Have you read Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor Has No Clothes”? It’s the story of an emperor who loves strutting about in glorious apparel. One day two swindlers come to town and deceive the emperor and his advisors into believing that the two of them can make the most splendid clothes for the emperor from the finest material. However, the thread and cloth is so fine and refined that only those who are sophisticated and wise and those befitting significant positions in society can see it. Not wanting to appear foolish or unworthy of their high calling, the emperor’s advisors say nothing when he tries on the clothing, which is really imaginary. The emperor parades through town before the people’s eyes. While everyone sees the emperor’s nakedness, they are unwilling to say anything out of fear of being dismissed as foolish for not being able to see the garments. Finally, a little innocent boy who has nothing to lose cries out that the emperor is stark naked. Murmurs spread throughout the crowd until everyone finally exclaims that the emperor is wearing no clothes. While the emperor hears their shouts, he carries on as if everything is as it should be and he is wearing kingly garments until he finishes the procession.
In 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Paul makes a big deal of talking about God’s Son hanging from the cross. While Paul doesn’t say anything here about the details of the Lord’s crucifixion, we know from the canonical gospels that Jesus’ clothes were divided among the soldiers who crucified him (See for example John 19:23-24), as he hung on the cross naked, or at the very least, wearing exceedingly little. The subjects of the Roman emperor—Gentiles and Jews alike—mocked him (we were all in on it). We could see how foolish and pitifully weak Jesus of Nazareth appeared. Who knows if Paul was there as Saul? All we know from Acts is that he was in Jerusalem not long after when Stephen—the first Christian martyr—was stoned to death for his witness to the crucified and risen Jesus. In fact, those who stoned Stephen put their coats at the feet of Saul, who approved of Stephen’s stoning and death (Acts 7:58; 8:1). Saul hated Christianity because of its claim that the Messiah was this crucified corpse: for as he knew from the Hebrew Scriptures, anyone hung on a cross is cursed (Galatians 3:13; Deut. 21:23).
Saul wanted to stomp out Christianity completely. But as the story goes, Saul was later blinded on the road to Damascus and came to see how foolish he had been. He then became like a little child and saw that Jesus’ death reflected poorly on all of the Roman emperor’s subjects (Acts 9:1-31; Acts 26:1-32).
At the time of writing his first epistle to the Corinthian church, the Corinthian Christians were reflecting poorly on their Christian faith. How so? They were trying to appear strong and wise in their own eyes, and in the eyes of those around them. They were boasting in their flesh—which was not all that noble, according to Paul: “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth” (1 Corinthians 1:26). God had chosen them as a lot so as to shame those who were truly noble in fleshly power and wisdom:
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:27-31).
Why does God operate in this way? Paul answers this question: so that no one could boast before God and that people would come to boast in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:29, 31).
One person who did not come to boast in the Lord as a result of the Lord or 1 Corinthians 1 is Friedrich Nietzsche. Here’s what Nietzsche writes in his book, The Antichrist, about the Christian teaching of the crucified God set forth in 1 Corinthians 1:
The Christian movement, as a European movement, has been from the start a collective movement of the dross and refuse elements of every kind (these want to get power through Christianity). It does not express the decline of a race, it is an aggregate of forms of decadence of locking together and seeking each other out from everywhere. It is not, as is supposed, the corruption of antiquity itself, of noble antiquity, that made Christianity possible. The scholarly idiocy which upholds such ideas even today cannot be contradicted harshly enough. At the very time when the sick, corrupt chandala strata in the whole imperium adopted Christianity, the opposite type, nobility, was present in its most beautiful and most mature form. The great number became master; the democratism of the Christian instinct triumphed. Christianity was not “national,” not a function of a race—it turned to every kind of man who was disinherited by life, it had its allies everywhere. At the bottom of Christianity is the rancor of the sick, instinct directed against the healthy, against health itself. Everything that has turned out well, everything that is proud and prankish, beauty above all, hurts its ears and eyes. Once more I recall the inestimable words of Paul: “The weak things of the world, the foolish things of the world, the base and despised things of the world hath God chosen.” This was the formula: in hoc signo decadence triumphed.
