The Foolish Wisdom of God

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"Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God."
1 Corinthians 2:12

We recently began a journey through the first letter to the Corinthians, a letter filled with Paul's typically rhetorical style, some rather lengthy diatribes, and not a few prickly pastoral issues. John Loving, one of our community members, led the discussion this week on the second chapter, where Paul delineates worldly wisdom from the wisdom of God. This is such a long and arduous passage, and John was tasked with not only clarifying some of Paul's logic for us, but also recasting our prior assumptions about the meaning. For those of us who are trying to move beyond the dualistic sacred/secular divide, Paul's words can land us right back in the middle of an us/them mentality that is not only unhelpful but lacks spiritual wisdom and maturity. How are we to understand Paul's admonition regarding worldly versus spiritual wisdom?

Before we can answer that, we need some sort of working definition of spiritual wisdom. What does Paul mean by that? John said two things in particular to me that stood out. First, spiritual wisdom is a gift. It is not something we earn, or we work toward like a grade. It is a gift from God, and should be approached as such. Second, spiritual wisdom is not individualistic. It is not a prize we keep on our shelves. It is not a trophy. And it can be known most fully only in communion with others, a byproduct of our sharing as well as our receiving. The structure of the Church calls us to reach out open-handed toward wisdom, ready to receive it, and to see how that wisdom comes together across all of our hands. This is why, John mentioned, we engage in discussion in our Sunday gatherings. If the wisdom of God is given to all of us, the church ought to be the place where we most intentionally practice sharing it. As those who confess the foolishness of the cross, which for us has become the power of God, we have come together in our proclamation. And because we have been united in our confession, we now are to be united in the gift of wisdom freely given and freely shared.

This makes good sense, certainly. But how do we apply it to the apparent dualism in the text? One question Chris asked right off the bat brought this concern center-stage: Is Paul attempting to classify ALL forms of wisdom as either spiritual wisdom (which we keep) or worldly wisdom (which we reject)? If so, what about the wisdom of how to build good roads, or how to construct a house, or how to cook a meal? This is not usually deemed spiritual wisdom, but the acumen with which we approach such endeavors is necessary and even good, despite its "worldly" starting point. Is Paul meaning to make this sweeping conclusion, or is it simply a form of rhetoric?

Travis brought up Paul Ricoeur's metaphor of a "desert of criticism," where the individual attempt at knowledge and consequent dismantling of all other views eventually lands one in the desert, alone with only his criticism. There is nothing life-giving out there. This made me think of an angry academic, holed up in her office, clinging to her notes and sheets with paranoia that someone may steal her "original" ideas or may get it published before she can. Such individual knowledge is lonely and isolating and even anxiety-ridden. If worldly wisdom is anything, perhaps it's that. It's the stuff that leads us away from one another, panicky and paranoid, isolating ourselves until we are alone with our bubble suits in the desert.

But spiritual wisdom is also foolishness to the world, and Paul is adamant that we do not overlook this. The cross does not make worldly sense, and any attempts to do so will invariably rob the cross of its power as the wisdom of God. We believe not because of a plausible argument, Paul says, but because we have witnessed the power of God. There is something more than rational proof or eloquent logic that converts us. We have been converted despite the worldly foolishness we could ascribe to the Christ story, certainly not because of it. And over time, we learn that our conversion is not simply emotional or experiential, nor is it foolish, for it is rooted in the deep and hidden wisdom of God. And that wisdom is learned and known and revealed not in deserts of criticism or pockets of isolation but in the gathered and confessing community of people attempting to live into the upside-down logic of the Kingdom.

At the end of our conversation, Ruth said, "The thing I always come back to is the verse (16) that says we have the mind of Christ. That's just amazing to think about. It's hard to believe it. I have the mind of Christ?! How can that be?!"

Sounds like the (foolish) wisdom of God to me.