Into the World--Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context

Prologue and Abstract
Chapter One: Introduction
Chapter Two: The Layered Gospel Context
Chapter Three: Today’s Warring Intellectual Context

Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context
Chapter Five: A Primer—The Bible’s Broadest Theme
Chapter Six: The Voice of Conscience
Chapter Seven: The Voice of God
Chapter Eight: The Message of the Cross as Supreme Answer
Chapter Nine: The View from Enlightened Self-Interest
Chapter Ten: The Challenge from Kantian Autonomy
Chapter Eleven: The View from James’ Radical Question
Chapter Twelve: The View from Sartre’s Bad Faith
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—First Part
Chapter Thirteen: Kierkegaard’s Challenge to Intelligibility—Second Part

If the Apostle Paul is to be understood, it is the Supreme Irony of God incarnate being tried and crucified—“the message about the cross,” Paul calls it—that conveys “the power” of the gospel message. (I Corinthians 1:18)

"…Christ…[sent me] to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about 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, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” (I Corinthians 1:17-19)

Let’s take Paul’s words to heart and see where it leads us. Jesus’ silence before Pilate following the famous question, apparently, was the Word of God incarnate—literally. For by his silence Jesus accepted the fate of the Supreme Irony that depicts the truth about God, as we observed earlier, and according to Paul’s words here, that fate—the cross—carries the power of God. But the I Corinthians text goes further. It tells us that the gospel thwarts discernment and destroys the wisdom of the wise. In fact, Paul wrote that wrapping the gospel in “eloquent wisdom” would empty it of its power. To be sure, in one sense that does explain the Scripture's silence about Pilate's question—for Jesus to have unleashed divine eloquence before Pilate would have emptied the act that depicts the truth about God of its power. Moreover, it would likely have prevented it from happening at all.

Yet in another sense, we are left with an empty explanation. In fact it begs for the incredulous response Richard Dawkins gave to Ken Miller’s account of how Genesis conveys spiritual truth: “But what does that mean?!” To be sure, if eloquent wisdom renders the Gospel powerless, it would seem that Christopher Hitchens’ view that “faith is the negation of the intellect” is all that is left. Is embarrassment in the face of intellectual challenge the truth about Christianity, then?

Clearly no sense can be made, from the present standpoint, in response to those questions. But then the very point at hand is that one ought not try to make sense of the Gospel by way of what Paul goes on to call “the wisdom of the world.” (I Corinthians 1:20) In fact, Paul makes the point sharper: “…God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.” (I Corinthians 1:21) One purpose of the gospel, then, is to confront the wisdom of the world—but with what, intellectual suicide?

Fortunately Paul provides the answer. The point of the Gospel is to confront the wisdom of the world with “…Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God…” (I Corinthians 1:30) We are left to understand this; the irony of God incarnate standing before a judge about to sentence him to death on a cross is not to be resolved from the standpoint of the wisdom of the world. Rather, the point of the Supreme Irony—God incarnate crucified—is to force a choice between worldly wisdom on the one hand and godly wisdom on the other. And that is precisely what we must expect to be true, if we are to make sense of the Supreme Irony as the Supreme Being. For as noted above (Chapter Two), if we are to do so, we must reform our view of God.

In other words, the message of the cross—foolishness from “the world’s” perspective—forces a capitulation in the way a person sees God, for the person who believes. One can have worldly wisdom and view the message of the cross as foolishness. Or one can have godly wisdom and view the wisdom of the world as foolishness. That is Paul’s claim, and it is tailor-made to make sense of “the Supreme Irony” of God incarnate crucified.

We must see whether, in fact, it is possible to make sense of the message of the cross as representing “wisdom from God”—“the truth,” presumably for now, that Jesus referred to in the exchange with Pilate. To discover that “sense,” we return to an earlier point, that the cause of the Supreme Irony of the gospel must be our false view of God.

A primer in basic biblical theology will form the next contextual layer (in Chapter Five) as we seek to put "the message about the cross" in focus. What will we be looking for?

