On signs and wisdom (February 2011)

Started by Richard Johnson, March 02, 2011, 07:06:47 PM

Previous topic - Next topic

Richard Johnson

On signs and wisdom
Forum Letter February 2011
©2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

I love the texts for the Epiphany season of Year A. At least when (like this year) the season is long enough, we get a good bit of the Sermon on the Mount—always a preacher's feast. And then there are all those texts from 1 Corinthians. I'm one who at least occasionally likes to preach from the first or second lesson. That's partly because I'm now in my 13th trip around the 3-year lectionary track, and sometimes I've just gotten about all I can out of a given gospel text. But it's also because I strongly believe that God's Word should be preached in its entirety, and that means taking up texts from the Old Testament or the epistles, as well as the gospels.

One text I've hardly ever tackled, though, is 1 Corinthians 1.18-31. It came up this year on January 30, and it's a tough text for an intellectual. It seems to denigrate human knowledge and wisdom. I sit in my book-lined study, and I wonder if Paul, were he to come back to life, would take one look at all those books and snarl, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise."

Wrongly approaching God
I do not think, however, that Paul takes aim only at intellectuals. Indeed, I believe that Paul was addressing some human tendencies which are rampant in the 21st century. The key comes in verse 22:  "For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom." Here, couched in language about first century Jews and Greeks, Paul has told us something about ourselves, and about how we wrongly approach God.

"Jews demand signs." When Paul speaks of signs, he is thinking of what we might call miracles, concrete evidence that can be seen with the eyes. Occasionally people in the gospels ask Jesus to give them a sign that he is the Messiah. Often it is the Pharisees who ask for a sign, or the crowds. Sometimes it is the disciples themselves. They all seem to want to believe in him, but they need some proof. It is as if they are all from Missouri (the state, not the synod)—"Show me!" they say.

This demand for a sign goes way back in Judaism. I suppose its roots might be seen in the story of Moses, who asks God, when he appears in the burning bush, what answer he might give to any who question his credentials as a spokesman for God. It is as if he wants some credential to be able to produce as proof that what he says is true.

Turtles all the way down
Today perhaps we don't expect signs exactly in the same way; and yet so many people, even Christians, are eager to ask God for proof. This arises from something within us that requires us to see with our own eyes. Today educational theorists talk about different ways of learning. Some people learn more easily by hearing, others by seeing, others by touching, and so forth. When it comes to learning spiritual truths, many of us seem to need to see—at least conceptually.

The late Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen had a lecture entitled, "On the Nature of the Universe." One night after delivering this address in a small rural community, an elderly woman confronted him. "That was very interesting, Bishop," she said, "but you are completely wrong. The universe is not as you described it. Earth is not a little ball moving around the sun. Our world is just a crust of earth on the back of a huge turtle." The Archbishop gently replied, "That's an interesting theory, madam, but tell me: What is the turtle standing on?" The woman replied, "He is standing on the back of a larger turtle." "Well," said the Archbishop, "what is that turtle standing on?" "It's no use, Bishop," the woman snapped, "It's turtles all the way down!"

Some of us just seem to need to visualize turtles all the way down. We need to have something we can touch, even in our minds; we need something we can comprehend. This need makes itself known in many ways. For some, great miracles are required. Perhaps a loved one is seriously ill, and we virtually demand that God heal them. Maybe we don't always say it in just those terms, but it becomes a kind of hidden subtext. If God is real, then he must . . . do this, or do that. We demand signs.

Proving Genesis
Sometimes it has more to do with finding proof, physical proof, of things in the Bible.  My wife's grandfather was Byron C. Nelson, a brilliant man, trained in science as well as theology, who is today considered one of the intellectual forerunners of the "creationist" movement. He devoted much of his life to presenting geological proof of his own understanding of Genesis. While I respect greatly the efforts he made, I've never quite understood why it was so important to him. For me, geology is very interesting, but it doesn't have much to do with the truth of Genesis. Yet he demanded signs. For him, if he couldn't scientifically prove it, he could no longer believe it.

