Foolishness meets Reason.
by Neal D. Presa
Epistle Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10
For Sunday, July 8, Year B − Ordinary 14
When I first began thinking about this post, an alliance of secular and humanist organizations trumpeting the removal of religion and faith from public discourse and government gathered in the thousands in the National Mall in Washington D.C. in what was dubbed as the Reason Rally. Famed evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins was reported by USA Today to have rallied the crowd to show “ridicule and contempt” towards the doctrines and beliefs of people of faith.
This THQ musing is not an apologetic, nor is it a refutation of Dawkins or the tenets of the Reason Rally. Classical Christianity, and the evangelical traditions, in particular, would regard the statements and principles of the Reason Rally as the proverbial “thorn in the side” to borrow the Apostle Paul’s terminology. I would not be so quick to attribute thorny-ness to secular humanists, nor to those even within the household of faith who think they have all the answers figured out.
In point of fact, hasn’t and shouldn’t the Christian faith be a-theistic? You might be saying, “What?! How can Neal even say that?”
Reformed evangelical pastor Tim Keller of NYC’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church in The Prodigal God aptly reminds us that the early Christian movement a few decades following our Lord’s resurrection, and certainly in the growth in the second and third centuries, was the counter-cultural, counter-intuitive alternative to the pantheon of deities, the challenge to imperial-sanctioned cults that required a system of sacrifices for divine appeasement.
Thus, the Christian faith, from its origins, in confessing, “Jesus is Lord” is a-theistic when juxtaposed to the Zeitgeist of the cultural, religious, social, and political milieu. To not believe and trust in those gods and divinities was considered a-theistic. Christianity became a “religion” and became less a community of relationships when it became systematized, professionalized, and overly complex.
If we take the Reason Rally as symptomatic of a culture that profess to be religious, if not predominantly Christian, and yet is more secular and humanist at its core, then to be fully followers of Jesus would be a-theistic in the New Testament sense. Furthermore, we are, in the Reason Rally’s thinking, “fools.”
The Greek word in 2 Corinthians 12:6 is aphrōn, translated “fool.” Thayer’s Lexicon defines it as one “without reason.” In my own tradition, Presbyterians and Reformed folk would readily cringe to hear the Apostle’s recounting of his friend being lifted to the third heaven, an out-of-body experience to which he himself cannot boast nor can he explain. This text is sometimes dubbed “the fool’s speech” where the apostle expresses elation at the heavenly ecstasy then moves towards aching agony at the thorn, to which he can only rely and refer to Christ’s strength in his weakness.
It seems that a necessary element to being a fool for Christ is not a suspension of reason, but an admission of weakness. Foolishly, yet fully engaged in the kind of love for God the Great Commandment speaks of—our whole “heart, soul, mind and strength.” It’s all about God. We can love because God first loved us. God is the captain and pioneer of our souls.
We are to take on the mind of Christ. Our strength is found in the very weakness of Christ, as our weakness is vitalized by the very strength of Christ. In all things, therefore, boasting can’t be in our vocabulary. To do so, would be truly foolish in the “without reason” sense of the term.
The Hardest Question
What would it mean to be truly and fully a “reasonable fool” for Christ, a-theistic to the prevailing American idols and counterfeit gods that desire our sacrifice and allegiances?
Neal Presa is pastor of Middlesex Presbyterian Church in Middlesex, New Jersey, and a member of the residential faculty of New Brunswick Theological Seminary in the capacity of Affiliated Assistant Professor of Preaching and Worship. Neal is a candidate for Moderator of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). He and his wife have two sons, and have traveled to six continents, including the Caribbean. He loves black coffee, running, Kenneth Cole and Banana Republic suits, and NPR’s “Fresh Air with Terry Gross.” He dabbles in the world of liturgical and ecumenical theology through writings, meetings, and teaching. Visit www.NealPresa.com