Saturday, September 22, 2012

Friday's Faith - The Humiliation of God

Friday's Faith

The Humiliation of God

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written [the reference is to Isaiah 29], "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." 
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is 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.

~From 1 Corinthians 1

…Paul's "word of the cross," of course, is the core of the gospel: That God came into the world in the improbable figure of a small-town carpenter turned itinerant preacher, who was executed as a criminal, despised and abandoned, dead and buried---and who then, in a moment that transformed the whole structure of reality, rose from the dead to become the mightiest power in the universe and the lord of all human destinies. 

People, then as now, are relatively prepared to accept savior figures promising redemption from the ills of human existence. It is the "cross" part of the message that constitutes the "stumbling block," the "folly." It is that crucial motif in Christianity that theologians have called kenosis, the humiliation of God: 

The same God who has all power, who created this world and all possible worlds, has taken upon Himself the form and the fate of an ordinary man, and indeed a man who suffered the most agonizing afflictions of betrayal, torture, despair, and death. 

No one, Jew or Gentile, would have been taken aback at the statement that the power of God is greater than that of men; 

Paul's scandalous proposition is that the weakness of God reveals His true power, including the power to triumph over sin and death. 

…Protestant theologians have described God's work of salvation as an opus alienum, an "alien work." By this term they meant to emphasize that our salvation is not in our own hands, that it is altogether God's doing. This stress, of course, was at the core of the Protestant Reformation, in its emphasis on the primacy of grace and its rejection of "salvation by works." This aspect of Christian faith does not concern me at the moment. 

Rather, I want to emphasize the alienness of the Christian message as a whole: this savior proclaimed in the Gospel is one who breaks into human reality like an intruder---unexpected, unrecognized, indeed unappealing. In this, the savior actually authenticates his divine provenance: The divine always manifests itself as that which is alien, not human, not part of ordinary reality. 

Rudolf Otto, the great historian of religion, spoke of the "totally other," which he claimed is the essence of religious experience. The same quality is intended by the term "transcendent"---the divine, wherever it manifests itself, goes beyond anything that human beings are familiar with. In this aspect of otherness, Christianity does not fundamentally differ from other religious traditions---after all, Christianity is one religion among others, so that this should neither surprise nor trouble Christians. But the kenotic dimension of the Christian message adds an alien quality distinctly its own. This, precisely, is the "folly" that Paul spoke of. 

If the church gives up this "folly," it gives up itself and its very reason for being. This is why the pursuit of the "wisdom of the world" is finally so pernicious. It is not just that it is more or less futile, for the sociological reasons I mentioned, or that it is philosophically dubious. More importantly, if the church (or, for that matter, individual Christians) give up the transcendent core of the tradition in order to placate the alleged spirit of the times what is given up is the most precious truth that has been entrusted to the church's care---the truth about the redemption of men through God's coming into the world in Christ.

… (T)he "word of the cross" is addressed to all of us, whatever our vocation or life situation. Jesus preferred to move on the margins of society, but He is able to appear in every social location. The "word of the cross" saves us because it tells us that we don't have to be strong in order to participate in God's power. God reveals Himself in weakness, also in our weakness---in social weakness, in moral weakness, and also in intellectual weakness. He moves among the poor, among sinners, among "fools." Once we have had our various pretensions debunked, there is very great comfort in this message.

Our attention here is directed towards God's weakness----His coming into the world in the weak form of a man, this man's persecution and degradation, His lonely despair and His painful death. In contemplating God's weakness and Jesus' Calvary we inevitably include the weakness and the suffering of all creatures, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer "all those who are any ways afflicted, or distressed, in mind, body, or estate" (and, of course, especially those whose pain or sorrow has touched our own lives). 

If that were all there is to Christianity, it would be the most doleful religion, a truly masochistic and downright pathological belief. Of course, that is not the case at all.

Lent is the prelude, not the culmination. Lent leads up to Easter, the ultimate weakness of God to the blinding revelation of His omnipotence. The "word of the cross" culminates and finds its true meaning in the word of the resurrection---Christ's resurrection and our own. 

It is this redemptive word that Paul carried with him on his restless travels and that he was anxious to protect against the false wisdoms of the world. The same redemptive word is the only reason for being of the Christian church of today, as it is the beginning and end of our faith.


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