Embracing God’s Foolishness
Mark Noll, the eminent Evangelical historian, published an important book in 1995 The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. It’s been a long time since I read the book, but this I know, in it he decried the creeping anti-intellectualism that had taken root in the evangelical community. He pointed light into the dark corners of this effort and called for a robust embrace of education. While there are some signs that his clarion call was heeded in certain sectors of the evangelical world, it’s also clear that the overall effect was nil. A great swath of American life that is influenced by conservative religion continues to be insulated from the input of the sciences and other pursuits of knowledge. Consider polls that suggest that a majority of Americans reject the scientific theory of evolution in favor of “scientific creationism.” Or, more recently, Rick Santorum, a Republican candidate for the Presidency, called President Obama a snob for encouraging America’s young people to pursue a college education and suggested that when people go to college they lose their faith. Many of us felt that this was another sop at this emerging anti-intellectualism that seems to run rampant across the American landscape. Even as we hear anti-intellectualist voices permeate the religious community, we endure the critiques of the Dawkins’s and the Dennett’s, who scoff at the possibility that religion could have intellectual credibility. Dawkins spoke of theology as “fairyology,” giving it virtually no respect.
I have stated my desire on numerous occasions to be part of a faith community where I don’t have to “check my brain at the door.” I want to have my questions and my concerns taken seriously. I want to have a conversation with the world outside the church that is informed and willing to risk having my mind and heart changed. Yes, I want to be challenged spiritually, but I also want to be challenged intellectually. Therefore, I find it difficult to understand why one would embrace a faith that denied the evidence. I know that faith transcends science and reason, but does it have to be irrational? Does it have to deny what I know to be true from my study of other forms of knowledge?
Among the early church leaders, there were those like Origen who sought to connect faith and reason, and there were others like Tertullian who seemed to go in another anti-intellectual direction. Though he was himself a brilliant legal and theological mind, Tertullian left us with a rant about Jerusalem having nothing to do with Athens. Of course, he may have a point about the outsized impact that Greek philosophy has had on Christian theology, such that Christianity lost much of its original edge. Although we might not want to take an anti-intellectual path, there is the equal problem of domesticating our faith so it has no real value in and of itself.
It’s in the context of these musings and concerns that we hear Paul write that the “foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” While I have sought a reasonable faith, Paul, who was himself highly educated, wants me to recognize that there is truth that lies beyond human reason, and that by trusting my reason I may miss what God is saying. So, am I willing to receive this message? That is the question we must ask ourselves as we consider these texts selected for the Third Sunday of Lent.
Only Paul speaks of God’s foolishness, but maybe these other two texts, one that lays out the Ten Commandments and the other that speaks of Jesus’ mad romp through the Temple, are also expressions of God’s foolishness.
In our day and age as some religious folk have sought to take control of the public square, we’ve heard about the importance of the Ten Commandments. We’re told that these Ten Words are the basis of the American legal system, and attempts have been made to put monuments on court house lawns and in courthouses themselves. There is in this effort a certain moralism that seems oddly out of sync with Jesus’ own view of public life. These Ten Commandments are given by God to the people of Israel as the foundation for their covenant relationship. “I am the Lord your God who rescued you from the Land of Egypt,” therefore . . . . Then came the Ten Commandments (depending on how count them).
What we often fail to do in our debates about these commandments is to recognize that the ones that deal with human behavior in the world are rooted in the ones that relate to ones relationship with God. We’re told to have one God, make no idols, refrain from misusing the name of God, and observing the Sabbath. These all have to do with how we view and live with God. But, to what degree do we keep the words found on the first table of the Law? Have we replaced God with idols of our own making? Do we misuse the name of the LORD? Would putting “In God we Trust” on our money be sufficient evidence of our idolatry and misuse of God’s name? Then there’s that Sabbath Law. I’m not good at keeping it. God may only need six days, but surely I need eight. Oh and what about that word regarding the servants and the livestock and the foreigners living amongst us. We may take the day off – but what about those who serve us meals or check us out at the store? And the foreigners – what’s that have to do with Sabbath-keeping? Why should we be concerned about them? No, we all have trouble with the first table, so it’s no surprise that we have trouble with the second. And yet, God made a covenant with Israel on this basis. Surely this is a sign of God’s foolishness!
