The imagination of argument

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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