Posts Tagged ‘myth’

1 PETER 3:13-22

13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, 20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. 21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

You just have to wonder where an author finds the chutzpah to invent a doctrine about Jesus preaching to the departed souls in limbo (which in later doctrine became Purgatory) so they, too, could have a chance to accept the offer of salvation.

Or was it inspiration? Did the Holy Spirit put this idea in his mind by supernatural revelation? If we agree, then the discussion is closed. God said it, I believe it, and that does it.

But this might be another example of the emerging religion of Christianity establishing itself by setting in place the necessary mythological foundations. As the questions came up – Who was Jesus, really, and what was he about? How is our movement connected to our parent religion of Judaism? Did Jesus have to die that way? Did his death mean something? How is the world different after Jesus, and what are we supposed to do now? – a demand for meaningful answers required the tailoring of current myths from elsewhere along with some creative invention of their own.

We can only imagine what the question behind this particular “solution” might have been. What about the people who died before the time of Jesus? If his death fixed the problem (first assumption), and if salvation is dependent on hearing the doctrine (second assumption) and accepting that all this was done for you (third assumption), then they missed out. Are they in hell for something they couldn’t know and have a chance to accept? That wouldn’t be fair! So let’s get Jesus in front of them to proclaim the good news …

The apostle Paul had an easier and more reasonable solution to the problem of salvation before Jesus. If they didn’t have the special revelation of the Law and Prophets (Judaism), then at least God’s “eternal power and divine nature” are evident throughout creation (Romans 1:19-20). Each of us will be held accountable for the choices we make in the light we are given. Fair enough.

But wait a second, already by this time (late 60s CE) Christianity had made a decisive move, from a spiritually grounded moral revolution with dangerous political implications (under the leadership of Jesus) to a messianic sect of Judaism with a strong missionary campaign to win Gentile converts (under the leadership of Paul). As it went on, the new religion needed a devotional focus (Jesus the savior) and an orthodox company line (something like: Confess your sins, believe in Jesus, get baptized, and come aboard).

Now we have insiders (the properly saved) and outsiders (the unrepentant or ignorant throng). One day very soon Jesus is going to swoop down with his angels and take us with him to heaven, leaving the rest for unpleasant times ahead. In the meantime, if anyone interrogates your beliefs, here’s what to say; if they persecute you for what you believe, then you have good precedent in Jesus himself.

He had to suffer for our salvation, an innocent victim for the sinful race. There is no forgiveness without repentance, no pardon without satisfaction. Redemption through violence: it is God’s way.

Never mind that it contradicted the original gospel of Jesus himself.

 

ACTS 2:14a, 22-32

14 But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say.

22 “You that are Israelites, listen to what I have to say: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders, and signs that God did through him among you, as you yourselves know— 23 this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. 24 But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power. 25 For David says concerning him,

‘I saw the Lord always before me,
    for he is at my right hand so that I will not be shaken;
26 therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced;
    moreover my flesh will live in hope.
27 For you will not abandon my soul to Hades,
    or let your Holy One experience corruption.
28 You have made known to me the ways of life;
    you will make me full of gladness with your presence.’

29 “Fellow Israelites, I may say to you confidently of our ancestor David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. 30 Since he was a prophet, he knew that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would put one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Foreseeing this, David spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, saying,

‘He was not abandoned to Hades,
    nor did his flesh experience corruption.’

32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.

“David … both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” Jesus, on the other hand, was “raised up” by God and is alive now. Should we imagine a ‘CSI Jerusalem’ team going out in search of proof either way?

It is obvious that empty tombs are not really proof of anything – except maybe emptiness. Christianity – as distinct but not separate from the kingdom movement centered around the life and teachings of Jesus – did not explode on the scene because some of his early followers found his tomb empty.

His body could have been misplaced or stolen. Or, going on the theory that the garden tomb tradition was a fictional embellishment on a biblical text taken as prophecy, it might have been thrown into a shallow grave and later scavenged by vultures and wild dogs.

It appears that this claim of resurrection grew harder and harder to defend as a factual statement about a once-dead body and a now-empty tomb. By increasingly desperate measures, the evolving stories started to include white-robed men, an Easter earthquake, a descending angel rolling away the stone, and then various encounters with Jesus and his personal appearances at larger gatherings of believers.

The apostle Paul would later testify on behalf of his own one-on-one with the risen Christ – which really makes it the first claim to a live encounter, since Paul wrote about his experience almost 20 years prior to our earliest Gospel account (Mark). In fact, Paul may have been the first to employ this metaphor of resurrection, perhaps as a way of making a connection between his transforming experience on the way to Damascus and the founder of the messianic movement he was working hard to extinguish. The very one he was persecuting suddenly spoke or appeared to him with forgiveness and a missionary calling.

