Text: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 Oculi (3rd Sunday in Lent)
The Faith of Fools
In the name of him who is the power of God and the wisdom of God, dear friends in Christ: The Christian faith has always had its critics. From the Jews who opposed the teaching of Paul and the Apostles in the first century, to the Romans who at times organized violent persecutions against the faithful in the second and third centuries, and after them pagan and Muslim conquerors throughout the dark and middle ages, and more recently some of the philosophers and early scientists of the Renaissance, the deep thinkers of the period that historians give the impressive sounding name “the Enlightenment” – men like Voltaire who claimed Christianity would surely be extinct by the middle of the nineteenth century (guess he got that wrong), all the way down to the present day, there have always been people who despise Christianity and who actively seek to undermine and destroy it.
So it’s nothing new; still it seems to me that within the last few years there’s been a resurgence of particularly bitter public vitriol aimed at the Faith. On the intellectual side there’s the self-proclaimed New Atheists who advocate what they call Positive Atheism. As near as I can tell, it’s the same old negative atheism; it’s just that they’re pushing it a lot harder. It used to be thought rude to attack religious beliefs and push atheism. It isn’t any more. Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford, is recognized as one of the leaders of this movement. A couple years ago he published a book entitled The God Delusion. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Anyway, according to Dawkins, the very concept of religion is the root of all evil because, and I quote, “Religion teaches the dangerous nonsense that death is not the end.” This, he complains, means people of faith are inclined to do things not necessarily in their best interest for this life – which is a very un-evolutionary idea. Now, in the comparatively rare case of a suicide bomber who thinks he’s going to paradise for blowing himself up along with a bunch of innocent bystanders, maybe Dawkins has got a point; but he fails to take into consideration the vastly more numerous acts of kindness and charity performed by the hundreds of millions who believe that good behavior in this life will somehow be rewarded in the next. Would you really want to live in a world in which no one believed that there was such a thing as right and wrong and that in the future they’re going to be called to account on a day of judgment? I sure wouldn’t. Nevertheless, Dawkins maintains that religious faith is just as dangerous to mankind as smallpox, and he laments the fact that at least up until the present it’s been harder to eradicate; but this much is certain: he and the like minded scholars he represents are out to do just that.
Coming at it from a different angle and making his attack on a more popular level, we’ve got folks like comedian Bill Maher. Just this last fall he released a pseudo-documentary film entitled “Religulous” – a word that supposedly combines religious with ridiculous. The title alone tells you how he feels about it. In this film, using the carefully edited and set up “gotcha” style of filmmaker Michael Moore, who is notorious for such films as Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11, Maher goes to great lengths to make it appear that anyone who believes in a religious faith – and particularly the Christian faith – is an unsophisticated and foolish dolt.
In response to these attacks and many others like them, there are a number of people within the Christian community who think we ought to be fighting back. In particular, they believe that through the application of what’s called Christian apologetics we can effectively engage our critics on their own playing field and defeat their attempts to make us look like hopelessly backward idiots. These people believe that the Christian faith is largely an intellectual pursuit, and they are convinced that if someone just sat down and honestly examined the available evidence and considered the truths that we proclaim, they would become convinced that we’re right and become believers in Christ themselves. So what we should be doing, they say, is learning how to argue with our critics and present our case to them in highly complex and deeply philosophical ways.
That’s one idea. Another approach advocated by others as a way of dealing with our critics is to take out, change, or at very least play down the things taught and confessed by Christians that leave us so vulnerable to attack. That is to say we need to update our doctrines in order to conform our faith to the culture and times in which we live. We need to go along with whatever scientists, philosophers, ethicists, and trendsetters are saying even if that means denying some of what the Bible has to say. The goal is to make our Christian faith less offensive so that our critics will see we aren’t as backward as they think, that we really do fit in; and then they’ll lay off their attacks.
Finally, a third way that’s been suggested to deal with the critics would be to combine elements of both ideas. Ramp up the philosophical arguments in favor of Christianity and modify our teachings as necessary to make them more acceptable to modern sensibilities. So, we’ve got three ways of engaging the critics. And there are people supposedly on our side who are even now advocating and employing all of them. The question is: what should we be doing?
Well, after reading today’s Epistle lesson, it should be clear to all of us that any of these approaches would be enough not just to make the body of St. Paul roll over in his grave, but actually to send him spinning as if turning on a lathe at several hundred RPM. Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are being called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
What Paul is saying is that Christianity has at its heart a number of very offensive and counter intuitive ideas that fly straight in the face of worldly wisdom and mankind’s common sense. Chief among them is the cross itself, the central truth that God sent his Son into this fallen world to take on our human flesh and to give himself over to suffer and die for our sins in the most horrible and humiliating way imaginable. That very notion sticks in the craw of fallen man. Why? There are a number of reasons.
One, according to Paul is that the cross destroys the wisdom of the wise. He almost certainly has in mind the Greek philosopher Aristotle who was quite popular back then and remains so today. Aristotle said, “Anything we have to learn to do, we learn by the doing of it: people become builders by building, and instrumentalists by playing instruments. Similarly, we become righteous by performing righteous acts, temperate by performing temperate ones, brave by performing brave ones.” In shorter terms, the way we’d say today is “practice makes perfect.” It only makes sense. And if you follow the logic through, it becomes clear that we become saints by not sinning. But the word of the cross says to us, “No. You become a saint by despising your attempts to make yourself a saint and by trusting in what Christ did for you.”
