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Of Wisdom, Power and a Vacuum Filled


1 Corinthians 1:18 – 2:5


I used to wonder how politicians (many politicians, at least) manage to survive the sharp questions aimed at them. Little by little I came to see that they have two survival techniques. One, they don’t answer the question they’re asked. Question: “Is it true that your party plans to increase personal income taxes?” Response: “My party has the interests of all Canadians at heart.” No one can object to the response, but neither does it answer the question.

In the second place, when politicians respond to a question, they like to speak on and on. As long as they are talking, no one else can talk. Many words are used; very little is said. The better one is at talking, the more readily he can fool someone into thinking he’s saying something. Excess verbiage is either a dodge to mislead people or else it’s a smokescreen to cover something up. Let’s never forget that “bafflegab” is the word Toronto’s newspapers coined to describe a former premier’s legislature utterances.

The ancient world had its talkers too. Ancient rhetoricians spoke eloquently, at great length, with much passion and no little sophistication. “Nevertheless”, said the apostle Paul, “beware of them. Their many words don’t say much. More profoundly, however much or little they say, what they say can’t save. What they say can’t orient women and men to God, can’t replace apathy with gospel-zeal and alienation with ardour; can’t have icy unbelief yield to throbbing faith. So beware. Rhetoric doesn’t save.”

The apostle refuses to try to beat the wordsmiths at their own game. He refuses to compete with them, refuses to play on their field. Instead he announces succinctly where he stands and what he’s about: “I’ve decided to know nothing among you Corinthians except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) The people in Corinth love flowery, florid oratory. Yet the apostle knows this won’t help. People don’t need their ears tickled; they need saving. Furthermore, he continues, that wisdom of the “wise” which so readily entrances so many, God is going to destroy; and that cleverness of the “clever” which so quickly bedazzles so many, God is going to frustrate.


I: — “But surely there’s a genuine human wisdom”, someone objects, “and therefore there has to be a place within the Christian understanding for such genuine wisdom.” Of course there’s a place. The Christian faith doesn’t pretend anything else. Faith neither presupposes nor implies stupidity or wilful ignorance or prejudiced blindness. There is a genuine, creaturely, humanly produced wisdom irrespective of faith.

Think of the wisdom embodied in the sciences, the science of agriculture, for instance. The “Green Revolution” has yielded foodstuffs on a scale our foreparents couldn’t have imagined: new grains, resistant to blight, not to mention hybrids that thrive in adverse soils and climates.

Think of pharmacology and how developments like antibiotic drugs altered the practice of medicine and relieved distresses so quickly as to seem miraculous when the antibiotic drugs first appeared. (For that matter think of the relief accorded millions by something as lowly as the aspirin.) I’m convinced that in a few years we are gong to see developments in laser surgery (or a comparable surgical technology) that will make much contemporary surgical “cutting” appear as primitive as the application of leeches.

Think of the wisdom articulated by a writer like the late Robertson Davies. His grasp of the convolutions of the human psyche, of the manifold dimensions of human nature, of the social dynamics of the smallest hamlet; his grasp here is remarkable and always helpful. (While we are on the topic of literature, let me say that I think the skilful novelist or poet much more penetrating, much more profound – and therefore much more helpful – than the sociologist.)

There’s a human wisdom that is genuinely wise.

In addition, however, there’s a pseudo-wisdom as well. Pseudo-wisdom is clever-sounding shallowness. Never think that because the shallowness is so very shallow it’s also harmless. Pseudo-wisdom can be lethal. The sexual revolution was supposed to bring human fulfilment. It didn’t. Instead it brought sterility (on account of pelvic inflammatory disease), AIDS, psychological jadedness, and worst of all, the inability to form long-term committed relationships.

The drug culture was supposed to give us a heightened consciousness through which we could apprehend the universe more profoundly. It gave us something else.

Pseudo-wisdom tells us that each era of world history is peopled by human beings who are advancing, ever moving toward a cumulative human superiority. Yet the twentieth century has seen slaughter after slaughter: fifty-five million dead in the last Great War alone, “ethnic cleansing” in Cambodia and Yugoslavia and Central Africa that rivals the horror of the holocaust. Anthropologists have uncovered clusters of battered bones and cracked skulls that indicate repeated Amerindian genocides ten thousand years before any Caucasian set foot in the new world. Plainly the murderous outbreaks that we like to regard as epidemic (and rare epidemics at that) are in fact endemic to fallen humankind. Pseudo-wisdom mindlessly repeats such social assumptions as the notion that athletics develop character and forge stronger links among nations. Really? Do you know anyone whose moral stature improved through playing in the NHL? Is there any international sporting event that isn’t immediately co-opted by jingoistic propaganda?

