An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Sunday, 15 October 2006

Richard Russell on 1 Cor 1-2 and anti-intellectualism (part 1)

These notes represent the thoughts of Richard Russell after reflecting on someone else’s sermon on 1 Cor 1 and 2.

1.Tell me if I am being unduly sensitive here as a former professional philosopher and currently writing a book on Christian philosophy...but I did feel an underlying anti-intellectualism running through the sermon which I don't believe has good warrant from the Bible generally or from the passages referred to from 1 Corinthians.

The speaker claimed (rightly) that Paul was very highly educated. He also claimed that at his conversion "all his cleverness, all his learning is gone in a trice". Yes his worldview is transformed from Pharasaic Judaism (centred on Israel , the law and the temple) to a recognition that Jesus is the promised Messiah of God. This means that all his education/ cleverness and learning is now dedicated to another vision - as is clearly manifest in his writings and debates with brilliant and sophisticated political/cultural/intellectual /religious leaders throughout the Roman world. If Paul had become un-educated, stupid and simple he could have never written and done what he did...he could have never been the apostle to the Gentiles.

The opposition Paul encounted on his travels was not the dismissal of some simpleton with some half-baked "simple Gospel" - he would simply been seen as a joke. Rather it was his penetrating criticism of the very religious and philosophical pre-suppositions of classical pagan culture that produced both converts and enemies. No different in essence from the Old Testament prophets exposing the idolatry behind cultural practices. To cap it all I am struck by the finesse of Jesus' argumentative and debating skills, his logical penetration of underlying issues, his use of evidence and parrying questions...already happening by the time he was 12 years old. No wonder that a leading philosopher at the University of California has recently produced a paper with the title "Jesus the logician" ! And there was no doubt that Jesus was a politician (and political theorist) articulating his views about the nature of a just and happy society. Not surprisingly wherever the Church has been reformed and renewed we find we find leaders - Luther, Calvin ,Comenius, Cromwell, Wesley , Carey, Kuyper,etc.— whose intellectual capacities are fully engaged in clarification and controversery concerning the Biblical message, the state of the church and the culture.

2. Where does the anti-intellectual bias come from in our church culture? This is a complex story here so let me pick out a few threads.

First the 18th century Enlightenment saw "penetrating reason" as the glory of human nature (as had the pagan Greek philosophers). In reaction the 19th century Romantic movement posited "deep feeling" instead and vilified "reason". Romanticism was embraced by the Evangelicalism of the time and the concepts of "head" and "heart" came into currency as basic categories with which to interpret human reality. "Head" is dodgy, superficial, shallow, unspiritual and ungodly. "Heart" by contrast is authentic, deep, real, spiritual and godly. Likewise whereas the Enlightenment had seen cultured rational educated adult men as the people in touch with reality, this was inverted by Romanticism. So it idealised the uneducated, the unsophisticated, the immature , the simple—children, peasants and women.(Have you ever wondered why men are such a minority in (evangelical) churches and the men you do find can seem a bit wimpy and domesticated?)

It may come as a bit of a shock that this head/heart analysis is completely unbiblical...indeed anti-biblical. The Scriptures use the word translated "heart" not to mean merely the seat of emotionality but as the deepest centre of human identity and therefore the source of all our ways of being—acting, willing, speaking, thinking as well as feeling. Biblically there is no "head". Indeed "the head"(="the reason" or "the mind") is a philosophical joke. It has turned a function of the heart "thinking "( a doing verb) into a noun as if it was a thing "the mind". So head/heart talk is unedifying nonsense...we should ban it!

Secondly, the mass marketing mentality involved in the origins of modern mass evangelism. The pressure here is to make the gospel of the Kingdom of God into a straightforward consumable product reducible to a few spiritual laws, a few simple texts or a easy formula, so that a "sale" of the "product "can be clinched after the shortest of conversations. Then you publish the "sales" figures—so millions more want the "product". And a very good living can be enjoyed by the captains of this industry like the tele-evangelists, God's sales men. All this seems a million miles from the fullness and richness of the "great commission" given by Jesus in Matthew 28. (It may not come as a surprise that many of the key people in the birth of the modern American advertising industry have demonstrable evangelical backgrounds—adverts far more manipulate our desires and fears rather than inform us clearly and honestly about the product in question. The advertisers all preach "another Gospel"— we can be saved, made happy, made popular, made exclusive, made younger, made secure, made powerful , made beautiful and desirable, etc,etc—by "simply" ("simply" again) purchasing their goods or services. And they know (but do we know ?) we are not just purchasing a product but a lifestyle, a worldview.

