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The Weakness of God

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“…the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
—1 Corinthians 1:25

It is tempting to regard what Paul said in 1 Corinthians as meaning that God, at his weakest, is still stronger than all the strength humans can muster. After all, God is reputedly all-powerful. Surely human strength can be no match for God’s infinite power. Yet I don’t think that is what Paul had in mind at all. This whole passage argues that God’s wisdom and power displayed in Jesus Christ is of a different order altogether from the wisdom and power of human beings.

Our heroes are men and women whose accomplishments stand out from those of their peers. Generals who lead troops into battle, statesmen who avert war, women who overcome misogyny and make significant contributions to science, famous poets or novelists, even accomplished athletes—these are our heroes. They makes us want to emulate them. Jesus was like none of these. He did not lead a nation or an army. His followers were mostly poor and of little account. He made no significant discoveries, never wrote a poem or a book. He didn’t even do what his enemies accused him of: he didn’t lead a rebellion against Rome. If you ignore his teaching, the only noteworthy things he did are almost too improbable to be believed: healing the sick without medicine and feeding the hungry with scant resources, walking on water, raising the dead. Most improbable of all, his followers claim he rose from the dead after being tortured to death and buried for three days. Everything about his life and work reveals a man who was evidently a lunatic with nothing to show for his years on earth except an unusually devoted following. As a representative of God, he comes across as weak, even feeble.

His strength, which became the true strength of the Church, was in two things, both of which Paul goes on to foreground in 1 Corinthians 2, his teaching and the power of the Spirit of God. Yet even his teaching was weakness and foolishness. He taught that we should love our enemies instead of trying to get the better of them. He taught that we should forgive those who offend us instead of retaliating. He taught that we should oppose violence with acquiescence to violence. If we made movies with Jesus’ conception of how to live a good life, at the end the good guys would lay down their weapons and submit to being killed. Likewise, the power of the Spirit of God was not to subdue evil in the world but to overcome it in one’s own heart. God’s Spirit enables Jesus’ followers to live, however imperfectly, in accordance with his teaching.

When Paul lists Christian virtues, they are too weak to even be called virtues. Paul calls them fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22, 23). Notably absent are classical Greek virtues such as courage, prudence, and justice. Only self-control gets a mention, and it is last. Paul even boasts about his own weakness. and declares that when he is weak, he is strong. We tend to value defiance, seeing it as a sign of courage. Our movie heroes are almost always defiant when captured and almost always have to be physically subdued. Yet Jesus taught meekness and humility and persistence in the face of powerful injustice. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. learned from Jesus’ example and used nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation and Jim Crow in the American south. His followers, far from being defiant, endured beatings and police brutality to awaken the conscience of the nation and shame the powerful for allowing injustice to continue.

Again and again throughout history the weak prevail against the strong not by force but by persistence and love. It is not the rich and powerful who end injustice; they too often benefit from its continuance. It is the poor and weak who unite against injustice and shame the powerful into doing what is right.

We Christians are taught to expect persecution for our faith. Some have taken that to mean that we suffer for our moral high-mindedness and piety, but those were characteristics of the Pharisees and religious hypocrites whom Jesus excoriated. No, the persecution we Christians—especially American Christians who enjoy so many protections under our Constitution—should expect to endure is for standing with the weak and powerless, for lifting up the cause of the widow and orphan, for advocating for people of color, for taking to the streets to protect the rights of women and immigrants and poor people, for continuing to feed the hungry when city ordinances forbid it.

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Taking God Literally

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Listening to the gospel of John over the past couple of days it struck me how often Jesus was misunderstood and how little he did to make himself clear. Moreover, those who misunderstood him almost always did so through taking what he said literally. When he drove the moneychangers out of the temple, he told his critics, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will rebuild it.”

“This building has been under construction for 46 years, but you will rebuild it in 3 days?”

Not even his disciples understood him. John lets his readers know what it all meant, but in doing so, he lets slip that no one got it until after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus makes no effort to explain that he was talking about the temple of his body, but it became a part of Paul’s teaching later on.

Later, Nicodemus reveals his own ignorance in taking Jesus’ talk about being born again as a literal rebirth. “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus has to break it down for him. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, and spirit gives birth to spirit.” He was talking about a spiritual birth that would open Nicodemus’ eyes to spiritual truth. Paul picks up on this too.

The woman at the well supposes that the living water Jesus talks of giving her will make daily trips to the well unnecessary. He has to explain to her that he is talking about something spiritual. He tells her that God is on the look out for people who will worship him “in spirit and in truth” rather than worshiping in a particular place—and by doing so segregating themselves into “mountain worshipers” and “temple worshipers.”

A couple of chapters further on, Jesus tells the crowds following him that they must eat his flesh and drink his blood. To make matters worse, he sounds as if he wants to be taken literally: “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink,” he explains. What kind of crazy talk is this? Is Jesus recommending cannibalism? Many disciples abandon Jesus at this point. They can’t make sense of what he is saying. But the Twelve stick with him, not because they understand him any better, but because they trust him anyway.

Again and again, Jesus says things that his hearers try to shoehorn into a literal interpretation. Again and again, Jesus either leaves them to try and work it out for themselves or patiently explains that he’s talking about spiritual things. When Philip insists that Jesus show them the Father, Jesus sounds really disappointed. You can almost hear him say, “Really, Phil? I’ve been showing you the Father this whole time. How can you even say that?”

Even when he is facing Pilate, Jesus continues to use metaphorical language, although he is careful to explain it to the gentile.

