in the world” nor are the strong shamed by those who are weak.
Does this mean that God’s ways are ineffectual? Are Paul’s words bound to a particular context in time and space? Are these words meant to stand for all time or is their time over and done—an artifact from an era of more “primitive godliness”?
I cannot know for certain, and far be it for me to speak for God. But what Paul claimed in all sincerity, and with first-hand knowledge, is that “God chose.” Those words are not constrained by time or place or political affiliation or poll results or even interest. God chooses people through all ages and places, regardless of their standing or talent or power, to accomplish God’s purposes. In the long view, God’s plans and purposes have a way of coming to fruition as they touch down here in one place, there in another. Amidst all the variables within an open system of free choices, we may refuse God or remain indifferent or find our true self in God. We may live to be part of what “God chose.” God makes the opportunity available and leaves the choice to us.
A friend asked me what I made of this sentence from Mark Oakley’s book, The Collage of God, in a chapter on Truthfulness: “All speech about the Holy One is costly for it demands penitence of us at each and every turn.”3 My friend wondered what that cost might be.
We try to make sense of our world and world-making is part of what we do to make sense. We build our worlds—the plural is important—through our imagination, and language is the tool we use. The words we use are open to multiple interpretations, they change over time, and must be constantly reviewed. Language is fluid, dynamic, more a river than a lake. Our language about God is a snapshot of where we are in that stream.
Could it be the cost is our willingness to speak truthfully of our own experience with God, to speak honestly and with humility, of joy and despair in our days of light and our dark nights of the soul?
“It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.”4
I’ve long since stepped away from being a professional apologist for Christianity. While my active relation to God is intensely personal to me, I respond as fully as I am able when given opportunity. I have had peak experiences—not many—that opened me to wonder and awe. I have attributed that wonder and awe, as R & B artist Keb Mo sings, to “God trying to get my attention.”
Like many others, I see the hiddenness of God as the way we apprehend God in this time in this world. God always seems to be just out of our grasp—and that’s all to the good, for when we have God in our grasp we turn gold into lead.
One thing becomes clearer to me in these days: faith is not a school of thought nor a logical exercise. It runs in tandem with our reason, but faith transcends “our little systems” as Tennyson said. Oakley says, “Faith is not a proud self-consistent philosophy. It involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis. It is therefore a living response to the grace of God as revealed in fragile lives. It resembles a collage.”5
There was once a bush burning in the desert, a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day, a whispered voice in the midst of a desert sandstorm, a dark wrestler in the night, a voice from heaven, and a cloud that enveloped Jesus and three men on a mountain top. Those who wrote these stories perceived the divine in the finite, the Subject in the object. Fools for God, they wrote what they saw while attuned to the Eternal Present within the temporal stream.
We are people of the Word. Language is my Mount of Transfiguration, where I meet my burning bush and the quiet voice in the midst of my storms.