We are obviously chasing down a rabbit here, but let’s go one step farther.

What if all the later stories of post-resurrection appearances and encounters, earthquakes, angels and the empty tomb itself were narrative representations of an essentially mystical experience of death-and-rebirth, of “dying” (letting go and falling) into grace and “coming to life” in freedom, joy, and gratitude? This experience in itself is profoundly interior and beyond words, yet everything changes as a result.

In one of his authenticated early letters, Paul professes: “I have been crucified with Christ. Now I [ego] no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). For Paul, the resurrection wasn’t something that happened to Jesus. It really has nothing to do with an empty tomb somewhere, and it wouldn’t be nullified with the chance discovery of Jesus’ remains.

As you identify with Jesus – that is to say, you understand and inwardly accept the gift of unconditional love and forgiveness that came through him – you cannot help but drop your agenda, surrender your will, and live fearlessly in the moment.

Resurrection is an experience; the myth is commentary. Here, once again, we have the dichotomy of mysticism and orthodoxy that is a paradox inherent in every living religion.

Whether it’s true or not is up to you.

PSALM 114

1 When Israel went out from Egypt,
    the house of Jacob from a people of strange language,
2 Judah became God’s sanctuary,
    Israel his dominion.

3 The sea looked and fled;
    Jordan turned back.
4 The mountains skipped like rams,
    the hills like lambs.

5 Why is it, O sea, that you flee?
    O Jordan, that you turn back?
6 O mountains, that you skip like rams?
    O hills, like lambs?

7 Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord,
    at the presence of the God of Jacob,
8 who turns the rock into a pool of water,
    the flint into a spring of water.

Parting the Red Sea and Jordan River are mythological references to the story of when the Hebrews were delivered from Egypt and later given possession of the Promised Land. These images resonate with our universal human condition, delivered as we are in our birth, wandering through the wilderness of this world, and hoping for passage to a better place on the other side – either the other side of what we are currently up against, or on the other side of the Dark Gate.

The mountains skipping like rams and the hills like lambs are obvious metaphors (technically similes). Water from rock is another link into the national myth of the Hebrews, recalling the time when a whack from the staff of Moses brought forth refreshment for the mutinous assembly at Mount Horeb (Exodus 17:1-7).

But let’s not stop there.

“The Lord” is also a metaphorical reference to a supreme power and intention behind all things, personified on the model of a high magistrate or land owner. Is God literally a sovereign ruler sitting on a throne somewhere, or the deed owner of the universe? No, not literally. These titles and associations are being used elliptically, as it were, to speak of something that cannot be directly named or known.

Those who seek after an unmediated experience of the supreme reality are known as mystics, and they are unanimous in cautioning the rest of us against taking our names and concepts of God too seriously. Is the deepest mystery a skipping ram? No, not literally. A sovereign lord? Again, not in the literal sense. What about a being “up there” or “out there” in some straightforward way? Not even that.

Orthodoxy is in perpetual tension with mysticism in every religion. The dogmatists want to define and legislate our representations of God, while the mystics are trying to penetrate past our need for concepts altogether. One defends explanations while the other cultivates an experience. Together they embody the dynamic poles of a creative rhythm: control/release, certainty/openness, verbosity/silence, belief/faith, and meaning/presence.

Dogmatists push religion outward into greater divergence, as all religions differ in the way they make sense of God. Mystics, on the other hand, pull religion inward toward a deeper convergence, where holy books are respectfully set aside and words are finally surrendered to ineffable communion with the divine mystery.

Somewhere in this rhythm the rest of us work out our salvation, on the way from Egypt to the Promised Land.

Philippians 2:5-11

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

6 who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8     he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

9 Therefore God also highly exalted him
    and gave him the name
    that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
    every knee should bend,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue should confess
    that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.

This passage is frequently used as a “proof text” for the orthodox doctrine of Jesus as God – even though the passage itself makes a very clear distinction between God (“the Father”) and Jesus (“Christ the Lord”). But isn’t being “in the form of God” equivalent to saying that Jesus was God? No, and here’s why.

We already know that New Testament authors made quick work of anchoring the identity of Jesus in a deep heritage of scriptural prophecies and mythic metaphors. The Suffering Servant, Son of Man, Son of David, Son of God, the New Moses, the Cosmic Christ, Lady Wisdom, and the Second Adam (or New Man) were titles with rich histories of their own. They covered the continuum of time from creation, through Israel’s national history, up to the Day of Judgment and beyond.

In this poem, which Paul may have taken from an existing tradition, Jesus is compared with Adam – the archetypal First Man and “son of God” (as we read in Luke 3:38). According to the Genesis myth, Adam (along with his consort, Eve) was made in the “image” of God, which is another way of saying that he was in the form of God. God placed the couple in a grove of fruit trees and flowing streams. Among the different types of trees in the garden was the Tree of Immortality (at the center) and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.