Pseudo-wisdom is just that: pseudo.

There’s a third item to be considered in our discussion of wisdom, what I label “life-smarts.” By “life-smarts” I don’t mean formal academic training. I mean an intuitive grasp of how to handle life: what is evil or dangerous and is therefore to be shunned, what is helpful or wholesome and is therefore to be welcomed, how profound simple pleasures are and are therefore to be cherished. It’s difficult to hoodwink people who possess life-smarts. These people intuitively recognise smokescreen speech and distrust it. They intuitively identify simplistic cure-alls and reject them. Even if they lack tools and training to refute arguments formally they aren’t going to be “fished in.” There’s real wisdom at the level of “life-smarts.”


II: — The apostle wouldn’t deny any of this. Nevertheless, he reminds us, however genuinely wise human wisdom may be it doesn’t save. It doesn’t immerse us in God’s own life. God has made “foolish” (i.e., futile) the wisdom of the world, futile in the sense that however much worldly wisdom can do, it’s stymied with respect to what most needs to be done: set us in the right with God, soak us in the truth of God, enfold us so deeply in the Holy One himself that human speech can only stammer before the wonder of it all. Worldly wisdom, marvellously effective elsewhere, is ineffective here.

Over and over the Hebrew prophets speak with urgency of “knowing God.” Hosea exhorts his people, “Let us know, let us press on to know the Lord.” Jeremiah overhears God say, “I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord.” Isaiah: “You shall know that I, the Lord, am your Saviour and Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.” To know God isn’t to have our head furnished with religious notions, whether adequate or inadequate. To know God is to find ourselves rendered different on account of our engagement with him. This is knowledge of God. Wisdom, however wise, can’t yield this.

Then what can? The gospel can; the gospel, whose core is Christ crucified. Yet the gospel is precisely what everyone wants to step around. Paul realistically divides the world of religious questers into two camps. Those in camp “A” look for bizarre occurrences, dramatic signs that will dispel unbelief, dramatic signs, be it noted, of the sort that Jesus always refused to give throughout the course of his earthly ministry and refused at the outset when he refused to leap from the roof of the temple and float down unharmed like Mary Poppins. Those in camp “B” want a complex intellectual formula, a brainteaser. Brainteasers may divert us as after-dinner amusement but they don’t save. Yet for those whom God has wooed, those who now embrace the One given the world, Jesus Christ crucified is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

Wisdom: God’s plan and purpose for us.

Power: God’s capacity to achieve his plan and purpose for us.

What is God’s plan and purpose for us? It’s to reconcile us to himself, to ignite our heart from his, to equip us with truth from the mind of him who is Truth, to render us reflectors of his light into every nook and cranny and corner of life. Power, we must be sure to understand, isn’t the capacity to coerce. (The capacity to coerce isn’t power; it’s violence. While power is commonly regarded as the capacity to coerce, such coercion or violence, so far from being synonymous with power, is actually its antithesis.) Power is the capacity to achieve purpose. The paradox of Christian truth is that God’s power is operative in the face of apparent powerlessness; in fact, God’s power is operative, from a human perspective, in the midst of actual powerlessness.

In the crucified One, God’s judgement against us is rendered and is seen to be rendered. Yet in the crucified One too our sin is borne and borne away.

In the crucified One arms are opened wide and an invitation is issued to any and all without distinction and without exception.

In the crucified One the wisdom of God is made manifest and the power of God is rendered effective. For it is in the efficacy of the cross that our sin is dealt with, our defiance crumbled, our faith quickened, our gratitude awakened, our obedience freed. Jesus Christ crucified is the wisdom and power of God, proof of which is wave after wave of rebels like us surrendering to that love which is the source and measure of whatever love we have known from whatever quarter in life.


III: — Where does the word of the cross leave the three kinds of wisdom mentioned earlier?

Pseudo-wise people don’t grasp the seriousness of the human condition. They assume a little patching up here, a little tinkering there, a little more government funding everywhere, and everything will be all right. They don’t grasp what God has done and why it had to be done and how it’s effective. The pseudo-wise need to be shaken up by the explosive word of the gospel.