I would like to have had the chance to ask him about this passage, for it seems to me to say that when we demand "proof," we've moved in a very troublesome direction. The book of Hebrews puts it so succinctly: "Faith is the conviction of things not seen." Faith, in other words, is a movement of the heart which cannot be based on physical, visible, tangible proof. At times God may give us wonderful signs to enrich and encourage our faith; but when we need the signs in order to have faith, then we really are in danger of giving up faith.

Elusive wisdom
Then, Paul says, "the Greeks seek wisdom." If the Jews, in Paul's view, were looking for tangible, physical evidence, the Greeks were looking for something more elusive: they wanted to understand the ways of God. It's a common tendency among us moderns. We are willing to believe, willing to trust, but we'd like to understand! It isn't that we need to be convinced; it is rather that we want to make sense of what we believe, to make sense of God.

I run into this all the time in adult Bible study. Take up Job, and the question comes quickly: Why does God allow these terrible things to happen to him? And the final answer has to be, "We can't know!" Or you can hit the wall on this again and again with Genesis. Why does God choose Jacob over Esau? Ask students what they think, and they'll have lots of answers, lots of theories to explain it. I always end up trying, as gently as I can, to suggest that the real answer is, as Luther puts it: "I don't know." Or better, "I can't know." God's ways are not my ways, and my thoughts are not God's thoughts.

Symbolizing mystery
Sister José Hobday was a Roman Catholic nun, and a Native American. She told about a wonderful gift her parents gave her when she was born, called the medicine bag—a symbol of what her parents most wanted to give her. Each parent had contributed two items. Her mother put in a handful of soil from the Texas hills where she was born, to symbolize the land from which she came. And she also saved a little piece of the young baby's umbilical cord, dried it and crumbled it into the bag, a symbol of the life that her mother had transmitted to her.
Her father took a bird's feather and burned it, adding the ashes to the bag. It symbolized, he told her, his hope that she would soar above all the difficulties and troubles of earth. And her father's second gift, the final component of the bag? Well, he never would tell her. No matter how much she asked, he would not say what it was. She gradually came to realize that this gift, whatever it may have been, was the richest symbol of all: it meant that there were some things about the world and about life and about God that simply must remain a mystery.

That is the way it is with faith. Greeks seek wisdom, and so do we. If we could just understand God's purpose, then we could whole-heartedly believe. But that is backwards. In God's economy, you believe first, you trust first—and then, after a long time trusting, perhaps you begin to understand. Perhaps. No guarantees.

The limits of my mind
That is one reason why the Sacrament of Holy Communion is so important to us. We cannot understand it. It is mystery! Oh, sometimes we try to reduce it to terms we can understand. Some Christians explain that the bread and wine are only symbols of Christ's Body and Blood, there to remind us of the story. Lutherans have rightly been suspicious of that (or choose a stronger word), precisely because when we reduce things to symbols that can be explained, then we are in charge. Then we have the last word, and we can determine the meaning. But faith means accepting that we cannot understand everything. When we take the bread and wine, we receive Christ. "I don't know how!" Luther confesses. "I just trust his words." I love a line in Gracia Grindal's translation of Samuel Rodigast's Was Gott tut: "Your wondrous ways are not confined within the limits of my mind." The Sacrament is a constant reminder that God's ways are not our ways.

In the end, the key is in Paul's words: "Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified . . . Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." Yes, that is it. In Christ, we see the very heart of God. We see that God loves us, that he forgives us, that he embraces us. That cannot be proved; that cannot even be understood. It is, you see, a question of relationship, of love. It is a question of the heart. How do you prove to your child that you love her? How do you understand the love your spouse has for you? No sign can do it, no philosophical argument can clinch it. It is one heart, touching another heart. It must simply be trusted. 

And so with God. He reaches out to touch our hearts. Christ crucified, we preach—a stumbling block to those who demand proof, and foolishness to those who insist they must understand; but to us who are called, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God—and yes, Christ the love of God given freely to us.  —by Richard O. Johnson, editor

©2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

SMF spam blocked by CleanTalk