1 Cor 1.18-31
January 29, 2017
Rev. William Bills
Some Christians invoke this text to claim that Christian doctrine and the Bible are more reliable and authoritative than science. But the gospel is counter-intuitive. God rarely conforms to human expectations.
The cross has become a familiar cultural symbol. It was originally considered a scandal. I was once approached by someone asking to use my church for a wedding. They were from a different denomination. They asked if we would take the cross down. When I asked why, they called it a murder weapon and wondered if we would hang a handgun or an electric chair at the front of the church if those had been used to execute Jesus. I replied yes, because those would have taken on the same significance had they been the preferred Roman method of state execution at the time.
God often subverts commonsense expectations and assumptions. A poor sixteen year-old unwed mother becomes the intersection of heaven and earth. God’s economy is like day laborers looking for work, or the sick, the poor and the disabled being invited to a grand banquet. God chose liberators and prophets who were inarticulate, reluctant, unwilling and uneducated.
So nobody should brag or take too much credit for anything. Scandal and surprise at times take precedence over reason and wisdom. The poor are blessed. The hungry receive good things. The powerful are pulled down and the rich are sent away empty. The persecuted and the peacemakers are preferred over power and weapons. The unconventional wisdom and uncommon sense of God doesn’t always match popular values.
Nonetheless we are smart people. We are talented, gifted and capable of many, great and wondrous things. We are intelligent and wise, right up to the point that God decides to defy our expectations and surprise us.
Last year I read an interesting book called “A Universe from Nothing: Why there is something rather than nothing” by the internationally known theoretical physicist, Lawrence Krauss. Krauss is the author of ten books. He has a YouTube video on the origins of the universe that has been viewed around two million times. He is obviously way smarter than me. His thesis is that something can spring from nothing. This is true because most of us really just don’t know what nothing is.
The implication is that when it comes to the “Big Bang”, no “thing” or no “one” is required for “flipping the switch.” The universe, and the switch, if one is required, may simply have originated from nothing.
Krauss’s book is interesting even if I don’t understand all of the theoretical physics. Most interesting to me was a brief part at the beginning where he talks about theologians. He seems to lump theologians into one big category of conservative, creationist-type fundamentalists.
He takes a dim view of theologians, calling them intellectually lazy while saying they produce nothing of value. I looked up four of my favorite theologians and found that their doctorates were earned at Oxford, Harvard and Cambridge. I hope they don’t award doctorates to people who are intellectually lazy at those schools.
I am not a scientist. But I have read scientists who are people of faith. John Polkinghorne comes to mind. He wrote “The Faith of a Physicist.” He is a physicist and an Anglican priest. John Haught is a Roman Catholic theologian at Georgetown University who has written such things as “Deeper than Darwin” and “Understanding Evolution”. Haught takes God, Darwin and evolution seriously.
Science has given us many great things. Science has explained many things once quite mysterious. Science continually improves our quality of life while helping us understand better and better the universe that we live in. Science explains for us things we used to simply attribute to God, for lack of any better explanations. Science might one day offer us a “Grand Unified Theory of Everything,” solving all the mysteries of the universe. Nonetheless, people keep describing themselves as spiritual. Undergraduate religion classes remain popular and God seems unwilling to go away. In fact, I have also read a book by a brain researcher and a psychologist entitled, “Why God Won’t Go Away.”
We should note, though, that in First Corinthians, Paul isn’t speaking to the philosophers or the scientists of his day. He isn’t speaking to the philosophers or the scientists of our day, either. This is a letter to a church. We should hear it as a caution to Christians about claiming to know more than we really do know. It is a caution about overreaching our claims to truth and fact in the face of some of life’s most profound mysteries.
Some Christians overreach routinely when they try to claim that the stories of faith are equivalent to scientific theories or facts. This is done, for example, when scripture is invoked to demonstrate that the earth is only six thousand years old. Faith doesn’t require ignoring geological facts or believing that God makes bogus fossil evidence to test faith.
A proclamation of faith is different than testing a hypothesis. A proclamation of faith isn’t the same as citing a fact. Oftentimes, people of faith would do well to say simply, “I don’t know. In the midst of my unknowing, I trust.” Christians lacking humility appear foolish when they make claims based on faith which contradict well tested scientific hypotheses. Paul’s words are a caution to Christians tempted to think more highly of themselves and their intellects than they ought.
First Corinthians is addressed to a church. It isn’t addressed to the scientific community. All this talk about wisdom and foolishness applies first to Christians claiming to know more than they do. Such claims are sometimes based on pride and a sense of superiority rather than knowledge. Sometimes they are sincere. Often they are mistaken.
In Methodism, we invoke something called the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. The Quadrilateral wasn’t actually used by John Wesley, though. The term was coined by a Wesley scholar named Albert Outler. Outler determined that John Wesley typically based his writing and preaching in four things held in equal esteem. Wesley typically appeals to reason, experience, scripture and tradition, though never does he use all four in a single sermon or treatise.
Our general conference decided by a majority vote that scripture should be “primary”. In calling scripture primary, I am willing to say scripture is the place we typically begin. But without reason, it’s hardly possible to evaluate scripture, tradition, or experience. Reason is important because it keeps religion from going completely off the rails sometimes. Reason also helps me to know when to say, “I don’t know”, rather than claiming to know what I really don’t know. I believe faith has more credibility when we subject our faith to intellectual rigor. Faith shouldn’t ever be an excuse to be intellectually lazy.
Spirituality and religious faith are most credible when they contain a healthy dose of humility. Faithful people can always consider thoughtfully scientific information and the wisest minds in the world. We may disagree at some places. But our job isn’t to disprove things we just happen to dislike. Being faithful doesn’t give us the right to ignore established and accepted facts. As our understanding of the universe changes and grows, faith may change and grow correspondingly. If we are truthful we will acknowledge that few of us even try to understand the universe in the ways that Peter and James and John did two thousand years ago. Evolution occurs in theology, too.
People of faith cannot afford to be intellectually lazy. That is a matter of credibility. Humility and hard work are necessary for generating hope and keeping hope alive. Hope is sometimes in short supply in our world. When racism, injustice, and greed threaten the world, somebody needs to be in the hope business. Somebody needs to confront those things. Somebody needs to offer an alternative to racism, greed and injustice.
Justice and hope are hard to quantify. They can be hard to measure. They are difficult to actually produce. Justice and hope don’t roll off productions lines. They are produced with diligence, faith and intellectual rigor in communities of high level commitment. They are built with truth telling. Hope is important to the survival of our species but it isn’t written into equations on a black boards or produced using technology. We are talking here about matters of the heart, matters of the human spirit.
We are expected to produce some very important and highly specialized commodities today. The first step in the production process is to assume an attitude of humility. The second step is to trust that God is a part of our process. The third step might be remembering that God will test our product for quality.
Theodore Parker and then Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told us that the arc of the moral universe is long, and it bends toward justice. A physicist might tell us that there is no arc in the moral universe, long or short. An arc can be described mathematically and the physical universe is morally indifferent.
We know that. We need to be careful because we don’t always speak with mathematical precision. Especially when we refer to the human heart. Or when we refer to the human spirit. These things don’t get written into software or equations but they are important.
Matters of the heart, matters of the spirit, these might seem foolish to some. For others, though, they are the hope that can save the world.