In this blog I am continuing my study of the imagination of faith, by turning to a typical passage of argument by St. Paul. You might think that, in comparison with the great visions examined in past blogs, argumentative material, especially by St.Paul would be relatively barren of imagination. I hope to persuade you otherwise. The passage below comes from the Corinthian correspondence, in which Paul is dealing with cliques amongst his converts, based on a kind of piety that elevated “knowledge” above mere trust in God, and favoured “strength” over “weakness.”

The message of the cross is daftness to those who are dying, but to those who are being rescued; it is the power of God. As Scripture says,

I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the opinion of the pundit I will disregard.

Show me the wise; show me the scholar; show me the intellectual of our times-God has turned their worldly wisdom into daftness; for since, in the wisdom of God, the world through its wisdom did not know him, it delighted God through the daftness of the Announcement, to rescue those who trust in him. Now Jews demand miracles and Greeks seek wisdom, but we announce a crucified Messiah, an obstacle to Jews and daft to Gentiles, but for those whom God has called, Jews and Greeks alike, a Messiah who is God’s power and God’s wisdom.

The daftness of God is wiser than human wisdom and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

Look at your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by worldly standards, not many powerful, not many well-born; but God favoured the daft people of the world to shame the wise, and the weak people of the world to shame the strong. The low-born and disreputable people of the world, yes, people who barely exist, God has favoured, to bring to nothing the powers that be, so that no flesh and blood might boast in God’s presence.

The first thing to note is the shrewdness of Paul’ imagination. Although he was at a distance from Corinth , he imagined the kind of religious snobbery which looked down on ordinary believers as daft and weak in their simple faith, while preening itself on the possession of sophisticated knowledge. He imagined it and felt anger in sympathy with the ordinary believers. More than that, he imagined that God shared this anger. Of course, he had the example of the Hebrew prophets, who announced God’s anger in blunt terms. There may also have been a more personal impulse.

Paul had been a powerful Pharisee in his youth, full of religious knowledge and authority. As such he persecuted the Jews who trusted Jesus as Messiah, thinking that they were ignorant and of no account. He attributed his conversion to a revelation of Jesus as son of God,  but surely the suffering faith of his victims led him  to that turning point. Looking back he must have felt anger towards his knowledgeable, powerful, past self.

In the midst of this argument he makes the imaginative leap of creating a daft and powerless God. How could he have done so in the face of a Jewish tradition which saw God as supremely powerful, and a Greek tradition that identified deity with wisdom? Only through the story of the crucified Messiah and the suffering of his followers. He was aware of how offensive this was to Jews, and how crazy it seemed to Greeks, but he was happy to trust Jesus Messiah as the power and the wisdom of God; of a God, that is, whose true nature had never before been imagined.

Not many in the history of Christendom understood or approved of Paul’s daring theology; most resumed the image of God as supremely prudent and powerful.  But in modern times, under pressure of terrible events, both Jewish theologians like Abraham Heschel and Christian ones like Dietrich Bonhoeffer rediscovered the suffering God, who is weak and daft to worldly eyes, but whose persuasive love moves the universe. Events pushed them towards a new appreciation of Paul’s invention. Amongst others, theologians who use the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead have further developed a theology of the weakness of God. The last sentence of my extract from Paul has been particularly cherished by liberation theologians who believe that God has chosen people who barely exist to bring to nothing the powers that be.

The writings of Paul are proof that imaginative faith is not limited to the inspired prophets but is central to the work of reasoning about God. His invention of the daft God is just as impressive as Ezekiel’s divine chariot or John’s  Destruction of Babylon.

 

I had followed the news of the collapse of Jamie’s Italian restaurant empire, but didn’t grasp the whole story until I saw the picture of the Tudor mansion into which Jamie is currently moving his family. It looks a nice home for his wife and five children, but I wonder how this move will appeal to the 1000 or so former employees of Jamie who lost their livelihoods in the collapse of the business. I have no dislike of Jamie, nor do I judge him personally responsible for the plight of a thousand people, but I do see this event as a revelation of the evil of our current economic system. Priti Patel and other baby faced killers will of course see nothing wrong with what has happened, it’s the way capitalism works after all, rewarding those who work hard and wisely, and punishing those who don’t.

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Except that’s not how it works at all. In this instance it’s clear that although doubtless Jamie worked hard, he – or his advisors- wasn’t all that wise, falling into the temptation to expand in pursuit of bigger profits when the market was unable to sustain it in the longer term. He made a number of mistakes, the consequences of which I’m sure he regrets. When he expresses his concern for his former employees, I’m sure he is sincere. But because he is a successful possessor of capital, the results of this collapse are bearable (!) for him and his family, while for those who are dependent on wages, the results are disastrous. That’s a revelation which applies to all possessors of capital and all those dependent on waged labour. The words of Jesus directed at spiritual gains are precisely true of our economic system: “to those who have, more will be given; from those who have not, will be taken even the little they have.”

