A Scandal, a Folly, and the Power of God
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
Scripture: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 21:13-22
March 15, 2009
“But we preach Christ crucified, a scandal to Jews and a folly to Greeks, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the Power of God and the Wisdom of God.” — I Corinthians 1:23-24
This is Paul’s faith in a nutshell, and full of his characteristic irony. He is ironic not because he likes to seem worldly-wise as we do in our cautious culture where nobody smart risks a simple affirmation, but because the faith of Christ crucified is in fact ironic at the point where it touches this world. It is the weakness that is strong and the folly that is wise, thus it challenges all the lazy surfaces on which we glide from one fatuous assumption to the next, in a fog of myth and mendacity. We are the very substance of the superficial, while Paul is perhaps the most deeply serious man in history.
He received this gift of insight when God allowed him to see with the eyes of his soul the Resurrected Jesus, and to hear this Jesus command him, the super-Jew, to preach Christ to the Gentiles. In the light of the Resurrection he was able to understand the Cross-, and to speak clearly and without shame of the violence of the human race that it reveals. Unless there is a cure one cannot speak frankly of the disease, unless there is Resurrection one should not speak of death. Because Paul knows that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ, he can see the Cross for what it is, the revelation of our human hostility to, our rivalry with, and our deadly violence against the source of our life and significance, God. We are the species that tortured to death our creator and the source of our life in the person of his only son, the young Jew Jesus, thereby, punishing our creator (for having created us?) and opting decisively for death. If you accepted that facet of the Cross’s revelation (and it isn’t the only one- there is also the grace of God who suffers violence and does not avenge himself) without the fact of the Resurrection, in all its forgiving, life-bestowing fullness, you would plunge into despair and spend you life dog-paddling in ponds of chilly nihilism until you wash up in some soggy spiritual swamp somewhere… or nowhere.
For the reason of such a gloomy prospect this culture without faith in God does not wish to know its own true, violent self. Rather we pretend that we are good and gentle creatures, to whom love comes naturally, and from whom the nourishing milk of kindness flows without effort. This is of course nonsense;(perhaps I’m just trying to show that I can be ironic with the best, or is it sarcastic?}
So Paul confronts culture with the Cross and insists that it is true power and true wisdom.
He is a man of two cultures, Judaism that lives in the realm of religious power, the arena of the miraculous, and Hellenism that occupies the realm of rational power, of philosophy and natural science. Let us imagine briefly how the Cross challenges and confounds each of these human possibilities.
We see clearly these days that religious power is simply the myth and ritual of violence in its affirmative mode, and mostly superstition and self-deception in its precative modes. Religion is clearly not an option for a moral person. It is well said that instead of making bad people good, religion makes good people bad. How many decent, kindly people support cruel and punitive policies and attitudes because of what their religion teaches them and religious communities make of them?
With equal fatuity so-called philosophy pretends to be a wisdom when for the most part it is a series of intellectual games, each operating according to its own agreed rules and proving what it already assumes. Natural science, the other facet of Hellenistic wisdom, achieves mostly modest advances in knowledge whose importance is usually exaggerated, while it presses not ahead but backwards to the elemental stage trying to reduce all existing things to the five fundamental forces of physics, humanity toiling to disassemble itself and return to total triviality. Nevertheless, it must be said that the natural sciences have been prophetic in producing the most revealing cultural artifact of all, thermonuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the pressing possibility of mega-death, and if nuclear winter does not trump it, there is always global warming as technology’s contribution to the consummation of the culture of death. There can be no doubt that the “bottom line” of culture is death, with a whimper, or a bang, or a sigh.
The Cross of Jesus tells us this in one stark image; what Shakespeare in a different context calls “the excellent foppery of the world (King Lear 1.2 121ff).” This (Edmund’s) speech in Lear pokes fun at the superstition of astrology, especially, our unwillingness to take responsibility for our own actions by foisting it on the stars or other defenseless non-agents. Astrology is still alive and well, and not just in cheap newspapers. The cross is the one antidote to the “astrology” attitude and its opposite, that on the one hand substitutes superstition for faith, and on the other hand substitutes despair, which takes the form of frivolous philosophy, megalomaniac religion, ludicrously over praised natural science (which President Obama now tells us is to be its own moral guide! Just shows that even clever men can be foolish).
Culture simply cannot bring life if it is guided only by the quest for power and the quest for knowledge – which is how I would translate “Signs” and “Wisdom” respectively. “Signs” are strictly speaking miracles, but by extension the term covers politics and religion and finance the “spiritual” modes of power that operate by conspiracies of the mob. “Wisdom” covers philosophy in its technical and practical sense, the whole realm of self-originating reason, and the realm of technology. So Paul is indeed, setting up the Cross as superior to all of culture as a teacher of the truth and a guide to life. Those other ways lead through fatuity to death, this way leads through humility to life.
So how does the Cross work for us? Briefly and simply it reveals what our problem is, mutual violence, revenge and self-hatred. The one who receives this revelation is thereby enabled to hear the message of the Resurrection: that the love that gave you life in the first place will renew the gift if you forgive each other and thereby stop vengeance, and instead of killing our brother we shall love him.
The massage of the Cross is in the end a stark “either-or” either the love we receive renewed from God in the act of our forgiving and foreswearing vengeance, or death; forgiveness or death, love or death. So I say to you and to myself: Be serious! Don’t pretend you do not understand. Pay attention! Here in this dying Jew is all the saving power of God, by comparison with which all the showy superficialities of culture are simply distractions, fatal distractions.