According to the myth, one virtue that distinguished God from his son and daughter was his “knowledge of good and evil” – that is to say, his rightful authority to judge the difference and make the rules. God warned his children that partaking of this tree would result in their death; it was forbidden.

The children, however, were stirred in their ambition for this exceptional power by a crafty serpent, who encouraged them with the promise that its fruit would make them “equal to God” in that way. They took the fruit and ate it, whereupon they were suddenly aware of their “nakedness” (a metaphor of the self-conscious guilty conscience). Shortly thereafter the couple was evicted from the garden, and a sword-wielding angel (Death) was posted as guardian to its entrance. Without access any longer to the Tree of Immortality, the pair was condemned to live out a finite number of days “east of Eden.”

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The First Adam, then, was in the form of God but tried to make himself equal to God. As a consequence, he and his descendants (the entire human race) are subject to suffering, toil, time and mortality. Because of the First Adam’s disobedience, we all share the fate of death.

But Jesus was the Second Adam. He was in the form of God but did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. Whereas (the First) Adam was defiant, Jesus (the Second Adam) was obedient. Instead of ambition for glory, he demonstrated humility in suffering. In that way, not only was Jesus our example of faith and devotion, but in staying true to God’s will even unto death he has made salvation (immortal life) available to the rest of us. How so?

As a reward for his humble obedience, God granted Jesus entrance to Eden and access once again to the Tree of Immortality. Thus we have here a mythic representation of the central metaphor of early Christianity, resurrection. Now, with the Second Adam alive and inside of paradise, we who commit our lives to him and follow his example can look forward to our own future resurrection and safe transit to life everlasting.

So through this archetypal comparison of the Two Adams, Paul is making the point that egoism, the unbridled ambition for glory, is what excludes the individual – every last one of us – from sharing in the higher life of God. The more tightly we twist our desires around “me” and “mine,” the deeper we sink into mortality and its complications: attachment and loss, pain and suffering, futility and despair. The ego’s arrogant presumption to decide between good and evil is what spins us out and away from God’s will for our lives.

Salvation, then, involves “putting on the mind of Christ Jesus” instead, living for God and giving our lives for his sake.

JOHN 11:1-44

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha.  Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.

Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. 10 But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” 11 After saying this, he told them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.” 12 The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.” 13 Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. 14 Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead. 15 For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16 Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. 18 Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, 19 and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26 and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

28 When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” 29 And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. 32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” 35 Jesus began to weep. 36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” 40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Near the beginning of the Fourth Gospel, the author refers to Jesus’ miracle of changing water to wine as “the first of his signs” – thus tipping us off at the start that the miraculous deeds related in his Gospel are intended for the reader’s interpretation rather than astonishment. As examples of hagiography – stories told of a hero, saint, or savior by his or her disciples and followers – the New Testament Gospels are not concerned with reporting facts, so much as they are with representing what they understand as the “essence of Jesus” and persuading our belief in what he means.

We need to careful, then, not to diminish the Gospels – and the entire Bible for that matter – by reducing them to mere factual reports or even eye-witness accounts. We are dealing here with mythic literature, which means that much more is going on than what might be described on the page, miracle or not. Even a so-called miracle is merely a surface event intended by the storyteller not just to impress us but to open a view into deeper truth and, we might say, more reality.

Throughout the narrative of this Gospel, the author describes seven such “signs” that we are supposed to look through to grasp his meaning of Jesus. These seven signs are arranged in a very deliberate order, not according to their linear sequence but upon a narrative structure known as “chiastic” (often shaped like an ‘X’, the Greek letter Chi). In this case, the first sign makes a pair with the seventh sign, the second sign with the sixth one, and so on until the center is reached, which is where the “main point” of the structure is located.

The raising of Lazarus from the dead lines up with the sign where Jesus turns water into wine at a wedding party. In that miracle, Jesus orders six very large empty jars, the kind used to hold water for the rinsing and ritual washing of guests’ hands and feet upon entering a house, to be filled with water. He then tells the steward to ladle a cup of the water and bring it to the party host, by which time it has changed into wine. The opposition playing out here is between water and wine, social convention and spiritual transformation, ritual washing and internal change – what we might today name “religion” and “spirituality.” The Gospel writer’s message is that Jesus has freed us from conformity and obligation, bringing us joy and new life instead.

In the acrostic structure of the larger narrative, the raising of Lazarus stands as “complementary opposite” to this water-to-wine miracle. Again we have an outer-to-inner dynamic going on, as the dead body of Lazarus is filled with life again. The “bound” once-dead man is liberated from his bandages and given back his life.

As signs, these stories are pointing to the essence of Jesus (according to this author), which is his power to give joy, life, hope and new meaning to those who are empty and dead inside.