God on the cross—are the horrible secret thoughts behind this symbol not understood yet? All that suffers, all that is nailed to the cross, is divine. All of us are nailed to the cross, consequently we are divine. We alone are divine. Christianity was a victory, a nobler outlook perished of it—Christianity has been the greatest misfortune of mankind so far.
It’s hard to match Nietzsche’s rhetorical flurry, so I won’t even try. Two things stand out to me at this moment. First, sometimes our worst enemies are our best friends: Nietzsche understood key aspects of what Christianity was about and rejected it; we Christians often accept the faith without really understanding its negative implications for boasting in our flesh (we cannot boast in the Lord that way and the Lord won’t boast in such fleshly escapades). Enemies like Nietzsche remind us of how costly Christian faith is—appearing all too foolish and pitiful to fleshly ways of thinking and living.
Second, Nietzsche goes too far when he says that everything that is nailed to the cross is divine; only God who is nailed to the cross is divine. We cannot be strong and wise if we do not see how weak and foolish we are apart from God who makes weak and foolish all human boasts that are made apart from him.
We need to become like the little boy in Andersen’s story of the emperor with no clothes, not like Nietzsche. We need to become like the Apostle Paul who became like a little child, once Jesus revealed to him that his fleshly power and wisdom were all too fleshly—they weren’t covering his nakedness before the Lord. Like the little boy in Andersen’s story, Paul called out people to be fools for Christ so that they could be truly wise. Maybe then all the others standing around gloating over the emperor’s imaginary clothing will finally come to their senses and realize that none of us are wearing clothes and that we need to be clothed in the wisdom of God’s Son.
Have you ever met someone like the boy in Andersen’s story? Would you like to be like him? More importantly, would you like to be clothed in the wisdom that Jesus exhibited while hanging on the cross? What was symbolized by his hanging there is that all our boasts according to our vain and autonomous forms of reasoning are in vain. Don’t get me wrong—reason done rightly has its place. Certainly, careful argumentation and rigorous reason are important—Paul models them here in 1 Corinthians 1. But what is he reasoning about in his letter? What does he value? What do you and I value? Do we value looking good to those around us? Have we forgotten that not many of us were all that much by the world’s standards, and certainly not much according to God’s standards, when God called us? So why should we put on/clothe ourselves in airs now?
Something that Nietzsche did not understand and that most Christians (including myself) so rarely understand is that the cross makes a mockery of all our forms of sophisticated rhetoric that elevates only our mental prowess. Such rhetoric often parades about, trying to cover up the fact that we’re wearing nothing.
It’s not only in our dream states that we show up at work or at a party wearing nothing. We do it all the time—every time we go about our business as if we’ve got it all together and merit positions of high standing. When God had his chance to parade about in his garments of power and wisdom he chose to elevate himself on a cross to show us how foolish we are and how great our need is to boast only and believe only in him:
For the message of 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;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”
Where 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? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18-21).
My dad, now deceased, used to say jokingly that my Ph.D. stands for “Pile it high and deep.” I fear that at times it just might mean what he said. For I have engaged with others in debates about divine mysteries and doctrinal formulas, including attention to the person and work of Christ. No question, these truths have significant positions in the Christian faith. But I fear that we cared far more about how smart we sounded and what status and positions our smartness would gain for us than about how deep the faith really is.
All of us need to stop strutting about in a dream state of appearing wise in everyone else’s eyes, when deep down inside in the subconscious realm we sense something’s wrong and that just perhaps we’re nude before God’s penetrating gaze. What happens when the dream turns into a nightmare and God wakes us up and we realize ever so clearly that we were naked all along? Will we even then play the fool or will we at last try Jesus on for size?
This piece is cross-posted at The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and at The Christian Post.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist, in The Portable Nietzsche, ed. Walter Kaufmann (New York: The Viking Press, 1968), pp. 633-644.