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.

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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.