When we turn to the Corinthian letter we come to this disturbing message regarding the cross and its foolishness. Paul is very aware that holding up an instrument of execution and pointing to it as the standard by which the church understands itself is rather foolish. There’s nothing grand or glorious about a cross, which may be why some churches simply remove it altogether or decorate it so it loses some of its sting. Yes, the message of the cross is foolishness! But not only is the cross a foolish sign, but according to Paul it is part of the way God is working, so that God might “destroy the wisdom of the wise” and “reject the intelligence of the intelligent” (vs. 19).
According to Paul, we can’t know God through human wisdom. Many attempts have been made to prove the existence of God. Anselm, Aquinas, and Paley; the ontological argument, first cause, design, and moral argument, all are laid out as attempts to prove the unprovable. But according to Paul none of this really matters, because when the chips fall, we must choose whether to embrace the idea that the cross defines the nature of God. And many find such a choice rather unpalatable. The cross is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. Some asks for signs and others for wisdom, but all we have to offer is the “foolishness of preaching” (vs. 21). Yes, we are in trouble if we must rely on the now discredited act of preaching, especially preaching that focuses on the cross. No one, it seems, wishes to listen to a monologue that talks about this long-dead guy. And yet, according to Paul, this is the wisdom of God. How shall we respond?
Finally we come to John’s gospel, and its description of the cleansing of the Temple. Now, this is truly an act of foolishness -- to go to the Temple during Passover, and then begin disrupting business, that will not win friends and influence people. But that’s what Jesus did.
According to John, when Jesus saw merchants selling animals for sacrifices and dealers trading money at tables, he made a whip and began to turn over tables and chase the merchants out of the Temple. As they fled from his wrath, he shouted after them: “Stop turning my Father’s house into a marketplace!” (Jn. 2:16). John seems to have understood the foolishness of this act, because he notes that “the disciples remembered this prophecy from scripture: “passion for God’s house will consume me.” This passage could be taken in a number of ways, and one of those leads to the cross. This act isn’t wise by human standards, but John seems to see it as an expression of God’s purpose.
Before I get to the question of authority, I think it’s worth pondering the contemporary commercialization of religion. As we can see from this text, it’s always been there. Martin Luther complained about it, due to the use of indulgences to raise money to build grand buildings in Rome and elsewhere. The foolishness of Tetzel’s preaching wasn’t that it focused on the cross, but because it was in the service of crass commercialism. And today, religion is as commercialized as ever. Go to many a mega-church and you’ll find that it looks a lot like a full-service mall. Starbucks, restaurants, bookstores, and I needn’t mention the presence of “Jesus-junk.” Have we cluttered our churches with the kinds of marketplace ideology that Jesus reacted to during his purging of the Temple? Would he do the same in our churches? Have we sold out the gospel for profit?
As for Jesus’ authority to do this cleansing thing, he replies rather enigmatically, with a comment on the destruction of a Temple and it’s reconstruction within three days. His opponents assume it’s the brick and mortar building, but Jesus had in mind his own body. This body might be destroyed, but after three days he would raise up this Temple of God. The Disciples remember this word after the Resurrection and believe. And then the required signs are provided. People believe, but Jesus doesn’t trust them, because he knows what we humans really are like!
So, are we ready to embrace the foolishness of God? I don’t mean embracing anti-intellectualism, but are we ready to drop the pretense that we can prove God’s existence? Are we ready to embrace the directives of God, even when they are inconvenient? Are we ready to let go of the profit-motive for our faith dealings?
The wisdom of God is foolishness to the perishing, or so Paul suggests. Even if we’re of a universalist bent, surely we can embrace the principle that all this baggage that we seem to think is important is of little value in the grand scheme of things when it comes to the reign of God! I’m not ready to abandon the mind, but am I ready to embrace the foolishness of God?