The genuinely wise admit that humankind has a problem. They know that the problem is deep-seated. The genuinely wise, not surprisingly, marshal the collective wisdom of philosopher, scientist, anthropologist, and literary icon. Yet the genuinely wise can’t make a proper diagnosis of the root human ailment. They can describe it, describe its symptoms, and do so very impressively. But however well they may describe it, they can’t diagnose it; can’t diagnose the nature of humankind’s self-frustration and self-contradiction; can’t penetrate to the ailment itself.

Those possessed of “life-smarts”; these people come closest to intuiting what the problem is and why the event of the cross is effective. They viscerally intuit that something major is out of order, that the disorder goes deeper than any explanation they’ve heard to date. They know that the disorder isn’t even touched by the cavalier “bromides” of the pseudo-wise; they know too that the disorder goes ever so much deeper than the descriptions of the genuinely wise. Yet even the intuitions of those with “life-smarts” can’t penetrate to the diagnosis of a ruptured relationship with God, the consequent incursion of systemic ungodliness, and the innermost self-scuttling – not to mention God’s means of setting all of it right.

I feel I have spoken of the three classes somewhat artificially. It’s not so much that there are three classes or kinds of people; it’s rather that all three types are found mixed up in every one of us. In all of us there are elements of the genuinely wise, the pseudo-wise, and the “life-smart”; which is to say, the fact that all three are found in us at once still can’t do what the gospel alone can do and has done as the gospel has surged throughout the world.


IV: — My highschool science teacher was fond of intoning “Nature abhors a vacuum.” The presence of a vacuum means that anything and everything is drawn into it. Clutter and debris and litter and junk get mixed up in a farrago that is neither attractive nor fruitful. A spiritual vacuum is no different. A spiritual vacuum never remains a vacuum for long.

A few years ago when the cults seemed possessed of eerie militancy it was found that Jewish young people from the most ideationally liberal homes and synagogues were most readily seduced and captured. These young people had had enough religious exposure to render them amenable to “religion”, but not enough substance to equip them to recognise ersatz substitutes. The most dilute religious upbringing – devoid of substance by definition – simply didn’t equip these young people to discern the approach of what could only damage them. While the cults seem relatively in abeyance now, there are still psycho-religious fads that repeatedly “take in” those whose spiritual formation is insufficiently rigorous. Out of concern to exemplify all that the ideationally liberal hold up – the notion that everybody is good at bottom, everybody can be trusted, and everything is to be tolerated (intolerance being the “unforgivable sin” among liberals) – the families of these young people left them with insufficient exposure to that undislodgeable density, that burning luminosity which confronted Moses and Miriam, Rachel and Rebecca, Joel and Jeremiah. There was insufficient acquaintance with the God who possessed such people, whose truth infused them and whose way guided them. Jewish young people devoid of spiritual substance headed the list of North America’s seducible.

There is a dilute churchmanship in Christian circles that leaves people, especially young people, in exactly the same predicament. No vacuum remains a vacuum for long, including a spiritual vacuum. For this reason the church ought not to be puzzled at finding itself facing younger and older people alike who are open to religion but closed to the gospel.

A friend of mine (now dead), an Anglican clergyman and superb Greek scholar, volunteered as a military chaplain during the last Great War. His initial interview didn’t go well. He was told that military chaplains under fire didn’t have time to cross every scholarly “t” and dot every minuscule “i”. “Can you paint the message on a fence?” military authorities asked him. Tell me: have I painted the message on a fence here in Streetsville? Or have I etched it in minutest detail on the head of a pin?

Paul was haunted by the spiritual condition of the congregation in Galatia. With anguish of heart he wrote the people there, “I am in pain until Christ be formed in you.” Christ is going to be formed in any of us only as the message is painted on a fence. “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” – painted on a fence in Corinth this time.

Regardless of the degree and depth of the wisdom we possess and regardless of the richest human resources we have appropriated, no such wisdom and no such resources can ever substitute for him from whom we come, from whom we can’t escape, to whom we must soon render account and therefore to whom we ought to surrender ourselves. Then regardless of how genuinely wise we may have come to be none of our wisdom fills that vacuum which everything else otherwise fills.

The spiritual vacuum must be filled by Jesus Christ crucified, and by him alone.


                                                                                              Victor Shepherd

August 1999