So, what does all this mean? I think it calls into question how much we really understand of God’s word when we insist on taking it literally. Jesus insisted that God’s word is true, but the truth he was interested in was not whether 2 million Israelites could really survive in the desert for 40 years or whether Jonah could really survive for three days in the belly of a big fish. No, the truth he was interested in was the revelation of God’s character: his love and faithfulness and righteousness. The truth that the world needs to hear is that God loves them and has good plans for them if they will only turn from trying to do everything themselves and making a mess of things. They don’t need to hear our unscientific theories about how God could have created the world in a literal six days. They need to hear Jesus say, “Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”

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Magical Thinking

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Read and comment on my blog.

Arthur C. Clarke propounded that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” (Clarke’s third law). Certainly, we have reached the point where our own technology seems magical to some. We can communicate instantly with almost anyone almost anywhere on the globe. We have devices that can pinpoint our position on the earth within a few dozen feet and calculate a route for us to follow to get to any destination, even taking into account heavy traffic and road construction. Computing technology has advanced so quickly that science fiction can no longer stay ahead of it. The blinking lights and toggle switches of thirty years ago feel almost as ancient now as wooden water wheels and ox-drawn plows. Computer interfaces have become increasingly simple. We will soon have interfaces that can understand a wide range of spoken languages, perhaps even translating on the fly. These technologies, which seemed far-fetched only a few decades ago, are now within our grasp.

Nevertheless, there is an important difference between technology and magic that has enabled even the most primitive cultures to easily grasp that the wonders of modern technology are man-made, not magical. Put simply it is this: technology works according to easily accessible principles of cause and effect, but magic works by performing rituals that have no discernible connection to the desired outcome.

The difference between technology and magic is the difference between scientific thinking and magical thinking. For example, suppose I give you a little box with a button on it, and I tell you that every time you press the button, your garage door will open if it is closed or close if it is open. Can you test this assertion? Certainly. You press the button and see if the garage door opens. Wow! It works! But how does it work? You try pressing the button when you’re at a friend’s house. Nothing happens. You try pressing it when you’re on a nearby hill where you can see the garage. Nothing happens. You learn with a little experimentation that you have to be within about 150 feet for the button to work. Perhaps you examine the garage and see a motor that activates when you press the button. The motor is attached to a chain, and the chain is attached to your garage door. When the motor activates, it raises or lowers the door. You can do all this and see all this knowing nothing about radio waves, yet you know that what you are seeing is not magic. It is technology. It works; it obeys simple rules; you can see some of the connections that make the system operate.

Now, suppose you give me a little box with a button on, but you tell me that pressing the button will give me healing hands so that the next person I touch will be healed of a disease. I decide to try it out, and it seems to work. Everyone I touch after pressing the button gets better. A few get better right away, but most get better after several days. Another few get better after many days or even a stay in the hospital. Still, I have good success with the button, and I begin to believe in its power. Then somebody I touch after using the button dies a few days later. Maybe there are limits to the power of the button. It doesn’t always work, but neither does your garage door opener.

So what is the difference? When I use the button, I do not see any discernible pattern in how I use it and the results I get. Sure, almost everyone gets better, but perhaps they would have gotten better anyway. In addition, I don’t see any connection between my use of the button and any other phenomenon. When you press your button, you can see a motor activate and see how it connects to the door and raises it. For me to believe in the effectiveness of my button in the face of objections requires magical thinking. Somehow, pressing the button imparts healing power to my hands. I don’t know how it works; I can’t explain it, but I know when I touch people after pressing the button they get better.

It may seem that only religious people are subject to magical thinking, but this is not so. Nearly everyone at some time or other has tried to influence events outside there control by observing some kind of ritual. People of no particular religion talk about gremlins getting into their computer or about how some good deed they have done gives them a karmic edge in a competition. Sometimes when I am driving with my daughter, and she doesn’t want to be delayed by any traffic lights, she will intone as we approach a red light, “Turn green. Turn green.” If the light turns green before we get to it, she will claim that she made it turn green. Of course, if I seriously pressed her, she would acknowledge that she can’t control traffic lights, but in more desperate circumstances, people are willing to try more desperate measures even if they doubt their efficacy.

Magical thinking doesn’t merely claim ignorance; it claims that the connection between ritual and outcome is unknowable or inexplicable. Scientific thinking may well claim ignorance, but it will also insist on devising experiments with a testable hypothesis to see just how a particular cause produces an observed effect. Magical thinking ignores or suppresses evidence; scientific thinking welcomes evidence.

We know now about diseases caused by microbes. People used to think they were caused by evil spirits. Microbes are invisible; so are evil spirits. Overcoming microbes requires expert intervention (a doctor); so does overcoming evil spirits (a priest or shaman). But microbes can be seen if we have the right instruments. They can be cultivated. We can discover what they need to survive and what wastes they produce. We can’t do any of that with evil spirits. This is not to say that spirits do not exist. It is to say that we should not expect to find physical evidence of spiritual phenomena. Someone who claims that the spiritual world does not exist because there is no physical evidence for it, is like a deaf man who refuses to believe in music because no one can tell him what color it is.

Belief in a spiritual world, however, should not make us think that we can control the physical world through ritual observances—any ritual observances. Prayer has no measurable effect on the physical world. Why should it? The purpose of prayer is not to give Christians control of the world but to give God control of the Christians. If we live in obedience to him, with our minds tuned to his Spirit, then we will transform the world. If we think that living by biblical principles is a means to worldly wealth and prosperity, then we will become conformed to the world and nothing good will come of us.

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