Note that this evil is not brought about by ill-will on the part of Jamie, who has at least as much social conscience as any owner of capital, but rather by the inevitable dynamics of the system itself, which tends towards the enrichment of rich people and the impoverishment of the poor. This bias in the economic system is evident in how it deals with the climate crisis. We should not be fooled when the president of the USA denies climate change. That’s camouflage. He is already planning – see his talk of buying Greenland- to make sure that the resources of poorer, smaller countries will be added to the resources of which his own country has been so careless. That’s how the system works. People may want to oppose it, and may even act against it, but they are working against the odds.

I don’t like writing about this truth. indeed I don’t like thinking about it. But it is already inscribed in the lives of Jamie and his family on the one hand, and those of his former employees on the other. Of course the world can be improved by programmes of social care and justice –  these are necessary to ameliorate the effects of the system – but they don’t touch the system itself, which does not exist by magic but by the compliance of all of us who are part of it. My pension comes from capital funds which make money for me because somewhere else, someone is not adequately paid for their work or their land. Profit always depends on someone being screwed, even if, in some cases, they like it.

Karl Marx understood this more than 150 years ago, describing the mechanisms of capital with love and accuracy. His own remedies, however, and even more those of his totalitarian disciples, created some of the worst tyrannies in history. But his democratic disciples, in Scandinavia and particularly in the Britain of 1945 -1960, created some of the best and most equal societies in history. They did so, not by abolishing capitalism as such, but by controlling its power for the common good.

This should be a clue for us, that as long as we have no vision of how to replace capitalism, we should determine to control it, without mercy, so that we cease to kow-tow to the Jamies (and much worse) of society, and give more power to the people he made redundant. I think many people would vote for such a programme, which might also be welcomed by religious people, for as Jesus said, “You cannot serve God and Capital.”

 

The greatest challenge that Bonhoeffer throws at the believer is when he states that “the New Testament is not the mythological clothing of a universal truth: the mythological – miracles, resurrection- are the real thing, only they must be interpreted in a non-religious way.”

I guess many have reacted as I have: great, but how exactly is this to be done?

Bonhoeffer defines religion as the practice of finding God in human weakness and at the margins of life, rather than in human strength and at the centre of life. Religion rests on the religious “a priori” of the existence of God. He sees Christian faith as accidentally caught up in religion, interpreting Paul’s struggle against the Jewish religious Law as a struggle for freedom from religion. If God has come to us in the weakness of Jesus, the man for others, we no longer have to seek God but have rather to share God’s weakness in the world.

So, how can we interpret, say, Jesus’ miracles, in a non-religious way?

1. Recognise that the miracles are not historical facts, but stories told by four different authors. Their meaning is embedded in the narrative of each Gospel.

2. Do not attempt to get behind what is often assumed to be naive credulity on the part of the writer, as for example, by explaining the miracle of the loaves and fishes as a spontaneous sharing of hitherto concealed resources by the crowd. That makes Jesus into an encourager of good behaviour. Mark however is making a contrast between King Herod, who consumes his people (the death of John the Baptist) and King Jesus who feeds his people. John on the other hand, wants to depict Jesus as the “bread of life, the true bread from heaven that nourishes human beings. In both cases the miraculous event is accepted as such by the author because it marks the presence of God in Jesus.

3. Do not then insist that we have to believe the miracle took place in the world as narrated. That’s the mistake of fundamentalism. But we do have to believe that it happens as narrated, IN THE STORY. We must not imagine ourselves to be wiser than the biblical author any more that we would think ourselves wiser than Tolstoy.

4. Does that mean we give up any direct relationship between the gospels and the historical events of Jesus’ life? Indeed,do we admit that Jesus is just a character in a book? Not at all. We note that the gospel writers want to communicate the gospel about a person who lived in history. Their united witness is that the person was a healer. Their different stories try to communicate the truth of his healings for readers who only have access to these events through their stories. If we look clearly at the differences amongst the four gospels, we can see that the authors allowed themselves a good deal of freedom in handling the traditions about Jesus. Perhaps the traditions themselves were already the result of such freedom.

5. See that the miracle stories of the gospels contradict the dominant narrative of Judaeo- Roman society in which power and stake holders are important and to be recognised, whereas the poor, the sick and the foreigner and their needs are considered negligible. The gospel miracles on the other hand show that God working through Jesus sees them as his dear children and is delighted to meet their needs. The stories subvert both the Roman imperial narrative and the Jewish religious narrative revealing the poor, the sinful, the needy, the outcast and the foreigner as key actors in God’s story.

