Sermon 01/29/2023 – Wisdom’s Warring Madness

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scholar? 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, God decided, through the foolishness of the proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews ask for signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to abolish things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. In contrast, God is why you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Sermon Text

            I have always had people look at me strangely when I tell them what I majored in in college. They hear that I had a religious studies major, and that I focused mostly on historical theology, and that all tracks for them. However, the minute that I bring up that my primary work for most of college was actually in Chemistry, heads tend to go to one side. People do not expect ministers to be scientists, or as the case may sometimes be, scientists to be ministers. Yet, as many people in the sciences are religious as people outside of them, so why wouldn’t some of them take the step into ministry?

I believe some of the issue is that we have created, in the past three hundred years broadly, but really in the last hundred years locally, a separation between science and religion, faith and reason, that is completely artificial. We in America especially, envisioning the Scopes monkey trial and the entire career of Ken Ham, imagine that there are two kinds of people – scientists who abhor God and faithful people who abhor science. This “Great Divorce,” between the two worlds has led to a central problem – wherever there is not communication, there is misunderstanding. That misunderstanding can cause a lot of trouble, it can even kill.

I can only really speak to Christianity on how these two interact but let us look at some facts. Mental health issues affect 20% of Americans, but because we have put a separation between mental health sciences and the Church, only recently are people in churches comfortable engaging with getting help.[1] Not specific to Christianity, but certainly present within the Church is a lack of understanding about medicine on a wider scale as well. Hesitancy to vaccination has expanded in recent years. This has led to a resurgence of Measles, Mumps, and other childhood diseases we had nearly eradicated.[2] More than that, the perception of a war between Science and Faith has led to an inability for faithful people to engage with those scientific issues that become mainstream.

This issue is not just an issue of the Church either. While many scientists of faith, and even secularists like Carl Sagan, worked for years to educate the world and to bring down the hifalutin jargon of science from its ivory tower, there are few people willing to do the same work today. As a child of the nineties, I hate to admit that I find Bill Nye obnoxious today – less of an educator and more of a media figure. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, brilliant though he is, exists in the public consciousness only to shame people and media for not being 100% accurate 100% of the time.Gone is the humility and skill of someone like Sagan, who first awakened my love of science with a rerun of Cosmos in my childhood, now is only personality and outrage media.

Yet, there are figures who continue to bridge the gap. Science was truly an exercise of faith for many people throughout history. Algebra, Optics, and Chemistry as we know them today were begun by Muslim scientists during the Islamic golden age. Modern genetics was begun by a monk named Gregor Mendel. The Big Bang was rejected at first as a  theory of cosmic origin, because a Catholic built the model, Even the current Pope, before he was a priest, was a chemist. The two worlds of science and religion, faith and reason, are always seeking after one another, always trying to reconcile, but there are always obstacles to that reconciliation.

On one hand, it is impossible to inject faith into scientific hypotheses and still call them scientific. Science is, first and foremost, falsifiable. You cannot disprove that God might have done something in a situation, and so you cannot include God in a hypothesis you are creating. Some people of faith have issues with scientific theory as a result of this, but like the book of Esther where God is never mentioned once, I think the discovery of all causes physical does not mean that we cannot use the material to learn about the immaterial.

On the other hand, faith often struggles against the cold rationalism of science. As I said above, you cannot include God in scientific theory to avoid biases, and that makes some people uncomfortable. More than that, science can sometimes expand our conceptions about God, and that makes us uncomfortable. Take for example the realization that the universe is fourteen billion years old, and the earth is four billion years old. For some Christians, this has to be rejected, as the church has always held the earth is a few centuries over six thousand years old. For others, this is a chance to rethink what we know about God, to marvel in a deity that took billions of years to craft a cosmos fit for our small little lives, and to hold that cherished thing in his hands.

