Paul chats with us through one of today’s lectionary readings, that of 1 Corinthians 1:18-37. The focus is Paul’s view of wisdom. Brace yourself, ‘cause at some point I will disagree with our hallowed biblical author. We can trust Paul, but even he is not above criticism.
The gist of Paul’s idea is that we should feel good about our humble state. Okay, there’s no necessary problem here. “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” (1 Corinthians 1:26). Paul is citing the social insignificance and worldly ignorance of his audience. Perhaps Paul is making people feel good in their disadvantaged state as he gives hope to readers who may not possess power and privilege. So far so good, so keep going Paul!
Paul rightly challenges our tendency to blithely conclude that smart and well-educated folks are always right. Paul’s point is that the high and mighty do not necessarily have spiritual wisdom. His strong wording suggests that there aren’t many if any intellectuals in the kingdom of heaven. In this way, Paul intrudes upon our usual way of perceiving things by thrusting upon us the alternative view that those we least expect to gain wisdom are precisely those who are most likely to enter the kingdom of heaven. Paul’s use of reverse, parallel prose is powerful as it drives his point home.
For Paul, the light that shines doesn’t come from brain-power or status as much as from spirit-power. Excellent! We know that we must seek God through faith, and not by some cold formula calculated by a philosophical proposition. However, a less charitable view of Paul arises when he is interpreted as patronizing the lowly majority in his audience. It’s not that making people feel good about themselves is bad, just that doing so at the expense of others is not so helpful. So, this is a point where I challenge Paul’s method. It is like being placed in situation where we are to say about ourselves: “We’ve never felt so good about being called stupid because God likes us more than those rich, educated people over there.“
Paul is denouncing the process of people who gain wisdom through the usual means of educational achievement, reasoning, logic, etc. Paul’s enterprise is risky business, and it encourages something of a class warfare mentality. Yes, Paul’s use of hyperbole is designed to grab readers’ attention. He therefore pumps-up the volume to deliver a reassuring message of God calling simple minds rather than those who are rich and sophisticated. Alright, Paul, I hope you didn’t intend to dis’ the brain power God created within us. The human brain is one of God’s preeminent achievements, an elegant, awesome tool. We can sympathize with Paul’s aims of lending comfort, but we need to hold him and ourselves accountable such that we don’t end up blessing sloppy thinking and mental laziness.
We can give Paul the benefit of the doubt and conclude that his cleverness is greater than his ignorance. True, some of the wisest and most educated persons sometimes just don’t apprehend or accept even basic spiritual truths. They can be too proud to grasp the beautiful simplicity of the gospel. Ironically, Paul was a product of some of the finest academy training in his day. His brilliant use of language reveals that he isn’t some intellectual lightweight. Paul’s sophisticated writing suggests that he’s a product of the very category of trained person he’s criticizing!
On the one hand, I have known brilliant people who’ve received advanced degrees and are celebrated critical thinkers. These folks are seemingly just as spiritual as I am, perhaps more so, which is why I don’t hurl insults at smart people or suspect that they have intrinsic spiritual deficiencies simply because of their wealth and status. On the other hand, ignorance and rank stupidity doesn’t provide any more of a guarantee to heaven than having a doctorate degree. Jesus might also disagree with Paul to the extent that the Lord is constantly quoted in scripture denouncing the fact that most people—smart or otherwise—didn’t really have their ears and eyes open.
My prayer is that we won’t down-play the God-given power of our intellect but that we’d use all our brain power for good. Our incisive reasoning, academic brilliance, and educational accomplishments are blessings as much as anything else. The problem arises when we try to substitute any or all worldly achievements for spiritual enlightenment. We need God’s forgiveness despite how good we feel about our other strengths. All truth is God’s truth, and yet we should no more boast about our ignorance than we should be proud of how much we sin. –Reverend Larry Hoxey