The Cross And Wisdom
Lenten Service @ St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Kanata
March 12, 2014
“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God.” 1 Cor 1:18
Henri Nouwen commented that from the beginning he faced two inner voices that spoke to him and gave him guidance as he made decisions about what to do with his life:
One said: “Henri, be sure you make it on your own. Be sure you become an independent person. Be sure I can be proud of you.”
The other said: “Henri, whatever you are going to do, even if you don’t do anything very interesting in the eyes of the world, be sure you stay close to the heart of Jesus; be sure you stay close to the love of God.”
The result was Henri, as a priest, studied psychology and became a psychologist. That way if people weren’t so comfortable with having a priest around, Henri put on his psychologist hat. He wore it well. He began teaching psychology, and had time doing so at Notre Dame, Yale, and at Harvard. He was seated in some of the most prestigious Halls of human wisdom in the western world.
But Henri recognized that something was wrong. He wrote that he could speak to thousands of people about humility, and at the same time wonder what the crowds were thinking of him.
He wondered if his career, responding to the first voice calling for his diligence and respectability, had gotten in the way of his vocation – the call of God in the latter voice. He didn’t feel peaceful; he felt lonely. And so he began to pray “Lord Jesus, let me know where you want me to go, and I will follow you. But please be clear about it.” And so Henri walked away from the safe and rational halls of human wisdom he’d enjoyed for so long.
He worked with the poor in Peru for a few months to explore whether God was calling him there, but eventually he found his way to the L’Arche community called Daybreak, just North of Toronto. There, Nouwen gave his life to working with the handicapped and disabled.
Nouwen’s first task was to work with a young 24 year old man named Adam. Adam was non-verbal, and could not stand on his own. Henri was to help him with his morning routine. Henri says he was afraid – it wasn’t easy working with Adam. “Adam was not able to dress or undress himself. Even though he followed me with his eyes, it was difficult to know for sure whether he actually knew me. He was limited by a body that was misshapen, and he suffered from frequent epileptic seizures.”
Nouwen gives a description of the morning routine bathing, dressing, holding him as they made their way to the breakfast table. Adam loved to eat, and was able to lift a spoon to his own mouth. And so they ate together. “It took a while,” Nouwen wrote, “and I was aware that I had never sat silently watching with anyone, especially a person who took an hour to eat breakfast.”
After two weeks, Nouwen felt his fears about Adam begin to diminish. After a month, Nouwen was looking forward to being with Adam. Nouwen found it hard to describe, but something was happening, and he wrote “God was speaking to me in a new way through this broken man.” In time, Nouwen came to see Adam not as one challenged who needed Henri to survive, but as a brother who spoke to him about God and God’s friendship in concrete terms. Henri learned that ‘being with’ was more important than ‘doing for’. That ‘doing together’ was more important than ‘doing alone’, and – coming from an academic culture – that the things of the mind were subordinate to the primacy of the heart.
In the western world we’ve accomplished many mighty things of the mind. Wisdom and her cousin rationalism have allowed us to cut open the atom, to send humanity into space, to stop diseases and disorders that once ravaged humanity, and to create technologies that were science fiction dreams just decades before. And we’ve seen incredible and wonderful changes in human society – we need not diminish the gift God has given us in wisdom and rationality and the curious and creative human spirit.
But we also want to recognize the real limits of that gift. We recognize that when it comes to matters of truth, and trust, things are perhaps more complicated than ever. Despite our increase in knowledge, we are a polarized and divided world. Science is bought and sold. Rationality is subject to bias. Truth? I daresay that more than a century of enlightenment thought has done little to help resolve Pilate’s ancient question. We’ve just multiplied possible answers and revealed the brokenness of humanity when it comes to wielding them.
When we read the Apostle Paul saying that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing”, we have a tendency to imagine that by ‘the perishing’ he means simply all those nasty pagans and their Graeco-Roman philosophies. But Paul was writing to the Church in Corinth. It was a church of educated, broadly experienced and exposed people. From across the Empire ships harboured there, trading their goods, and their bits of wisdom and insight. The best of everything could be found on its way through Corinth. And, as a result, I think we’re right to interpret the community as one of those who’d seen it all, sold it all, bought it all – understood it all. Did the cross seem foolish to them too?
And so in the church at Corinth there was division and quarrels. Some followed Paul, others Apollos, others Peter. The church had not come to truth, but to positions about truth. Just like the world, they had developed heroes and favorites and played out the battles between those figures in their arguments and debates.
For them, the message of cross – it’s foolishness in the eyes of the world – wasn’t sufficient to satisfy their needs for significance and prestige. The church, for Paul, was no platform for pontificating philosophers or squeaking scholars. And we’re not seeing here some kind of early church anti-intellectualism. What we’re talking about is people coming to terms with the truth revealed through the Cross, and interpreting everything through that reality.
When I was in seminary, I once got into a debate in a class about some theological point. And my professor commented that he admired my mind, but wasn’t sure if I was aware of the degree to which my emotions lay under my thinking. It stalled me. Was that a compliment or an insult? It wasn’t either. It was a statement of the truth. I‘m a human person, and even if I had a great degree of head capacity, it couldn’t counter the reality of my broken and complicit humanity. Under my polemic or position, however rational I may have esteemed it, lay the desire for respect or acknowledgement. Underneath are rivers of pride and insecurity that try to wear the clothes of power and being right, but are never more than a child within playing dress-up in other people’s opinions. I discovered it is possible for me to use the message of the cross to attempt very un-crucifixion like acts of power.
It’s the cross itself that denies us that road. It’s the epistemological revolution that pre-dates and out-does the post-modern skeptical critique of human objectivity by a couple of millennia. If trendy philosophies today are unsure about our ability to know truth, the cross said so long ago.
The cross tells us that truth, ultimately, must be revealed – not by acts of men, but by an act of God. The cross leads us not to human strength, but to God’s incredible sufficiency for everything we require including salvation and a road through and beyond death and suffering. The cross does not set us up for division with some better than others, but sets the stage for unity with the whole of us equally before God and his judgment and totally dependent on his grace. It calls us to lay down our attempts at human strength and our comparative self-driven measurements, and instead to begin trusting God in the truth of our collective weakness.
With that lens, we see before us a road not marked with eloquence, but contrition; not satisfying our need to prove ourselves, but calling us to lay our lives down for others; not convincing the world with all the tools of persuasion we might design, but penetrating it with the one truth that makes every great mind and powerful person squirm in discomfort: God alone is God, the author of life, the teller of truth, the saviour of humanity, and the ruler and judge who knows the real details of our hearts and from whom we cannot hide. In the cross, and its foolishness, we see the one who lays all that power down as if it’s nothing, subjecting himself totally, and yet overcoming and ruling nevertheless.
Eugene Delacroix. Christ on The Cross. 1845