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January 30, 2011 | 8:00 a.m.

The Folly of Faith
Who's the Fool?

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 15
Micah 6:6–8
1 Corinthians 1:1831

To walk the way of the cross,
to allow one’s life to be torn by contradiction
and swallowed up in paradox,
is to live in the reality of resurrection. . . .
For the cross overcomes all contradictions.
In symbol and in reality the crossing point
is a point of transformation.

Parker Palmer
The Promise of Paradox

One of several poems I was introduced to in elementary school and required to memorize was a six-line one by a Dutch poet named Henry Van Dyke. It read

       Four things a man must learn to do,
       If he would keep his record true:
       To think without confusion, clearly,
       To love his fellow men sincerely,
       To act from honest motives, purely,
       To trust in God and heaven securely.

A number of years ago I was speaking with a friend of mine whom I had known for several years. He was a hard-driving businessman who was successfully making his way up the corporate ladder. Possessed of a sharp intellect and an acerbic wit, there was something charming and loveable about him. That is, until the conversation veered off in the direction of religion, about which he essentially had a Scrooge-like, Bah! Humbug attitude.

During the course of our conversation, we drifted into the area of the values we lived by, or at least the ones we told ourselves we lived by. This was not uncommon whenever we talked together, not only because I was a minister, but also because he was the son of a minister, a seminary professor, with whom he had a love-hate relationship and from whom he was seeking to unhook himself emotionally so as to become more his own person and learn to relate to his father in a healthier way.

On this occasion he startled me by asking me what my credo in life was. What was the core set of values around which I organized my life? It was not something I had given much thought to; I had pretty much put my life on automatic pilot at that time, preoccupied with my work, my paycheck, and seeing to the care and welfare of my wife and two young children. That was enough credo for me, I thought. Nevertheless, in response to his question, I retrieved the words of Van Dyke’s poem and offered them as the articulation of my credo, my affirmation of what I believed. What took me aback was not only his response to my response, but the intensity with which he made it and the force of his judgment upon it. “Only a damned fool would believe that stuff,” he said with disgust. (Only he didn’t use the word “stuff.”)

Only a fool. I could not help but hear his words of indictment as I read and studied once again these words of Paul, in his letter to the fledgling church in Corinth, about divine wisdom and human folly. Or are they about the folly of divine wisdom and the wisdom that is human folly? How is one to know? It gets a bit confusing, doesn’t it? Van Dyke’s four things are not as simple as they sound. To think without confusion clearly takes a good deal of cognitive energy in today’s world of conflicting and competing ideologies, to say nothing of the ambiguities of life we keep bumping into at every turn.

In her fascinating book Moral Clarity: A Guide for Grown-up Idealists, philosopher Susan Neiman asserts that clarity is not a given but a thing to be achieved, doesn’t stay with us very long, and is usually followed by long periods of confusion. The challenge to think clearly and without confusion is no more evidently required than in what has been referred to as the “moral nihilism” and the á la carte morality that characterizes large segments of our society and shows signs of infusing the whole of our society. And no more stark examples of this moral bankruptcy can be found than in those described in two back-to-back articles in the current issue of the Atlantic magazine. The one is a review of several books dealing with the proliferation of drunken sexual orgies and rape occurring on the campuses of many of the most prestigious colleges and universities in our country, testifying to the impaired judgment, cognitive chaos, and what people in the Recovery Movement call “stinkin’ thinkin’” that have taken over the minds of students and affected their behavior.

The other is authored by Andrew Bacevich of Boston University, who comes down hard on what has been identified as the “military metaphysics” that governs our national mindset, sees peace only as “a prelude to war or an interlude between wars,” and, because of the megabucks spent on what Dwight Eisenhower fifty years ago called the “military-industrial complex,” diverts much-needed funding from providing basic necessities to millions the world over struggling just to survive.

To think without confusion clearly? How foolish!

Or take this business of loving others sincerely. How do we do that when we dislike certain others because they are not like us, when we are repulsed by them in some way, and when they are the enemy? How do we love a deranged young man who, seemingly with no conscience or remorse, sprays a shopping mall full of people with high-caliber bullets rapidly fired, killing some and wounding others? And if we do, what does such love look like and what form does it take? And why bother anyway, when we would just as soon see him dead, wonder why he isn’t, and now continue to have him on our hands? To love my fellow men sincerely? How foolish!

And when it comes to acting from honest motives purely, who would know? Are we so astute about ourselves that we can know beyond the shadow of a doubt that our motives are honest, pure, and unalloyed? And do my purportedly pure motives necessarily guarantee actions that are beyond reproach? Or is the claim that our motives are pure absolve us of the scrutiny of our actions necessary to keep us honest? If my motives are OK, can my actions be not OK at times? To act from honest motives purely? How foolish!

It looks and sounds so simple. Think clearly. Love sincerely. Act purely. But what looks and sounds simple is not always as simple as it looks and sounds. There is more to it than what appears on the surface. That may be part of the reason that G. K. Chesterton years ago said that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.

Which leads us to the bottom line: to trust in God and heaven securely. For the fundamental issue posed by religion generally and by the Christian faith in particular is the question “In what or whom do you ultimately put your trust?” And it is this that Paul is addressing in his letter to the Corinthians and in these sentences that comprise our scripture.

