Friday, 7 February 2014

The Perils of Theology

1 Corinthians 2:1-12
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling.  My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.

Yet among the mature we do speak wisdom, though it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to perish.  But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,
‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’—
these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.  For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God.  Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.

Putting the cart before the horse...

As a child, as I grew up I looked up to my Dad.  Actually in many ways I still do.  He was my first inspiration for what I wanted to do with my life.  I have so many fond memories of sitting with him on a Saturday morning as he, as a scientist, patiently tried to explain to me about atoms and molecules.  I was fascinated by this and it began what I think has become a lifelong quest for me to try and understand the world and how it works.  To begin with that set me off on a career in science, a career that I adored, and then as the mysteries have deepened, now I find myself as a priest, and working with steadily deeper and deeper mysteries as my horizon is steadily widened by the Spirit.  However that initial inquisitiveness and the training that comes with science has led me over and over again to treat much of the world around me as a puzzle to be solved.  When you work in science, this is usually the model you follow.  You are faced with an observation that you don’t understand.  You work away at it until you have a theory.  Then you apply that theory by experiment to see if it will stand up to the real world.  In other words the scientific world-view is to treat the world as a puzzle, or as a problem, and then to try and understand it.  The curious thing is that I have been ordained since 2002, yet in all that time pretty much every sermon that I preach has begun with the same premise: here’s a problem or a puzzle, so how can we solve it?  I usually say to myself, 'Well if I don’t understand it, then the chances are that at least a few people in the congregation won’t either, so if I can work it out then at least a few of us will go home satisfied that we’ve learnt something new about God'.

Now I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with this approach necessarily, or at least I didn’t until I read the section from 1 Corinthians 2 that we have in front of us today.  You see I recognise that my starting point is usually one of the intellect, of the mind.  I try and craft an interesting and useful sermon based on trying to figure out something in the reading.  And then my namesake, St. Paul, blunders in and tells me that he, perhaps the most widely read author of all time, did exactly the opposite.  And there’s the puzzle to be solved.  Why did he do it that way around?

Read again St. Paul’s words:
My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.
There are other indications elsewhere in the book of Acts that suggest that Paul was actually not the world’s most inspiring preacher.  On one occasion he had to perform a miracle on someone who had fallen asleep listening to him and fallen out of a window.  Yet over the course of his ministry he set up or aided numerous churches around the Mediterranean. 

And when I read this, what I read is not that St. Paul could preach an intellectual and wise sermon that made everyone think, and as a result of their intellectual stimulation they went out and sought out God.  In fact it was quite the reverse; he began with revealing God to them experientially.  Was his concern that if he spoke wise words of wisdom, then they would build up an intellectual model of God?  Was he worried that their belief would end up being more akin to the various philosophies of the day than the reality of God in everyday life?  I’ll answer those in a moment, but if the answer is yes then you can see the sense in what he’s saying. 

Ask yourself this question; what would have more impact on you, that I try and explain what I think the deep mysteries of God are that Paul refers to later on in the passage, or if in some way the gates are opened for you to experience God for yourself in an utterly life changing way?  Take a break from reading for a moment and think about it.  Do you want wisdom and understanding or experience?


From the perspective of trying to understand this passage about the wisdom of God we need to get inside  what I think St. Paul is saying.  To do that we need to understand the context and it’s fairly simple.  Paul is responding to a criticism from the church in Corinth that whenever he visits he is not speaking 'sophia' which is the Greek word for wisdom.  There was a strong intellectual element at Corinth and so they wanted someone to speak into that desire they had to hear words that would make them puzzle deeply over what was being said and over the mysteries being discussed.  But St. Paul felt that to do that was to simply intellectualise the truth rather than allow the truth to be being life-changing.

Don’t get me wrong - St. Paul’s letters are full of intellectual theology.  But the point he is making here is that theology is not the place to start.  God is the place to start.  He is saying that God, as experienced through the person of Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit is where we should begin.  Christianity should start with the experience, not the dogma.  As a consequence this passage is all about Paul being quite critical of them for their approach to Christian belief.  They wanted to understand it; he wanted them to experience it in a life-changing way.  They wanted intellectual stimulation; he wanted them to have life-changing spiritual encounters with the Holy Spirit.

The problem, he says, with starting from the perspective of human wisdom is that human wisdom led to crucifying the Son of God.  It is therefore an inherently weak place to start. 

So where do we start? 

St. Paul is of a mind that we start with the Holy Spirit.  Ironically, given his comments about human wisdom, his argument is actually based on a Greek philosophical view of his time, that like can only be known by like.  So only a human can know another human, and likewise it is only God who can know God.  The logical argument is therefore that the only way we can know the wisdom of God is by being open to the Spirit of God, because it is only the Spirit of God who knows God.  His argument is therefore actually quite simple.  Human wisdom is flawed, and so in order to have true wisdom and understanding what we actually need is the wisdom of God, and the only way we can have the wisdom of God is to be filled with the Spirit of God since it is only the Spirit of God who can know the wisdom of God.

You may remember that Steven Hawking, when he got to the end of his book, ‘A Brief History of Time’, wrote these words:
"However, if we discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable by everyone, not just by a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we should know the mind of God."
This is an example of human wisdom, that if we can only fathom it out we’ll know the mind of God.  But St. Paul’s answer to this would probably be, ‘No, Stephen, you won’t.  The only way to know the mind of God is through the Spirit of God'.

Now don’t get me wrong on this.  Theology is truly necessary because it is vital that we test our experiences in order to understand them and not be misled by them.  But we need first to begin with the experience of God, and then to seek the wisdom of God through the Holy Spirit in order better to understand what we have experienced.  But it is God with whom we should start, not the theology, and so often we put the proverbial cart before the horse.

Jesus says that his followers are the salt of the earth, but risk becoming useless if they lose their saltiness.  In the context of what we’ve heard here what we need to ask ourselves is, in the work that we do to deepen our intellectual understanding of Christianity, do we risk emptying the message of the power to actually change us?  The wisdom of God revolves around God allowing Jesus to be crucified.  We can only understand that wisdom through the Spirit of God.  To the rest of the world it looks like a nonsense.  Don’t get me wrong - theology is important.  Understanding God according to the revelation we receive from his word and his world helps us to grow.  My fear, though, is that we live in such a rational society that we are attempting to rationalise God, and we can’t.  Instead we need to be becoming re-enchanted by God’s nature and ways and mysteries, because it is there that our lives are changed; when we actually experience what God is like. 

Yes I can talk in interesting ways about God, but the question that we need to ask ourselves is, will knowing more about the nature of God actually draw us into the experience of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us?  Or will it make belief an intellectual exercise?  Christianity is very interesting, and we do live in interesting times.  But that is not the whole of the message, or even a part of it.  If it does not begin with the experience of God it is empty human intellect without the power to change lives. 

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