If a false view of God creates the Supreme Irony (see Chapter Two), where did the false view come from? It would be ideal if the false view were to have a clear and decisive origin in Scripture. For then we could form a definitive scriptural overview. It would be compelling if that clear and decisive origin were to produce a conceptual conversion contrary to the Supreme Irony. For then we could place the origin directly in position as the foil to the message of the cross. And it would be conclusive from the standpoint of interpreting Christian Scripture if the origin of the false view colored the whole of Scripture by influencing all human interaction with God depicted in the Bible. For if such a conceptual antecedent to the Gospel story is present in Scripture, then we will not be left wondering why Paul insists that the cross, in effect, contradict the wisdom of the world: The cross would be the corrective to a prior conceptual conversion to a false view of God that Scripture portrays as influencing all human interaction with God.

It is precisely these desiderata that we will find in the story of “the fall” in the next chapter, where the miniature lesson in biblical theology is found.

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3 thoughts on “Into the World--Chapter Four: A Perpetual Warring Intellectual Context”

  1. Tracy wrote - “..wisdom” would empty it of its power. To be sure, in one sense that does explain the Scripture's silence ... [snip] ... ..for Jesus to have unleashed divine eloquence before Pilate would have emptied the act that depicts the truth about God of its power. Moreover, it would likely have prevented it from happening at all.”

    Okay, back to the silence theme.

    Tracy, I already like this theme. I’m not fighting against it. I copped to you that I’m not a foolish virgin. I'm an old whore for words. I would have crucified the silent Jesus on the spot. For daring silence in my tout court. And I do so every day. Next, I’ve expressed my love for Saint David Hume. And his progeny, the masters–of-suspicion. Extremely worthwhile partners. For me, hard-core skepticism includes clinical ethics in praxis: I don’t want lame, weak minded, cowardly, incompetent, crowd-pleasing wussies peer reviewing my work to the detriment of those I serve.

    Enough throat clearing on the values of skepticism. I would crucify the non-saying Jesus.

    Let’s move on. Back to silence.

    I want to add a few things to the irony of your silence-thematic. I hope these preserve and compliment rather than destroy your kneading of the lumpy dough of irony.

    First, the irony of the non-saying Jesus is equally or better located in the disciples themselves who heard His many words. And who still didn’t (and don’t) understand. The location of irony is in me: not out there in the world with some exterior Pilate (more later). Unless I’m fully Pilate. And I am. He’s my man. I’m the man against the Man. I'm Pilate. Jesus is my dead victim.

    Second, Pilate did get an answer. Jesus was not silent.

    Please forgive me for mixing gospels. But, please know that I read the gospel stories as a youth, raised by two generations of atheists on both sides. I did NOT know the story would end in crucifixion. I thought Pilate was persuadable. If you read the story not knowing the ending, it's a whole different story. My first entry was in John (and still my favorite). I could not believe they crucified Him. I was stunned. Dumbfounded. Lost.

    I switched to Matthew. I discovered that Jesus was not silent before Pilate. Jesus was not really silent before Pilate, because: “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, 'Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him'" (Matt 27:19).

    In other words, Jesus was not silent before Pilate. Not at all. Jesus spoke. Jesus spoke to Pilate.

    And not just spoke. Jesus spoke directly through the most putatively credible witness before Pilate, namely, his own wife. The contrast (your "irony")is between an intimate credible witness (Pilate’s wife), versus all the other incredible witness whom Pilate already knew as incredible – “For he knew that because of envy they had handed Him over” (Matt 27:18 ).

    God was not silent. Herod could kill John the Baptist on the request of Herod’s wife, and, Pilate could spare Jesus on the request of Pilate’s wife.

    The speaking of God to the contemporary gospel witnesses (in the story) through private revelations is ubiquitous in all the gospels. These private revelations show that human words including the text of the scripture (you study them .. but, won’t come to Me) are the sometimes the smokescreens to lie about the fact that God is, really is, already speaking ubiquitously. God speaks ubiquitously in private revelations passim in the text (magi warned in a dream to leave “another way,” the dream of Pilate’s wife, the revelation to Anna in the temple, and so on).

    The fact that God is not silent and instead is speaking to Pilate through Pilate’s most credible witness against the voices of incredible witnesses makes Jesus’ silence more ironic; but, it’s not silence, not really.

