1 Corinthians 1: 26-30Rollins Chapel, 4/15/12
Frederick Nietzsche is often considered one of the most able critics of Christianity ever to have put pen to paper. I personally do not find his arguments compelling. But for all his faults, Nietzsche understood much about Christianity that many contemporary people— both Christian and non-Christian—fail to understand. Nietzsche disliked Christianity so strongly in part because he believed that Christianity had initiated what he called "a slave revolt," in which the weak and powerless of this world rose up against their naturally strong, intellectually superior, aristocratic masters. This slave revolt, he thought, was to be regretted.
Much of Nietzsche's actual historical speculations are wrong, but he captured the spirit of the Christian message better than many. He understood that Christianity was radically opposed to the logic and wisdom of the world. Not that Christianity holds the world to be evil. Christ said, "I have not come to condemn the world, but to save it." The world is, at root, good.
But Christ's words presuppose that the world needs to be saved. In the fallen state of our world, deformed by sin, our natural tendency is to seek above all our own selfish ends, and to rationalize this selfishness. We seek power to serve our ends, we seek knowledge to manipulate things to our advantage. Christ came to save us from this double bondage of our mind and our will. In doing so, he preached a message, and lived a life, that is radically subversive of our natural tendencies. We naturally praise worldly wisdom and worldly power, but Christ inverted this.
Blessed, he told us, are the poor, the weak, the sorrowful. These are not the words of the world; instead they stand in profound contradiction to the values of the world. The passage from Corinthians that I choose expresses this sentiment: God choose the weak, the foolish, the unimportant, the lowly to spread His message of Love. As St. Martin put it: "salvation was preached to the world not by orators, but by fishermen." That God choose fishermen—a low, despised class in Christ's place and time—to spread his message was profoundly radical and subversive of our notions of wisdom.
"Where," St. Paul asks elsewhere in First Corinthians, "is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" Christ did not do what we, in our worldly wisdom, would expect. We would expect Him to come in His glory, but he came in meekness. He was born in a stable, and preferred the company of the ignorant masses to the company of the philosophers and he wise scribes of the law. In so doing, He, so to speak, identified Himself with the weak, with the powerless, with the ignorant.
Nietzsche, as I said, essentially understood this. In his work The Antichrist, he wrote “What is good?—Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself, in man. What is evil?—Whatever springs from weakness. What is happiness?—The feeling that power increases—that resistance is overcome. Not contentment, but more power; not peace at any price, but war; not virtue, but efficiency. The weak and the botched shall perish: first principle of our charity. And one should help them to it. What is more harmful than any vice?—Practical sympathy for the botched and the weak—Christianity....”
But he was wrong about one thing. God did not come to pit the weak against the strong and the ignorant against the wise. He came to show that worldly weakness is strength and worldly foolishness is wisdom. He redefined these concepts for us. It is in the fullness of our finitude, in the limitations that we run up against in daily lives, in our weakness, our sinfulness, our foolishness, it is in these that we meet God. Our finitude becomes the nexus for our meeting with God: it is in embracing our finitude that we attain to the humility that is at the heart of God's wisdom.
What this means is that finitude takes on, for the Christian, a positive value. We are able to see weakness and foolishness not merely as something shameful to be avoided or something distasteful to be enslaved by Nietzsche's ubermench, but as a condition charged with meaning and transcendence.
David Bentley Hart, the contemporary Orthodox theologian and one of my favorite writers, got to the heart of Christian wisdom in his book Atheist Delusions. It’s a long quote, but it's much better to listen to him than to me, anyway.
"The essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-- in purely pragmatic terms--a more 'natural' disposition towards reality...In the light of Christianity's absolute law of charity, we came to see that formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses. To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls.”
When God came and showed us that foolishness is wisdom and weakness is strength he upset everything. The question is whether we, as a post-Christian society, can continue to look at a disabled child or criminal with love, whether we can continue to allow a place for weakness. I tend to think we can’t. We already see the equivalent of exposure—the cruel ancient practice of leaving unwanted babies in the wilderness to die, endorsed by the wise of the world, including Aristotle—returning in our society. Two Australian Academic philosophers recently published a peer-review article in a journal of medical ethics arguing that infanticide is morally permissible.
We have a stark choice before us between Christianity and a Nietzschean nightmare: which will we choose? I have no answer to this question, but I hope and pray that we may again allow Christ to dwell in us and teach us about foolishness and weakness. I pray that we in the academy realize that our legitimate attempts to pursue scholarship must bow down before a wisdom that the world knows not.
I think of Blessed Pier Gorgio Frassati. He was an Italian lay Catholic in the 20th century, who died in his twenties. By the wisdom of the world, he would have been judged harshly: he was not a very good student and constantly struggled in his studies. And yet he was rich in the wisdom of God. He came from a wealthy family, but when he would ride the train, he would always go third class and give the leftover train fare to the poor. His friends once asked him why he did this. He answered, "Because there is no fourth class."
That is the wisdom of God. It is wisdom that I do not know, but that I pray I will one day learn.
1 Corinthians 1: 26-30
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 reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption.