Thursday, June 5, 2014

Wisdom, a Many Spendored Thing: 1 Corinthians 1-2

This past week we heard the apostle Paul criticize worldly wisdom, because it somehow opposed the necessity of the crucifixion of Jesus. It is way too easy to apply Paul's language to any opposition to any conservative Christian teaching. Before we jump to apply Paul's words to modern culture wars and denominational battles, could it be useful to wonder what kind of cultural "wisdom" Paul was combating and whether we see that same old "wisdom" today? After all, ancient Greece was known for a particular kind of wisdom, that ironically all of us have heard about.

The Greek word Paul is using for wisdom is sophia. Love of wisdom, which in Greek is quite literally philo- and sophia, or as we call it philosophy, was prolific and specific in the Greco-Roman world. To this day, our academies teach about the impact of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, and many others. Does this mean thinking deeply about life, being, and nature is wrong? Not at all. In fact the prestige of itinerant philosophers was so magnanimous in the Mediterranean world that the four gospels take pains to cast Jesus as wandering teacher followed by students. This is not an accidental or random piece of inspiration.

So what was so bad about Greek philosophy that it would prompt Christians to ignore the cross? I can think of several items. A big one is that many Greek philosophers imagined the gods to be immovable movers, untouched by the pain in the world, incapable of responding to it, and certainly not able to endure it. A suffering God would be an oxymoron, between blissful perfection and marred imperfection.

Another flaw of Greek philosophy was its emphasis on eloquence in oral debates where non-rational ideas were mocked into rejection. Nothing is wrong with being rational, but even to this day our academic communities thrive on mocking opposing view points into oblivion. The first doctor that advocated hand washing before surgeries was ridiculed out of a career by fellow doctors. The geologist who discovered plate tectonics was isolated by geologists for years. In other words, pre-scientific Greek philosophy was plagued by arrogant hubris, and modern science has carried on this legacy in our universities.

Modern science has this same blind eye. Science only concerns itself with what can be observed, measured, quantified, and predicted. Science has very little it can say about God at all, either yea or nay. Is this bad? Not at all. It is just a limitation. It is bad when science assumes the matters on which it is mute either don't matter, or worse don't exist. It is even worse when we somehow resort to "science" and "skepticism" to ignore evidence whose conclusions are uncomfortable.

I'm an extremely skeptical person about miracles. Pentecostalism has forced me to be so. That doesn't mean I have seen none, or that they don't happen. Are some psychosomatic? Of course, but not all. Are there fakes? Sure. But wouldn't it be awful if I swore off modern medicine because there were a few fake doctors looking to make a dollar playing medicine-man.

Not only do I think the Corinthian church was plagued by a desire to be respectable within its culture (and many modern churches too), but I think the desire to look "wise" and "educated" (by an almost laughable standard), merged with a Jewish concept of "wisdom" that was volatile. Which will be what my next post will be about...

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