6. Already the gospel writers were re-telling the miracle stories of Jesus for their societies which were different from his. We must find ways of re-telling them for our societies now, so that their critical and liberating power may be evident.

I have been accessing bits of the Christian tradition which deal with dying and death, because my friend and colleague Peter Thomson had been dying from cancer. He recently died and I spoke at his funeral service yesterday, where I quoted the following words from Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the gap truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the gap. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve — even at the cost of pain – the real relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the pain of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”

Bonhoeffer was a German pastor and theologian who returned from the safety of the USA to Germany in 1939 to share in the Church’s struggle against Nazism. His writings on Christian Community and the Cost of Discipleship had established his reputation as a a vigorous and distinctive follower of Karl Barth, who was influential  in framing the Barmen Declaration, in which the Confessing Church committed itself to the one word of God in Jesus, rejecting all attempts to make German nationalism an acceptable spiritual force. Bonhoeffer was to express that commitment in his support for the Stauffenberg plot to kill Hitler, as a result of which he was arrested, jailed and executed a few days before the war ended. In jail he wrote to family and friends letters which contain his deepest thoughts on faith.

I’ve been re-reading these, recognising the strength and originality of his thought while noting how he remained a man of his times, in, for example, his views on the authority of husbands over wives. His most exciting thought is his rejection of what he called “the God of the Gaps”, meaning the way in which modern theologians found the relevance of God in the gaps left by science – maybe we can still talk of the Creator because science has to leave the beginning of the universe as a mystery, or we can still look to Jesus for salvation because psychology can only describe our sickness but not provide a cure. Bonhoeffer said that this placed God in the areas of human weakness rather than human strength, and risked his complete irrelevance as human knowledge advanced.

The wonderful passage I’ve quoted above applies this thinking to the issue of bereavement, where of course there is a very obvious gap which some believers might want to fill with “God”, that is, with pious religion. Bonhoeffer thinks that God has too much respect for human relationships and human strength to fill that gap. Rather God leaves the gap unfilled so that the true relation can be kept open, even at the cost of pain. This advice is both profound and delicate, showing that his theology is not simply a matter of doctrines, but also a matter of practical caring.

He stated that we can well cope with death without the comfort of the resurrection. If we make resurrection the answer to the human fear of death, we tie God to our own lack of courage. Jesus was not raised from death to comfort his sad disciples, but to kick their butts and get them to challenge his killers. (This is my phraseology rather than Bonhoeffer’s, who was a gentleman.)

I like to think of my friend as having entered the irrepressible liveliness of God where he’s more likely to be blowing a trumpet than tinkling a harp.

I promised to translate more of Julian of Norwich from the original Middle English.

About this time I had a great longing and desire of God’s gift to be delivered from this world and this life. For many times I beheld the woe that is here and the goodness and blessed being that is there. And if there had been no other pain in this life but the absence of our Lord, it seemed to me sometimes more than I could bear. This made me mourn and yearn busily, as did also my own wretchedness, slowness and weariness, so that I did not want to live and trachle, as it fell to me to do.

And to all this our courteous Lord answered for comfort and patience, saying these words:

Suddenly you will be taken from all your pain, from all your sickness, and from all your woe. And you shall come up above and have me for your reward; and you shall be filled with joy and delight. And you shall nevermore have any kind of pain, sickness, uneasiness, no lack of will, but always endless joy and delight. Should it then grieve you at all, since it is my will and my honour?

And In this word, suddenly you will be taken, I saw that God rewarded mortals for the patience they have in waiting upon his will and his time. Mortals extend their patience over the time of their living, for they do not know the time of their dying. This is a great profit, for if they knew the date of their dying, they would not have patience over that time. God wills that while the soul is in the body, it should seem to it that it is always at the point of being taken. For all this life and this longing that we have here is but a point, and we when we shall be suddenly taken out of pain into delight, then pain shall be nothing.

It is more of a blessing, that mortals shall be taken from pain, than that pain should be taken from them. For if pain be taken from us, it may come again. Therefore, this is a sovereign comfort and a blessed vision for a longing soul, that we shall be taken from pain.

I was looking in my library for good comforting words to offer to a friend who is ill, and finding that most words of Christian comfort are over-concerned with the reputation of God and not enough with human trouble, when I picked up a book which I had neglected for too long, The “Showings” or “Revelations” of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century anchorite (hermit) in the Church of St. Julian in that city.