GENESIS 2:15-17; 3:1-17

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” 14 The Lord God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
    cursed are you among all animals
    and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
    and dust you shall eat
    all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.”

16 To the woman he said,

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

17 And to the man he said,

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife,
    and have eaten of the tree
about which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.

The creation story from Genesis is a creative composition, not an historical record, which means that its primary purpose is not to impart factual (what we today would call “scientific”) information about the universe in its beginnings, but rather to awaken our mystical sensibilities to the cosmos as an epiphany of divine power, grace, and beauty.

Frankly, the Bible has no interest in history as such, for history has no meaning until it is caught up into some narrative or other that tells of its deeper intent, larger design, and higher purpose. Those who treat the Genesis myth as if it were a factual account of cosmic origins unwittingly (perhaps) drain the story of its true power.

Our challenge instead is to drop the judgment between fact or fiction and simply enter the myth at it is given. Only then can it do its work in shaping our vision of “the way things are” by pulling back the veil of habit and belief that screens our minds from the full glory of The Real.

Using this same approach to the interpretation of myth, we can read the subsequent chapter in the story, of Paradise Lost, as imaginative reflection on the fall out of union that each of us experiences in the rise to self-consciousness. The truth of the myth is very clear: The moment we eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (or once we are faced with the necessity of choosing our course in life), we find ourselves in a race against time and death.

                                                                                             

The storyteller of Genesis was perceptive to a great paradox that lies at the center of human consciousness. Our ability to rise above animal impulse and to choose a course of action requires a freedom from the urgencies and blind drives of instinctual life. And yet, such freedom of intention brings with it a new-found capacity for reflective self-awareness, by which we come to see that we are mortal. Hence the blessing and the curse of our evolved intelligence.

Our moral freedom is surely an exquisite flower of God’s created order, but at the same time this very freedom exposes us to the eventuality (and anxious anticipation) of our own death.

Interpreters over the centuries have pondered this paradox, and many have come to the view that paradise must be lost if we are to have a chance at maturity. It is only Eden’s god, the nursery deity, that seeks to prevent our progress from the Garden of Delight. Just as the Prodigal Son in Jesus’ parable had to leave home and find the limits of a self-centered lifestyle before he could awaken to the experience of his father’s unconditional love, so must we venture forth and finally die to ourselves.

Only then can we enter the kingdom of God.

1 CORINTHIANS 1:18-31

18 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. 19 For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23 but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

26 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. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, 29 so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 30 He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, 31 in order that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

The complex systems of philosophy that religion constructs in its pursuit of a comprehensive worldview have often wandered into the fabulous and bazaar. Mythical beings, metaphysical dimensions, and elaborate theories of immortality of the transmigration of the soul can strain the limits of logic and common sense.

But then again, that shouldn’t surprise us. The primary language of religion is more imaginative than intellectual. There is nothing inherently wrong with such musings, and the exquisite world pictures described in the religions are successful for many in getting them connected to a universe of higher meaning.

What Paul observed, however, is the way that all this “wisdom” can so fascinate and occupy us that we float off the earth and away from the real situations of life. So what if there are seven realms of angels surrounding the throne of God, or infinite Buddha-fields in the dimensionless expanse of nirvana – how does that help me “work out my salvation” (a phrase of Paul’s) in the face of today’s challenges.

Yes, it is helpful to know that I’m not alone in this sometimes crazy world, and that a greater wisdom is available to me if only I can transfer the focus of my awareness to a point beyond the urgencies of this moment. But how do I find my way back? And how can all of this help me become more authentic, more present to my life?

The “way back” for Paul was represented in the cross of Christ, the image of Jesus dying for the sake of his gospel.

                                                                                  

Now, lest we think that Paul had a morbid obsession with torture and death, we must proceed into his theory of the cross with patience and care. To start with, it is imperative to know that, for Paul, the cross of Christ did not stand in utter isolation as the vertical axis around which world salvation turned.

He understood it, as it must be understood, in the light of Jesus’ message and life. Without that context the cross can easily take on an almost magical power, or else get appropriated into a theory that completely contradicts the spirit and teaching of Jesus’ gospel.

The cross as a talisman for warding off evil is a popular superstition still today, and atonement theories that interpret the crucifixion as serving to placate God’s anger and pay sin’s penalty are also prevalent among the mainline traditions of Christian orthodoxy. In each case, the way to understanding the cross of Christ as “the power and wisdom of God” is abandoned for something far less demanding.

The great revelation that came through Jesus had to do with the superiority of love in its aspect of compassion. Compassion is not love from a distance, or love in the abstract, or love on principle. It is love that “suffers with” another under the conditions of pain, brokenness, or bereavement. Jesus revealed the heart of God to be compassion, which to him meant that God is fully present with us in our struggle.

The “power and wisdom” of God’s compassion hang on the cross in the midst of our world.