Foolish in the World

Photo: Joachim Riegel, Unsplash

“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.

  1. Oakley, Mark. The Collage of God. London: Dartman, Longman and Todd, 2001, p. 62.
  2. 1 Cor 1:27-29, NRSV.
  3. Oakley, Mark. p. 57.
  4. Wilbur, Richard. “An Event” in The Poems of Richard Wilbur. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publ., Loc 890
  5. Oakley, Mark, p. xvii.

Leap and Stutter

1CompassionHeart:nick-fewings-532590

Piety makes for awkwardness, and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters. — Richard Wilbur, “Grace”

If there is one credo that I carry with me every day, it is that all that matters most is a matter of communication. Love, faith, hope, despair, being with someone and being apart from that one, speaking in all honesty and listening to others with a fierceness that defies obstacles—all of this is communication. And communication is, in its deepest and most profound sense, more than simply a transmission of information. It is communion.

One of the maxims of a psychology of communication is that we cannot not communicate. We’re always on, so to speak; we’re always sending out signals and we’re always receiving them, too, with varying degrees of awareness. Communication 101 says that we are not solely senders or receivers, but simultaneously senders and receivers. The warden in Cool Hand Luke was wrong when he sneeringly drawled at his prisoner (played by Paul Newman) that “What we have here is a failure to communicate.” No, there was communication between prisoner and warden; it’s just that one side of the dialectic refused to recognize as communication anything but abject subservience.

Communication and communion are based on trust—we don’t get anywhere without it. And the companions of trust are hunger, wonder, and yearning. Trust is first a verb; later, it can be a noun. The motion of someone who trusts is forward, out of oneself, a thrust outward from inside oneself. It can be a response in kind, it’s true, but the sort of trust that moves mountains and melts cold hearts is that which leaps. Trust is faith’s body.

In matters of the heart and in faith, we’re all amateurs, those who do it for the love of it. When we try to communicate with others across our self-imposed boundaries we are asking, in trust, for a certain latitude as we step into this new country. Like any traveler to a new place, we are all strangers, self-conscious and prone to mistakes, many of which we do not know we’ve committed until after they land in our midst, showering sparks and making the dogs bark. For communication to become communion, to go beyond information to intimacy, we need to recognize in the other the yearning to be understood. It sometimes gets disguised as bravado, an insouciance that covers insecurity.

With a desire to do right, to live right, to be right, we may cling to the old norms and practices, less out of understanding than to cover some weakness we might have overlooked. Trusting and leaping may seem almost ludicrous; we prefer to hedge our bets with the accustomed answers about the location of God (up and out there), our nature (inherently and seismically corrupt), and the authority of the church (incontestably the voice of God).

“Piety makes for awkwardness,” says the poet, Richard Wilbur,

“and where

Balance is not urgent, what one utters

May be puzzled and perfect, and we respect

Some scholars’ stutters.”

In grace, as in communion, we puzzle out words to each other that have the ring of authenticity, whatever they may lack in polish and certitude. Just as we might write to see what we think, so we may speak to learn what to say. “Where balance is not urgent” nobody will laugh if we fall, and though our piety may be awkward it becomes graceful as we practice it. “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience,” Emerson mused. “We paint those qualities which we do not possess.”

As originators of messages our continued communication is only as clear as our ability to interpret and adapt to those signals which we receive in response from others. What we have given to others with sincerity may be returned in like manner, but there are no guarantees. Communion is a dance of memory trusting chance, and we dare not look at our feet.

“Now we aid and influence other people simply by being who we are,” says Richard Rohr, in Falling Upward. “Human integrity probably influences and moves people from potency to action more than anything else.” It may be that our most effective communication is simply when we are with each other, body and soul. There is a silence that is fertile, on the cusp of a feeling so deep that a word of comfort spoken will open the wellsprings of weeping.

How does this desire arise for communion? Gerard Manley Hopkins calls it the “dearest freshness deep down things,” as good a description of the Holy Spirit as I have found. “How can human beings speak of God?” wonders Barbara Brown Taylor in The Seeds of Heaven. “We do not do it well, that is for sure, but because we must somehow try, we tend to talk about what we cannot say in terms of what we can—that is, we tend to describe holy things by talking about ordinary things.” Metaphors become windows, a way to see through our walls to what lies beyond.

“So much talk of God has been punitive in focus over the centuries,” writes Mark Oakley in The Splash of Words, “a God out to take revenge on human depravity. It is surely time to start talking again, as the scriptures do, of a restorative God who takes it upon himself to uphold human dignity and asks us to join him. Although we have often begun with idolatry and ended in violence, for the Christian all must start in wonder and end in humility.”

Humility is essential because everything we can say about God is incomplete, bounded, simplistic. Ludwig Wittgenstein understood the limits of language better than most preachers: ‘That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent’, he said. We don’t know how to pray, said St. Paul, but the Spirit prays for us in language that is beyond the spectrum of our understanding.

The intimate secret about God that has been known from all eternity is that Christ is the very Word of God, the ultimate metaphor for that whereof we cannot speak. For us, Christ is constantly being remade in the images we need in our time. Unlike us, he is capable of adapting for us so that he may meet us where we are. If we find ourselves on the road to Emmaus, brokenhearted and blinded by tears, he may appear alongside us, the eternal promise of the Word made flesh in space and time. Only in his disappearance do we finally see.

Thomas Merton says, “I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Richard Wilbur, with a cheerful wink, assures us that:

“To be unchecked

Is needful then: choose, challenge,

jump, poise, run…

Nevertheless, the praiseful, graceful soldier

Shouldn’t be fired by his gun.”

So, let us “come boldly before the throne of God,” and in that spirit hold our communion with each other through trust. A certain exuberance is called for in the presence of corrosive cynicism. In a time of lies we hunger for the truths that set us free.

Photo: Nick Fewings, Unsplash.com