The Irony of Faith
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
March 19, 2006
Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22
“For the word of the Cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” –1 Corinthians 1:18
These days “irony” is a much used and little understood word. My dictionary says that irony is “The use of words to express something different and often opposite to their literal meaning,” or “An expression or utterance marked by a deliberate contrast between apparent and intended meaning.” It is ironic when a marine trudging through a Pacific swamp says to his buddies, “What a lovely walk this is,” or the Apostle Paul says of the agony of the dying Jesus that it is the power of God and the wisdom of God. The Cross of Christ is to the ordinary observer clearly not a moment of power but of tragic weakness and utter loss, which is nevertheless the power of God and the wisdom of God. The ordinary observers, whom Paul calls “those who are perishing,” miss the irony, see only what’s apparent on surface, while “those who are being saved” see the ironic reversal of meaning, the non-apparent depth of the language where divine power and wisdom is at work.
Paul does not intend his irony as a joke, as my imaginary marine on patrol does; he is seriously telling us that there is a difference between the apparent meaning (weakness and folly) and its intended meaning (power and wisdom) of the preaching of the Cross. In any case, the irony is not Paul’s it is God’s. It is God who uses weakness and folly to exercise power and wisdom. Thus the Cross is what we in the trade call the hermeneutical key to God’s action and identity in the world. It says, “Look for God first in the cruciform moments of life, not in the moments of human pomp, circumstance and success.” This is a very condensed statement of a profound matter to which we should return at length. Let it be sufficient for now to note that what I have just said is not that God is only present in our moments of crucifixion, but rather that God is more easily seen in the darkness of suffering than in the light of human pride and success, and that because human pride and pomp is a fog of vanity that hides most of the futility of it all and pretends that this is the really real, when it is mostly smoke and mirrors. Thus the Cross points us to an attitude of ironic detachment from all that the world celebrates as great.
There is another use of irony in the intellectual world today that is profoundly important. Skepticism has triumphed and we have given up on the idea of truth. It is as if we all now know that with reference to all human claims for the emperor has no clothes on. We therefore take a stance of ironic detachment from all statements and claims. This may alarm some but to the Christian it is a welcome development, as I shall explain later. Irony in the realm of discourse describes an attitude to communication that is healthily skeptical.
Take as an example the instance of the always spinning communication of the present Federal Administration, which is appropriate on this third anniversary of the Iraq war. Some of us know that their rhetoric is utterly mendacious, but the majority of the American people believe it is the truth. They chose to believe and re-elect this administration in the cold light of day. Why? There are several reasons, but rather than explain let me refer you to the phenomenon of the Supermarket Tabloids.
They illustrate how the public and the media collude in a truth that is untrue. This collusion is an extreme form of irony. “Man gives birth to pig,” “Woman gang raped by extra terrestrials,” are the headlines. Do you think anyone who reads that really believes it, or do you think they are playing an ironic game in which the apparent meaning is not the intended meaning. Clearly the apparent meaning is impossible and not even the products of our pathetic schools can be expected to believe this literally. What then might that intended meaning be? I imagine that the publishers are saying, “Ha, Ha, give us your money you dopes and we will fill your empty hours and vacuous minds with excitement;” and the readers are saying, “Tell us anything that will divert us from the reality we find too empty and meaningless to bear.” Nevertheless, we cannot miss the note of irony; those involved know what they are doing, the game they are playing, and in any case it is the only semi-contact with the world that they have. The first Tabloid I ever bought was when Clinton was running for the first time and the headline was “Extra terrestrials advise Clinton on Foreign Policy.” There were photographs of these cosmic counselors. Today we know for sure that ET is advising the administration, since our foreign policy is as weird and spacey as it could possibly be.
The larger point here is that our leaders believe, what all our Tabloid writers, all our advertising and public relations agencies believe, namely, that the truth is what you can get people to accept as truth, that is, that the world is being recreated all the time in a collusion between the average American and the communications powers, which include the church. The world created by most religions is more dangerously unhealthy than the world of the Tabloids and the Administration, but that’s another sermon. So our conclusion: The suspicion of what used to be called the Truth is warranted because it is now clearer than ever that truth is a product of the collusion of power and wishful thinking. Long ago a historian of the church said that orthodoxy is heresy with a victorious army.