    The silence is Jesus saying to Pilate, “you already know what you’ve been told .. listen to what you already know.”

    End game.

    Now - to your riff on the "wisdom of the world." Hold on for this ride. My point is that the silence of Jesus is really not the silence of God before “the wisdom of the world.” For example, Jesus is not silent before “the world” of Pilate like the silence of an extremely perverse Platonic elenctic and non-saying Socratic muse who stands amidst Pilate’s “world” of endlessly dislocated Platonic politics; Jesus' silence is not the silence before “the world” of Pilate’s Herakletian change; Jesus' silence is not silence before “the world” of the Greek refractory readings of poetics. And most perverse of all – Jesus’ silence is not, absolutely not, the stunned silence of authentic immediate revelation (personal, intimate, direct revelation - the dream of Pilate's wife) with Jesus silent like some rhapsode trashed and destroyed by Socrates in Ion (Ion’s “rhapsody” of personal, private, interpretive-inspiration) with Jesus wilting into silent paralysis under the Socratic scalpel.

    Jesus is not silent before this wisdom of the world. We are: we are the paralyzed interlocutors, silenced before Socratic non-saying witnesses. But, Jesus is not silent before this “worldly wisdom.” Jesus spoke to Pilate through his wife’s private revelation. Where Ion shut up and wilted, Jesus spoke. Damn the torpedoes. Jesus’ silence before Pilate punctuates what Pilate already knows. "Stand there Pilate, and rehearse the words that God has already spoken to you through your wife's dream."

    End game.

    I personally take all of this (Jesus did speak: was not silent) to increase the irony that you’ve outlined.

    And this plays in the Miller-Dawkins debate.

    Consider on Miller-Dawkins.

    Miller stepped into Dawkins’s court. That’s vastly different from Jesus dragged before Pilate. Miller went to engage. Miller went to talk. Period. Miller should have talked back against Dawkins’s self-righteous rage (rage set for the stage)

    It’s easy, really.

    The answer to Dawkins’ over-weaning question (which a blind man could see coming) of “what does that mean?” - is this answer – “you know, king-Richard-of-science, damn good and well, and exactly what it means, because it means you’ve deliberately set your scientific Bayesian prior down to zero (zero openness to God speaking to you), and it means that my Bayesian prior is above zero, because I’m open .. your choice of "scienter" Mr. Scientist means you’ve chosen to be blind. Just like king Pilate, while asking for the truth, but not wanting to hear the answer. Yeah, Dick, you have words in your mouth asking truth, like Pilate, but like his, your heart is set to zero. It means I’m open. You’re not.”

    The Miller-Dawkins case is easy. That irony is the irony of seeking truth with a prior closed Bayesian -- by a scientist.

    Jesus before Pilate is a deeper irony.

    Because Jesus did speak. To Pilate’s wife. And through her. Jesus’ silence drove the nail in the coffin of what Pilate already knew.

    We don’t know Dawkins’ dreams. Thank God. We don’t need to. Because Richard will live or die by his own warrants.

    The value of Jesus speaking to Pilate’s wife in a dream, and through her dream to Pilate – means that my words as a believer are NOT the words that will overcome the words of the wisdom of the world. If I take on that task of talking to Pilate with my words (my whorish words), beyond what God has already said to Pilate, then guess what? -- it's on me -- because I re-induct myself back into the irony of it all (this does not imply a Calvinist NOR Arminian set: just a stinkin' pragmatic).

    There is a Greater Voice.

    I rest in that.



  2. Hi Jim,

    As usual your comments are delightfully frank and insightful, though effuse. But don't take the last too hard--so are the Bible and Shakespeare and Faulkner... So forgive me my prudishness, you "old whore for words." (YOUR self-styling.)

    Since you bring Matthew in, I'll jump at the opportunity to note that I was very tempted to do so, but for a reason you left out: The choice Pilate sets up for the crowd is "Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barrabus or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" (Mt 27:17 NRSV--Not all translations, and not all ancient manuscripts, read "Jesus Barrabus." But there is a natural religious impulse to eliminate that "unfortunate" association, which leads me to think that "Jesus Barabbus" is the original...) Given the meaning of "Jesus" and the fact that Barrabus is a criminal, as you read future posts it will become clear that it is that very choice that John's text sets up.

