Yesterday, I wrote about how Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple and, more importantly, his interpretation of it, marks in a sense the ‘end of religion‘. He had come up against the limitations of the sacrificial and ritual system of his people and offered a new expression of what it means to be faithful.
What is interesting, and what I thought merited a closer look today, is that a similar dynamic played out in yesterday’s Epistle reading, with two of the other classic expressions of ‘religion’: miracles and philosophy. Paul writes:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1.22-25)
If Jesus revealed the limitations of the ritual system in the Gospel, here Paul makes the same move against these other religious expressions. It’s easy, especially from the privileged position of white Western culture, to look down on signs and wonders, to assume it’s all style and no substance, a mass delusion at best and a charlatan’s con at worst. But a signs-and-wonders type of religion has a lot of power in motivating people toward change. It presents a shock to the system that cannot be denied in the moment. Miraculous events and peak religious experiences can offer hope and joy to those in difficult circumstances like few things can.
I experienced something like this the Summer I was twenty. I attended a service at a neighbouring church led by a visiting charismatic preacher. The funny thing about the evening was that I remember being bored and unimpressed; the preaching seemed weak and unconvincing and I just wanted to go home. Until suddenly, a wave of heat passed through my entire body and I was filled with a joy unlike any I had known before or have experienced since. I was immobilized yet felt completely safe in the presence of God. In the days that followed, I was buoyant. I could not imagine ever having any doubts about the reality of God and God’s love. But of course, time passes. That experience faded, and when ‘real life’ returned for me, it hit me hard. And over the two decades that have followed that experience, I’ve had pretty much every opinion about what it was and what it meant. (If anything, I think I have more questions about it now than ever.) Signs and wonders are, you might say, a good way of getting people’s attention (and perhaps that is why the Gospels report more miracles at the start of Jesus’ ministry) but a bad way of keeping it. They also, on their own, are powerless to create lasting change in people. At the end of the day, such experiences can function a bit like a drug: the fruit of a powerful religious experience is often simply a desire for another — and more impressive — experience. Signs and wonders might jolt us out of our everyday awareness and help us to see things in a new light, but to actually create and sustain that change — that’s another thing entirely.
For its part, philosophy tries to step into this breach and find reasonable ways for creating change. This is especially true of the ancient philosophies Paul would have known about. While they certainly had thoughts about metaphysics, these philosophies were primarily moral and ethical systems that sought to change the lives of their followers for the better. Stoicism tried to do this by learning to accept the ups and downs of life with equanimity, Epicureanism by finding the happy medium that would maximize pleasure while minimizing pain, Cyrenaicism by maximizing pleasure at all costs, and the Platonists of the day by pursuing virtue to align oneself with the eternal. But, philosophy can at best provide a helpful guide for adapting to our circumstances. This is good, but it falls far short of addressing the real problem. And all too often, rather than finding actual ways forward, philosophy only confuses the path more, as it follows its own rabbit trails deeper and deeper into the intellectual morass. Try as we might, we cannot reason ourselves out of the human condition.
For Paul, these two kinds of religious expression are equally limited systems of bridging the divide between humanity and God, and managing human life. What we need, he argues, is a whole new way of being human. And he believes that way was represented and manifested in the cross of Jesus. It may be a shocking disappointment to those who want to be impressed by the glory and power of the miraculous, and it may make no sense whatsoever to those who demand an intellectually satisfying answer to life’s big questions, but the cross offers the true alternative we need. It rejects the theology of glory of signs and wonders; it reveals the naivete of philosophical speculation; it is the substance that the style of ritual sacrifice sought to represent.
The way of the cross was, is, and will always be controversial — even and perhaps especially among Christians. It is counter-cultural to the extreme, with its insistence that true power is revealed in humility and weakness, that true wisdom is revealed in paradoxes and mystery instead of syllogisms and systems, that God might actually want changed lives and not just ritual symbols. The cross is the end of religion as we know it.
But, we might say, “Religion is dead! Long live religion.” I started this two-part reflection by saying that humans are inherently religious. And so even as our Gospel proclaims the end of religion, religion has always been alive and well. There are to this day Christians who seek after signs and wonders, Christians who demand intellectually satisfying belief systems, and Christians who love ritual. Over the decades, I’ve found myself alternately in each of these camps and raging against them. Where I’m at now is more of a peace with them. Christianity always involves a tension between the ‘now’ and the ‘not yet’, and between the ‘old man’ Adam and the ‘new man’ Jesus. The Kingdom of God is within and among us; the Kingdom of God is still coming. And so it stands to reason that this tension will also manifest in our religious expressions. Signs and wonders, philosophical and theological systems, liturgical and ritual symbols — these things will necessarily continue even as we recognize that they are fundamentally marginalized and revealed as inessential by the Gospel truth of the way of the cross.
But Paul’s point remains. Even if we recognize that these religious expressions will continue — and even if we believe they can be good, true, and beautiful and be vehicles of the Gospel — they also remain as temptations. Miraculous experiences can point us to God, but can be a temptation to seek after the experience and not God. Theological study can deepen our faith, but can be a temptation to intellectual abstraction and away from lived experience. The symbolic language of liturgical life can offer a profound expression of our faith, but can be a temptation to concern ourselves with the whats and hows instead of the whys, to focus on the symbol at the expense of the Symbolized. The old ways always offer temptation to forget the new way. And so in this way, this week’s lessons might be seen as continuing the theme of temptation we’ve been working through this Lent.
And so, as we continue walking through this Lenten season, no matter what religious expressions may be the most natural for me or you, let us remember the new — always new, always shocking, always controversial, always counter-cultural — way of Jesus, the way of the cross, which beckons us onward, and downward.