This situation I have just described is a profoundly Christian one, and that is not irony, it is paradox. I mean, I am not using words to say the opposite of what they apparently mean, but rather saying something surprising and unexpected; not irony but paradox. I mean what I say that however contrary to expectation it might be; this turn to irony is a Christian turn. This because the Cross, as a ghastly instance of weakness and folly to the one who has no ironic detachment speaks to the one who is ironically detached of the divine power and wisdom.
Paul tells us that religion wants miracles and secular reason wants wisdom or cunning, while we offer non-miracle (he could not even come down from the Cross to prove his identity) and foolishness. Thus we stand ironically detached from the posturings of religious groups and wise and sententious advisors. We treat them as if they were Tabloid headlines. “Man gives birth to pig,” “Send money to my radio ministry and you will be healed,” “Things are going well for the US in Iraq,” Tax cuts for those who earn more than $400000 per annum will help the poor,” ‘Woman banged by gang of ET’s in her bathroom.” This is the message of miracle and worldly wisdom that Paul contrasts with the preaching of the Cross. Believe me, it is not more profound than that; I am not exaggerating. The Tabloid headline and the pronouncements of the politicians, the preachings of most pulpits and the analyses of pompous journals are all in the same quadrant as the Tabloids. They are efforts by worldly powers to get us to believe them and thus buy into their dreams and nightmares.
Against all this Paul sets the nonsense (irony!) of the Cross of Christ. If the Cross is the truth then the truth of religion and politics is foolishness; if the Cross is power then the power of business is all Enron and the power of the military is all the Napoleonic retreat from Russia, or the shame of the US in Iraq and Vietnam, catastrophes of the principalities and powers of this world that deceive us into the reverse irony of seeing all the weak and foolish things as strong and wise, and the crucified Jesus as foolish and weak.
Well today in much intellectual discourse we use irony to mean that we know that what we say has no solid ground in reality and our claims about this or that could be different, and that several different accounts of the same thing can be equally plausible, and that only the power to shut all other mouths can establish the immutable truth of what we claim. This insight has always been the position of Pauline Christianity; the climactic act of the power and wisdom of this world was to crucify its own creator, which is worse than shooting yourself in the foot; more like blowing out your brains, such as they might have been.
Why is this conquest of truth so profoundly Christian? Why does it not cause us dismay as it reduces our doctrinal claims and moral laws to just so many competing opinions doggy paddling in the ocean of ideas where all these claims, good and bad, paddle together jostling to keep afloat. Skepticism is our joy because the Cross is our truth, and the Cross is the red line struck through all claims to truth that are not claims of faith. What the latest extreme skepticism in western discourse shows is that claims to truth have always been claims of faith and not of fact, in the neutral sense of fact that used to be mistakenly accepted.
Last night before I sat down late to write this sermon I saw the movie, “The Thin Red Line,” based on the novel by a man named Jones. It narrates the war on the island of Guadalcanal during WW2 horribly, lovingly, and questioningly. War is without a doubt the thin red line struck through all claims to truth in this world. This sheer horror and degradation chosen freely by us human beings shows conclusively that there is no truth in us, unless it is the truth of untruth and the love of disorder and destruction. The Cross shows us that we Christians at least know that truth, the truth about our violent lies, and more than that we know that there is no truth in religion, there is only faith in Christ. Those who trust in miracles and smart schemes are in the Apostles’ language “perishing” or “disintegrating and falling apart” while we who believe the message of the Cross are being saved.
What might it be like to be in the process of being saved? At least this: to see the murdered Jesus as the one whose death reveals the truth about the human world, as a slaughterhouse of lies, and offers the power and wisdom of God to those who believe this. This power is the really real, this wisdom is the truly true, and it is beyond the reach of any human capacity, religious, intellectual, or political. It is, however, the free gift of God to those who believe the message of the Cross. Jesus Christ died to reveal me to myself and to reveal God to me. Believe that self, believe that God, act on it and you will, beyond all the snuffling and jostling of human arguments and the chest thumping of human power, receive the power and wisdom of eternity, the life of God himself.