“Surely I must do something”, the mind of man objects, “You can’t get something for nothing. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. There’s got to be a catch someplace.” But the word of the cross says, “No. It is that simple. Your contribution is zero because you have nothing to give.”
“Oh, but you’re wrong about that”, worldly wisdom responds, “I have a lot to give. I’m a nice person. I work hard. I’m a good neighbor. I do my part at home and in the community. I help people in need. Just look at all my accomplishments.” “Worse than worthless trash” says the word of the cross. “What you are is a sinner by nature. The only thing you are capable of producing in the sight of God is sin. And the truth is that one of your greatest sins is having the monumental gall to think that the filth you produce is worthy of being judged acceptable by him. The only thing that counts before God is the righteousness of Christ.”
“Well then at least I must accept the offer” says the mind of man still grasping for some last straw of involvement and scrap of dignity. “I have to will myself to agree to the deal and submit myself to the lordship of Jesus.” But the word of the cross says, “No. Faith in Christ itself is a gift of God worked in you by the Holy Spirit through the message of the Gospel. If you believe, it’s because of his work in you. You can’t even believe by yourself.”
“But where does that leave me?” the human mind cries out in despair. To which the word of the cross replies, “By yourself, poor, wretched, blind, totally corrupt, dead in your sins, and destined for hell. But through God’s gift of trust in Christ it leaves you rich in grace, restored, enlightened, completely righteous, alive to God, and an heir of his eternal glory.”
And this is what we hate the most: that the word of the cross takes away everything from us – everything that we might have tried to claim even the tiniest bit of credit for. It reduces us to absolute beggars who don’t even have the good sense to know what it is we should be begging for. So we keep looking for another loophole; some flaw in the presentation that holds the hope of regaining a little something that could be laid to our credit. “Why then did God give us the law? Surely it’s because he wanted us to keep it, right? He wouldn’t have told us to do something that’s impossible. So, since he gave us his commandments, it only makes sense that we must have the ability to obey them.” The word of the cross says, “No. You don’t understand. The law was not given to tell you how God wants you to behave; but rather to reveal your inability to keep it. The law works like an X-ray. It can show you what’s broken, but it hasn’t got the power to fix it. The cure for sin is found not in the law but on the cross of Christ.”
Still not done fighting for itself, the wisdom of man protests, “But why would God do that? What sense does it make? You’re saying that first he makes mankind, knowing full well that we’re going to fall into sin – and knowing at the same time what it’s going to cost him. What kind of God would do that? What kind of God would send his own Son to suffer and die in weakness and humiliation on account of bunch of miserable little creatures he made?” The word of the cross responds, “A God who is love, and who displays his love by giving his Son to die for the miserable, sinful creatures he made.”
The last resort: “Okay, love … I can’t argue with that; but c’mon you have to admit this whole thing with a designer garden and a talking snake and a forbidden tree, and ‘don’t eat the apple’ but they do anyway … it’s all kind of silly, don’t you think? Only a fool could believe it.”
To which the word of the cross responds, “At last you’ve said something right. Only a fool can believe it. Because God chose what is to mankind foolishness in order to put mankind’s wisdom to shame; and he chose what is weakness in the eyes of man in order to put to shame mankind’s strength. He did this so that no one would be able to boast about themselves or their wisdom or their strength or their accomplishments in his presence. He did it so that Jesus Christ alone would be man’s wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. He did it so that only fools could be saved – which is good because that includes everyone on earth; it’s just that some of the fools have fooled themselves into thinking that they’re wise.”
Paul is saying that Christianity is the faith of fools. No one ever thinks or reasons himself into believing. Quite the opposite, the Holy Spirit has to suppress and overthrow our worldly wisdom to bring us to the truth of God – which is the reason why people who are so proud of their wits and intellect have such a hard time coming to the faith. Paul even invites us to consider ourselves and the others who have been called. Comparatively speaking there aren’t a lot of us who are wise by the standards of the world, not many who are high born or politically powerful. It may not sound very complimentary; but that’s the point. By making it a faith suited for fools the Lord ensured that the way was open for all. You don’t have to be a genius to be saved, or rich or powerful or accomplished or famous. All you have to be is a sinful fool.
So, going back to the original question about dealing with our critics who make us look like fools, okay, their doing so rather like shooting fish in a barrel. When they accuse us of believing the ridiculous, we shouldn’t be arguing with them trying to prove our points with grand philosophical discourses; we should be agreeing with them. It’s sinful pride in us that wants to sound intellectual about it. Nor should we be compromising or watering down what we believe to make it more acceptable. That’s both pride and cowardice in action – and worse, by doing it we risk losing the very truths by which we are saved.
What are we to do then, when being confronted by our critics? Simple: we talk about our foolish faith in Christ the crucified, giving all glory, honor, and worship to him alone for our salvation. And we pray that by God’s mighty power they too may be enlightened to see the wisdom of God’s foolishness. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!