3. Exposition of Corinthians. The speaker said that Paul admits that the Gospel is complete foolishness. To say that is to agree with the pagan philosophers. Paul to the contrary is actually saying that the Gospel is the objectively deep wisdom of God for us, and the pagan philosophers are fools for not recognising it, and so their "wisdom" is spurious. The passage from Isaiah 29:14 about God destroying the "wisdom of the wise" is about the "wise" in Judah thinking than an alliance with Egypt can save them when threatened by Assyria. This has nothing to do with some implied animosity on God's part towards intelligence or wisdom which are beautiful gifts of the Creator not to be despised in the fashion of the Romantics. The pagan philosophers end up abusing their intellectual gifts by putting them at the service of a false view of reality which they pit against the way things really are.(So even God's little people are better off than they are). And what a waste - their God-given gifts could enable them to be Paul's fellow workers and equals. They really would be able to rattle the bars of classical pagan culture "from the inside"! They are missing out on key jobs in the Kingdom of God in order to defend a worldview and culture which has no future and is built on sand.

4. Philosophy has a vital role in human life and society. It is a response to the big worldview questions that every human needs to ask: Who am I? Where am I? What's wrong with the world? What's the remedy? In our society many people are scared of these questions. Often they turn the question of the meaning of life into a joke, like Pilate when he mockingly and ironically asked Jesus "What is truth?" without waiting for a reply. So escapism - overwork, drugs, home -improvement, sport, computers, art, children, drink, sex, anything and everything - is the order of the day - anything to stop that primeval call of God "Where are you Adam?" echoing in our minds. This is a call to take adult responsibility before our Creator for what we are doing in his name -as we must for we bear his image and represent him on earth.

But even if we try to avoid philosophical questions we cannot avoid philosophical presuppositions about human rights and justice, the status of animals, the scope of science, the point of education, the best economic system, the validity of war, the causes of crime, the relationships between nations, the human prospect for the future and much more.

So we simply can't just "reject” philosophy—we can't avoid it. It can be quite amusing to listen to those who reckon they are a philosophy free zone who have their thinking and speaking structured by all sorts of dubious philosophical distinctions and categories e.g. practical/theoretical, fact/value, head/heart, fact/theory, subjective/objective, individual/society, absolute/relative, time/eternity. So instead of being conformed to the escapism and immaturity of our violent, sick, sad, stressed society the Christian community should enthusiastically and rigorously engage with all these questions – after all we are the only people who should dare to do so – if all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Christ as Paul maintains in Colossians. Our job is to disclose and display these treasures before a watching and cynical world which has nearly given up hope that there can be any good news from anywhere. The fruit of this engagement will be Christian philosophy rooted in the great narrative of creation, fall and restoration through Christ, through whom and for whom all things exist.

5. The Cross; just a brief comment. The speaker focussed exclusively of the reconciliation of the individual to God as the significance of the cross. Jesus died in my place so my soul will go to heaven. If this is taken to be the heart of the Gospel then it is deeply reductionistic if not a travesty. Paul's gospel is so much bigger and more glorious. In Colossian 1:19-20 he writes: "For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood shed on the cross." In short through the second Adam all the baleful consequences of the fall – the alienations between heaven and earth, people and God, people and people, people and the non-human creation- would be overcome, and the shalom of God through Christ would characterise everything.

Also it will not be my "soul "going to "heaven" but rather my body being resurrected , finding its final home in the renewed earth – as Romans 8 explains.( The soulish stuff comers right out of pagan philosopher Plato!) As for heaven, it is plainly unmarketable. Who in their right mind wants to "go to heaven" if heaven is thought of as something beyond space and time, beyond description with lots of light, angels and worship for eternity? You really need to be desperate to find such an alien place attractive – a raging toothache or worse might do the trick – "Someone put me out of my misery!".. Much ancient philosophy and oriental religions (eg Buddhism) despair of the world and want to transcend it somehow. But we know that God so loved the cosmos and that Jesus is the saviour of the cosmos – that the kingdoms of this world will become the kingdom of or Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever. (Rev.11:15).

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