The church at Corinth, organized originally by Paul, was being torn apart by quarrels and divisions among its members as they vied with one another to show who among them had the more authentic spiritual credentials. They were counting on their credentials and their celebrity status by virtue of who had mentored them in the faith—Apollos, Cephas, or even Paul himself—to show who among them could outshine the others in credibility and spiritual prestige. In doing so, in submitting to the cult of celebrity and in trying to either prove or parade their worth and position in the ecclesiastical pecking order, they were distorting their witness in the world as followers of Christ, and Paul could not abide that. So he told them to quit it and to remember not only who they were but whose they were.

If our self-esteem is ultimately dependent upon our wisdom and our work or productivity, sooner or later the ravages of time render us worthless. But if our sense of worth and value is rooted in our relationship to God and in the constant credential of the cross of Christ, testifying to God’s love for us that is willing to lay down its life for us, then even the ravages of time will not be able to render us worthless.

You can’t read far in the Bible without realizing that God does things backwards sometimes. It’s as though God has taken a stroll through the ecclesiastical marketplace and the shopping mall of values and altered all the price tags, marking down those with needless mark-up tags and putting on those items considered ordinary and cheap by the world’s standards new tags of great price. On one item in the world’s throwaway bin, something having to do with the salvation of the world, the price now was a cross.

The wise guys of the world say grab all you can before someone else grabs it from you; whatever it takes, win at all costs, even if you have to do it dirty; don’t let that jerk get ahead of you; shoot first and ask questions later. We know where this kind of wisdom has gotten us.

The fools of the gospel say think clearly, love sincerely, act purely, trust securely. We have yet to know where this kind of foolishness will get us.

Neither wisdom nor works lead to salvation, says Paul, because their focus and center are in human endeavor rather than in God. More often than not they become ways of asserting self-glorification. They have more to do with celebrity status than with the sacrificial service symbolized by the cross of Christ. Even though they may lead, as they sometimes do, to deeds of love and kindness, they can at the same time be the occasions for self-adulation rather than the acknowledgement and acceptance in faith of the sign of God’s love. When we boast in nothing more than our own doings, we partake of and reflect the foolishness of the world that parades under the guise of wisdom. When we boast in the Lord, when we authentically give God the glory, we partake of and reflect the folly of faith in the Christ who embodies both the power and wisdom of God. As Paul put it, the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God and the vulnerableness of God are stronger than human prowess.

Paul’s words echo what the writer of the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy wrote years earlier as the people of Israel, having come through the privations of forty years wandering in the wilderness, now stood poised to enter the Promised Land and partake of its prosperity:

It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy the land. . . . Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God. . . . When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, . . . do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestor, as he is doing today. (Deuteronomy 9:5; 8:11, 17–18)
Faith is foolish; trusting in God and heaven securely is foolish to some because it challenges our ungodly desire to be God. It doesn’t disavow the good we do or the accomplishments we achieve, but it reminds us to whom to give the credit, lest we forget who we are.

I find that the sadness I experience from time to time at this period in my life is related not only to the loss by death of loved ones and friends over the years and the awareness of my own mortality. It is also related to what I see going on in the world that reminds me that today’s intractable problems are in many ways the ones we have always faced. Though progress has been made in many ways, the issues of poverty and hunger, tyranny and oppression, prejudice and protest, racism and rancor, abuse and violence, greed and exploitation, and war and destruction, are still very much the order of the day. How then to avoid a sense of futility about it all as we seek to discover or to shape and form some kind of order out of the muddle of the world?

In his State of the Union address the other night, President Obama urged our nation to “do big things” and to “win the future.” Doing big things and winning have been rallying cries for our nation since its inception. I understand the president to have been calling forth the best in us by using these terms. But I think it important to be aware that we can become so enamored with the goal, with the big thing and the big win, and so cocksure that we will reach our goal, do the big thing, and win the big win, that we lose sight of the fact that it takes little things to make big things, little wins and sometimes learning from losses to make big wins. Most of us are not going to do big things or win big wins by the world’s calculations. Remember that, at the time, the crucifixion of Jesus was not a big thing in the Roman world, happening as it did in an out-of-the-way corner of the empire. It mattered to only a handful of people by comparison to the rest of the population of the empire, who could not have cared less.

For decades, among the many things for which the New Yorker magazine has been noted have been its creative and often whimsical cover designs and illustrations. The cover of the combined December 20 and 27, 2010, issue shows a little boy, held by his father’s hand on a snowy and cold day, looking up in awe at the huge statue of Atlas holding up the world that has occupied space in New York’s Rockefeller Center for years. On the lad’s head is a bright orange pull-over knit hat and around his neck a matching woolen scarf. The cover’s fold-over panel shows the same scene, though this time the little boy is exiting stage right with his father while upon the head of Atlas the bright orange pull-over knit hat sits firmly in place, and around his neck is the matching scarf. The cover’s caption is “One Small Step at a Time.”

What a little fool! What a wise little fool!

Who would have thought that the cover of a magazine could rekindle hope? Only a fool.