Jan 30 — Confessions of a Contrarian

St. Paul Preaching in Athens

Psalm 15
O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy mountain?
He who lives without blame,
who does what is right,
and in his heart acknowledges the truth;
who has had no slander upon his tongue;
who has never done harm to his fellow,
or borne reporoach for [his acts toward] his neighbor;
for whom a contemptible man is abhorrent,
but who stands by his oath even to his own hurt,
and does not retract,
who has enver lent money at interest,
or accepted a bribe against the innocent.
The man who acts thus shall never be shaken. (transl. Nahum Sarna)

I Corinthians 1:17-25

I have a love/hate relationship with this passage from First Corinthians. I do not like it because it spawns all kinds of ill-considered sermons with statements like “Paul wants us to put aside our thoughts and enter into the world of the gospel with our hearts. Jesus confounds all attempts to think reasonably about God.”   That kind of claptrap, about what is of ultimate importance to us, leads only to bad ethics and is bad for the church and bad for the world.

But when I read this passage, I hear an exhortation to think very carefully about God. I hear Paul pleading with his people not to be swayed by everything they hear.  I hear him suggesting that it is important to put your own thinking to so you might be able to judge was is good and true.

The first verse of our reading, illustrates well what I love as a preacher and theologian about this passage.

For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. (I Cor. 1:17)

Now, I obviously baptize. I like baptising. Perhaps Paul did too. What we do know without speculation is that one of the issues that Paul addresses in this letter is the matter of people using baptism in order to establish their claims to the leadership of a group. The people who were baptised by Peter, followed Peter and the people baptised by Apollos followed Apollos.

Paul’s task, the call to which he has answered and committed his life, is to preach the gospel to all the world — specifically to strangers, not just to people who like him.  The nature of that task does not deviate from the content of this thinking.  For Paul, God is the one who is worshipped.  Worship for Paul, is more than territorial claims of human society.  This is not simply an idea he has cooked up, but holds an inner logic that reflects what it means to be fully human.  God then, is the “wholeness of the world, correlative to the wholeness of every sound individual dealing with the world.” (Hartshorne, p.6)

In Paul’s charge to preach this wholeness of the world, he faces the difficulty of church, cut off from this wholeness through its practice of the sacraments.  These divisions will not be overcome by more sacraments when it is unclean that the sacrament is meant to get us to see beyond the person leading it, or the group involved.

It is only with the help of theology that the community may lay claim to the power of God. Paul calls this foolishness not because it is unreasonable, not because it is illogical, but precisely because the logic of God’s powerlessness is offensive to the one who worships power. This of course, included, and still includes religious people who worship a God of power and might. It includes “Those who lend money at interest; those who take bribes against the innocent; those who take advantage of the stranger,” to quote our Psalmist.

Because the worship of God has to do with the whole integration of my thoughts and values with the one who is the wholeness of the world, it makes sense to periodically write, in as clear and brief prose as is possible, how I see that happening.  I have called this confessions of a contrarian, in the spirit of this wholeness, about which the great American poet, Walt Whitman wrote,

Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large—I contain multitudes.

The Psalmist seems to agree.  We are both on a journey and located in one place. Connected by our nature, to the eternal flow and philosophy of time.

I think all three of these characters agree, the basic tenet of a contrarian philosophy is a humility of thought.  To think at all requires that we recognize with Whitman, that we are fragmentary — that we see and know, but a small part of that whole of which God exemplifies.  We come before God, therefore seeking to know fully, and recognizing that we are incomplete.

So here’s a statement.

First and foremost, I believe that what I think and preach about God should be believed by others if, and only if, by their own insight into things worthy of belief, they find it so for themselves. I do not believe, however, in the rugged individual, but in the human being who is in community. The illuminating fact which makes us human beings is that we are nothing except what we receive; yet we receive nothing except by our own insight.

I believe that it is possible to be truthful in our dealings with the world and with one another. I believe that such a thing as truth is not only possible, but our highest obligation. I believe, nevertheless, that belief causes all sort of problems, too.

I believe that religion is the repository of this best thinking the truth. And that when it is observed in a contrarian spirit, it leads to more good than we can possibly quantify.

I believe that one religion, Christianity, is one powerful way of dealing with this truth. Because the good and the true are only known as one engages one’s whole life with it, it is for me the way. This is not to say that I know anything, in the personal way it would require to validate, the representation of the good by other religions.

It is to say that for me, God is revealed through Jesus. I do not believe that this is a supernatural revelation. God is the wholeness of the world. Jesus invites us, in engaging, loving, and humble relations with others, to see the beauty and the truth of God in actual fact. And while there is nothing about me that can be fully whole, that is something about me, in my elusive position as dweller and sojourner, that yearns toward it. That yearns for the peace which is its definition.

Finally, I believe that it is ultimately important that we exist in this elusive position, as sojourner and dweller, straining to hear the word from the thousands we hear everyday. I do not mean by this, literally listening for odd coincidences or supernatural voices. I mean that we cannot really live without ideals, and that we should not judge ourselves or others, except by the high ideals we hold for ourselves and the people and planet with whom we share and hold a holy dwelling, a sacred journey. Amen.


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