I had to study her book for my degree in English language and literature, but found that she, as a mere woman and Roman Catholic, was ignored in my subsequent theological study. She has become more prominent of late due to the rise of feminist theology, and to the fashion for spirituality, rightly so, because she is one of the great minds and spirits of the Christian tradition. As she wrote in Middle English, I have translated here a passage for my friend regarding prayer.

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After this our Lord showed me truth about prayer, in which showing I saw two topics in our Lord’s communication: rightful prayer and surer trust. (For still many times our trust is not full, for we are not sure that God hears us, as we imagine, due to our unworthiness, for we feel we are absolute zero. So often we are as barren and dry after our prayers as we were before.  Our daft feelings are therefore the cause of our weakness, as I have felt them myself.)

Our Lord brought all this suddenly to mind, when he showed me these words and said, “I am the ground of your asking: firstly, it is my will that you shall have it; secondly I make you desire it; then I make you ask for it, and you do seek it. How then should it be that you do not  get what you seek?

In these four reasons our Lord showed a mighty comfort, as may be seen if we examine the same words.

In the third reason, where he says, and you do seek it, there he shows what great delight and everlasting reward he will give us for our seeking. And in the fourth reason, where he says, How then should it be that you should not get it?  this is said as if it were impossible, since it is completely impossible that we should seek mercy  and grace and not have it. Indeed, everything that our good Lord makes us seek, he himself has designed for us from before creation. Here we can see that our asking is not the cause of the goodness and grace he does to us, but only his his own goodness, a fact he showed truly in those sweet words that he said, “I am the ground.” And the good Lord wants this to be known by his lovers on earth, so that the more we know, the more we shall ask, if we understand this wisely, as our Lord intends.

Asking is a true, gracious and enduring will of the soul, united and fastened to the will of our Lord by the sweet secret working of the Holy Spirit. Our Lord himself, he is the first receiver of our prayer in my view, and he accepts it very thankfully. As he enjoys it so much, he sends it up above and places it in a treasury where it shall never perish. It is there before God with all his holy saints, continually received, forwarding our needs. And when we enter into our eternal happiness it will be given back to us as a small instance of joy, with endless, dignifying thanks from him.

Our Lord is very glad and merry about our prayer, and he looks for it, and means to have it. With his grace he makes us like himself, as much in our present condition as we are in nature, for that is his blessed will. For he tells us, “Pray seriously, pray inwardly. Although it seems unpleasing to you, still it is profitable enough, even if you feel nothing. Pray seriously, pray inwardly, even if you feel nothing, even if you see nothing, yes, even if you think you cannot pray. For in dryness and barrenness, in sickness and feebleness, then your prayer is most pleasant to me although it seems unpleasant to you. And so are all your living prayers in my sight.”

So, in respect of the reward and endless gratitude that he will give us, he is covetous to have us praying continually in his sight. God accepts the goodwill and trouble of his servants, however we feel. Therefore it pleases him that we work in prayer and good living by his helping grace, always reasoning with good judgement, as we direct all our faculties to him, until we possess in complete joy the One we seek, namely Jesus.

Showing 14, chapter 41 of The Showings of Julian of Norwich

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This seems so good to me that I will provide some more tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This might be the last of my 10 commandments for would- be followers of Jesus, and it’s certainly got plenty of evidence to back it. Jesus was scathing about those who wanted to support him but could not leave their comforts behind, even if these included attendance at family funerals. “Let the dead bury the dead” he said, scandalously, reserving particular scorn for people who tried out discipleship but gave up, likening them to crofters who only managed to plough half a field.

In fact he was up front with his warnings, asking people to pick up their crosses and follow him.  The Pythons parodied this utterance memorably in the Life of Brian. But he was  was not suggesting mass crucifixion, or even as some believers think, that we all have our crosses to bear, but rather that his followers might have to oppose the Imperial power to the peril of their lives. Jewish jihadis made this choice, but Jesus was asking it from peaceable people.

“Foxes have holes, the birds of the air their nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He couldn’t have made it plainer that he was not promising comfort.

There is a radical edge to Jesus’ ministry: in the name of God’s kingdom he was opposed to the way of the world, not out of asceticism – he liked eating and drinking- but out of passionate opposition to its injustice and hypocrisy. He did not teach people to bear with the world’s wrongs, but to fight them with truth and lovingkindness.

It’s helpful to compare Jesus to his great disciple, St Francis, who was similarly brusque to any brother or sister who looked for a comfortable life. But Francis was an ascetic; he loved poverty and the spirit; hated riches and the body. There is something almost unhealthy and pathological, in Francis’ dislike of comfort. Jesus, however, loved people, companionship, and the welcoming table, but accepted  that his mission would mean deprivation of these good things.

A liking for comfort is not contrary to the example of Jesus; thinking you are entitled to it, is.