Frequently cited in this conflict is the verse that we read today. “God has made foolish the wisdom of this world,” is applied to all pursuits of knowledge that seem to conflict with our faith. If something is new and challenging, it is weighed against the world as we know it and rejected. Faith, this interpretation demands, means that no matter how major or material an observation is, it cannot stand if it challenges orthodoxy. God’s wisdom, the wisdom of the Cross, overcomes any earthly observation or truth. Why else would Paul elsewhere reject, “philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental principles of the world, and not according to Christ.”[3]

Context is, as always, how we can uncover what Paul means by this. In Colossians, the source of that latest quotation, Paul is addressing a group in the Church promising secret knowledge and a next level faith. “Yes, you’ve heard about Jesus, but have you considered purchasing the Jesus+ plan.” Paul is therefore warning Christians from the fact that other Christians might deceive them by sounding very knowledgeable about spiritual things, but who are really only after more power. In our Corinthians text, the context of wisdom and foolishness is specific to one thing only, the one place I will always insist faith must overcome reason. That issue is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

There is nothing logical or rational to it, it attacks and destroys any neat theology or philosophy we might form around it. Try to explain why God, the infinite God of the universe, chose this one specific way to reconcile us to that same divinity. A thousand answers probably swarm into our head, answers we have been told in seminary and in Sunday school all our life. Paul attempts to explain it time and time again, but Paul bases all his explanation on the reality that it happened, and the faith that it was sufficient and necessary, and only secondarily makes any attempt to fully understand and wrestle with those two things. The cross is a place where infinite questions emerge.

God died. God suffered. God, who could have found another way, or else would be lacking in the divine freedom that defines God’s power in creation, chose this one as the one and only way. Why? How? In what way really? Paul cites two potential opponents to this idea – his fellow Jews who would be thinking of the scripture, “Cursed is he who hangs on a tree,” and so would deny a criminal’s death as holy.[4] On the other side are the Greeks who want a coherent philosophy behind this faith. To both of them he says, “I am a fool! I have nothing for either of you except that this is true, that this is real, that I have seen it as real and cannot argue anything else.” Later on, he doubles down on this, saying that he may be a fool for believing in the cross, but if his faith in the resurrection is misplaced, then he really should be pitied.[5]

The fact is, that outside of this one core conceit, there is nothing to battle between faith and reason. We have different things we address in daily life. I cannot, in talking about the keto-tautomerization of compounds, draw a circle around a mechanism I do not know and say, “God did that part.” However, neither does the knowledge that the intricate systems of our world have material foundations and explanations prevent me from marveling that the God I believe in had a part in it. There is antagonism from secularists against people of faith, to be sure, and antagonism from people of faith toward the sciences. However, that antagonism is not inherent to our ways of being. The Jewish sage, Maimonides, argued that to really understand God’s work in the world, we all ought to know the sciences, and I like that way of thinking.[6]

There is a symphony present around us, the thrumming of electrons not just in the lights above us, but in every cell of our body. Every molecule is a sea of energy, swimming around a densely packed collection of protons and neutrons that associate with each other out of energetic convenience. Machines forged by eons of fine tuning are at work every moment, making new bones and tissues, cleaning out the old and disused. The air we breathe swirls in turbid spiral that only Van Gogh dreamt of before science imaged them. God ordained a heavens that is precise as a clock, and interrupts it only to shower mercy and love upon it.

We ought to be Holy Fools, to proclaim a crucifixion and a resurrection that has no explanation except that God loves us and God alone was enough to set things right. Yet, we are not to be fools in understanding the world itself. We should take time to learn the sciences, to learn history, to appreciate art, to engage with all the wisdom of the ages. Why? Because there is one truth in this universe, the truth God has given, and whatever ways we can get it, we ought to. The more we know of the universe, the more we can see God’s hand in it. Let us commit ourselves then to understanding this beautiful cosmos we inhabit and cease the warring madness which have so long prevented us from learning from one another. – Amen.

[1] Matthew S. Stanford (2007) Demon or disorder: A survey of attitudes toward mental illness in the Christian church, Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 10:5, 445-449, DOI: 10.1080/13674670600903049

[2] Patel M, Lee AD, Redd SB, et al. Increase in Measles Cases — United States, January 1–April 26, 2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2019;68:402–404. DOI: icon.

[3] Colossians 2:8

[4] Deuteronomy 21:23 c.f. Galatians 3:13

[5] 1 Corinthians 15:19

[6] Shafer, Sara Teresa. 2012. “The Wisdom of this World: Maimonides and Paul at the Interface of Science and Faith.” The International Journal of Science in Society 3 (3): 95-106. doi:10.18848/1836-6236/CGP/v03i03/51335.

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