    But I decided to leave Matthew (and the other Gospels)out for these reasons.

    1. The exposition is easier that way.

    2. If my exposition is called into question, I will have one level of interpretation to defend, not two.

    3. I am not able to defend my interpretation of the Johannine text on the basis of knowing the original languages, making any dispute in which my interpretation depends on "the little picture" a loser for me. (I hang my interpretation on Scripture's broadest theme--coming up in the next post. I am much better positioned to claim that an amateur can assess the big picture competently than the little ones.)

    And 4. I can pull in the "Jesus Barrabus/Jesus Christ" choice as a dead ringer for my position (after it has been lain out). That would be a very odd thing, if it weren't intended by the Gospel writers...

    So I thank you for giving me the opportunity to point that out ahead of time.

    As to the view that Jesus did speak to Pilate, I agree, and that view will be presented in the posts for chapters six and seven to come. And if I say that I think my case is stronger than yours, I hope that you will forgive me! :-)

    Finally, you say, "Jesus' silence drove the nail into the coffin of what Pilate already knew." And, " words as a believer are NOT the words that will overcome the words of the wisdom of the world."

    If you are afraid that I am going to try to make MY words the ones that will overcome the wisdom of the world, allow me to dispel that fear: Properly understood, Scripture takes us to a place--existentially--where we can choose to confront a demoralizing equivocation at the core of our self-understanding, or not.

    The step of faith, as I hope to show, is a choice to address that equivocation and live in light of the clarity--the truth--that results from doing so.

    Furthermore, as an existential choice about a fundamental moral question, no wisdom derived from an understanding of this world is relevant. That's the response to Dawkins/Hitchens/et. al.: Properly understood, your understanding of science is not, and cannot be construed as, relevant to faith.

    I will point out the bivalent logic and the way that the message of the cross resolves it, but I will not add my own wisdom: Properly understood, my wisdom is irrelevant too.

    I hope that comforts you--neither Tracy nor anyone else has any relevant commentary on the message that came "into the world" with Jesus. It's pure existential dilemma.

    Whew! I'm glad that's said!

    And thanks for that effusive style, Jim--don't let anyone tell you to put a cap on it.


  3. Tracy, all points taken. And a nice response.

    I agree with your focus on John to the exclusion of Matthew.

    I think your characterization of Matthew works: as setting up the question of who to release. I do agree with that.

    I’d personally posit that the wisdom of the world is irrelevant (as you state) to moral choice (or other praxes) to the extent that charismatic revelations intervene in our daily lives. For example, a sheer bar exists both for existential modes as well as for natural ratiocinative science in terms of getting Paul from Bythinia to Macedonia. Or, for getting Pilate’s wife to have a dream in the first place. We could tumble the terminology of “charisma” into a cessationist “answered prayer” and get the same result. Dogma of doctrinal theology hits a bar here too: for the scripture qua scripture itself is as complex as any natural complex system. And I would say equally subject to “chance.”

    When I posited that some form of natural reasoning (say iterated via a natural theology) including some incorporation of science has value for moral choice, my point was descriptive for how Francis Collins hints at using Bayesian reasoning to discern or allow for “miracles.” I guess that you could map Collins to your project: saying that Collins is making an existential claim accountable to close reasoning – but, I’m not sure how far to push that. That too would depend on the existential fulcrum on which you find yourself.

    In the far broader sense, whether we use an analytic, an existential measure, or a statistical guess, the generic point here is that some component of trial and error (Pilate’s trial of Jesus: of Kafka’s “Trial”) is what makes the theology “experimental.” Though, I guess, that waiting – sheer waiting – for Godot too is experimental as against the no-show silence of God. The trick here is how we love our skeptical friends as critical of our biases.

    At any rate, my reference to the wisdom of the world as contributing to this trial and error is not the same as saying that natural reasoning can bridge all gaps into “existential” questions. It can’t. You’re right about that. I’m eagerly looking forward to your installments on the speaking-God.



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