I was asked to offer an ‘experimental re-telling’ of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 for Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization. Nothing particularly insightful came to me, though it did help to clarify and confirm the truth of the phrase the foolishness of the world. I mean, the world is a place where growth is outstripping resources; wealth is produced to be concentrated; violence is enacted in the name of peace and order; mental and spiritual well-being is being eroded even among the most secure. We might as individuals and as small groups deviate or resist this wisdom from time to time but really it does not change the prevailing (dominating) wisdom and how it effects the earth and life on earth. It seems clear that the wisdom of the world is foolishness and I tried to make that clear in my retelling.
Is there good news in such a situation? What would that sound like? Or, who could hear it? I could not simply speak of the wisdom of God. We are 2000 years on from Jesus. The world has been shaped by what the church and her theology became. We can’t simply reassert or reassemble a true or original Gospel message from the words we have inherited. If there is hope for wisdom then the gods of this world must be named and denied. And that was my point in the piece. I did not feel that I had available to me constructive language of good news in the face of the world’s deadly foolishness.
I did not want to assume what is being referred to when people (or I) say ‘God’. A god is a concentration of the world. I think gods are inevitable for humans, that does not mean I think humans create them; that gives us too much credit. But the culmination of our value, attention, and energy forms part of a spirit that honours something. This is clear in overt nationalism. This clear, though seemingly less so for us, in our economic system. What else do you call a symbolic belief structure that demands our attention, determines our value, promises a future, and avenges disobedience? Neither modernity nor secularism nor even atheism has rid the world of gods.
Further I would argue that the church has been midwife if not mother to the gods of Capitalism and Western/White supremacy. Sure, a complicated history but one that the church cannot be extracted from without the history of the West becoming unintelligible.
So I did not think I could simply evoke ‘God’ in this re-telling; this would be to risk letting the gods of the world control the message of ‘good news’. After all Paul is clear that the preaching must be of Christ crucified. It should also be noted that there is a reason why early Christians were sometimes called atheists. The form of their belief in God was literally unintelligible to the wisdom of the world. Now this is not a case for contemporary atheism, in my understanding most atheism still honour gods; that is, they embrace the wisdom of the world (often in keeping with the supremacist legacy of the church but with new terms).
So something has to give for there to be an intervention of wisdom (a wisdom not of the world). And because my understanding of wisdom is the unintelligible (the things that are not according to Paul) then I could only offer a critical re-telling, though a liturgy of sorts. No gods. A refrain. This is not a refrain that is helpful or appropriate in all contexts but perhaps necessary in the face of everything in this world including the church’s role in the formation of present world. No gods. We can’t be too careful right now.
The Israelites were commanded to leave the space between cherubim in the holy of holies empty. They could rarely if ever manage this. Jesus was accused of blasphemy because of how he held out the possibility of embodied divinity, rejecting any complicity with images of the empire. We can’t be too careful. Begin, like Paul, with things that are not (to be sure there are other perhaps better interventions but this is still relevant). In this way let the prohibition of false gods be rigorous and thoroughgoing. And then wait. Listen. See if any others have taken up this refrain. Gather. Perhaps something will yet rise up from what seems like death. Perhaps something will pour down like fire and wind. But I could not move as quickly as Paul does to a positive message in this passage because we are not the community that Paul was addressing and if you are serious about seeing if there is something other than the wisdom of the world you can’t skip the initial and needed refrain. No gods. Christ crucified.
That was all I was trying to say in my retelling.