Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Politics of Ancient Israel

[T]he self-presentation of Israel in song and story is inescapably a theological politics in which the defining presence of YHWH, the God of Israel, impinges upon every facet of the political; or conversely, Israel’s selfpresentation is inescapably a political theology in which YHWH, the God of Israel, is intensely engaged with questions of power and with policies and practices that variously concern the distribution of goods and access. In Israel’s selfpresentation,there is no politics not theologically marked, no theology not politically inclined. 
- Walter Brueggemann

Friday, July 27, 2012

Love, Theologically Speaking

[L]ove is not primordially a reaction, but the possibility of every action, the transcendent act that makes all else actual; it is purely positive, sufficient in itself, without the need of any galvanism of the negative to be fully active, vital, and creative. This is so because the ultimate truth of love is God himself, who creates all things solely for his pleasure, and whose act of being is infinite. And this is why love, when it is seen in its truly divine depth, is called apatheia. If this seems an odd claim to us now, it is largely because we are so accustomed to thinking of love as one of the emotions, one of the passions, one of those spontaneous or reactive forces that rise up in us and spend themselves on various objects of impermanent fascination; and of course for us "love" often is just this. But, theologically speaking, at least according to the dominant tradition, love is not, in its essence, an emotion—a pathos—at all: it is life, being, truth, our only true well-being, and the very ground of our nature and existence. 
 - D.B. Hart

Hart on Creating

Unless one thinks that God's act of creation is purely arbitrary—and it would be incoherent to attribute arbitrariness of any kind to a God of infinite goodness (an argument for another time)—then one must understand creation as a direct expression of God's own Logos. God does not create like an omnipotent consumer choosing one world out of an infinity of possibilities that somehow stand outside of and apart from his own nature. Here's one without cancer, there's one without Bach, over there's one with a higher infant mortality rate, and so on; this is the worst sort of anthropomorphism. 
God creates the world of Jesus, the world conformed to his infinite love for his Son in the joy and light of the Spirit; he thereby also wills his goodness in all his creatures infinitely, which is to say he wills this world for eternal union with him in love, and he wills that we should become partakers of the divine nature. There is no other world that God might have created, not because he is bound by necessity, but because he is infinitely free, and so nothing can hinder him from expressing his essential and infinite goodness perfectly, in and through the freedom of creatures created to be the fellows of his eternal Son. That may seem obscurely phrased—it is, I know—but if one thinks through what it means to understand God as the transcendent source of all being, one must abandon the notion that God chooses to create in the way that I choose to buy blue drapes rather than red. God creates a realm of rational freedom that allows for a union between Creator and creature that is properly analogous to the Trinity's eternal union of love; or, stated otherwise, God creates his own image in his creatures, with all that that may entail. 
- D.B. Hart, Where Was God?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Power of Preaching

Does the Word from the pulpit have this much power?

The Protestant and Catholic churches of Western Europe did not exactly make war on the Jews during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. But they did keep up a steady barrage of contempt, combined with support for politicians running on anti-Semitic platforms, and with silence concerning the sadistic pogroms-cum-gang-rapes which provided weekend amusement for the devoutly religious peasants of Central and Eastern Europe. After the Holocaust, these churches fell all over themselves expounding the difference between their own religiously based anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ racially based anti-Semitism. But the Jews have had difficulty appreciating this distinction. They think, correctly in my opinion, that if the Christian clergy had, in the century or so before Hitler, simply ceased to mention the Jews in their sermons, the Holocaust could not have happened. 
- Richard Rorty

Daniel Kirk said something rather strange in a recent post:

"I would like to be a pacifist, but I have an African American friend who won’t let me–because without that brutal war, nothing would have changed for the slaved."

For someone reading through Church Dogmatics and convinced of the cruciform character of Jesus and his disciples to say this is really quite surprising (though he certainly tempers that statement in his further considerations). Could the Word of God have made no difference to the situation in 19th century America? Were there no possibilities other than brutal warfare? Could the strange, new world of the Bible not have been faithfully preached, with men and women cut to the heart by the movement of the spirit?

This may or may not have worked, but the way I see it is that the only way it has been given to Christians to make a difference in society is the way of Jesus, whose social engagement began with "Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand." The follow up to that was not, "If you don't repent, then we will have no choice but to bear arms against you." There was another way, another possibility. The kingdom of God is not like the kingdoms of this world, which achieve desired ends through any means necessary. It is a small, slow, and subtle reality, easily missed and easily dismissed. But it is an alternative way of life that is in harmony with God's way of life.

That alternative is the stuff of preaching, and as secular humanist Richard Rorty implies, preaching the Word of God is a powerful act, more powerful even than wielding a two-edged sword or firing a Springfield Model 1861 rifle. In fact, it is a different mode of power altogether.

Just because slavery did in fact end through warfare, that doesn't mean warfare was the only way history could have been made. That kind of talk belongs to the limited imagination of the world, not the infinite imagination of the church.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Initial Thoughts on The Dark Knight Rises (Contains no spoilers, in case your worried)

"The films genuinely aren't intended to be political."

When I read that claim by Christopher Nolan, I thought of C.S. Lewis's trilemma regarding Christ: Liar, Lunatic or Lord.

Since Christopher Nolan is no Lord, nor does he appear to be a lunatic, then he can only be lying when he says these Batman films -- especially the final instalment of the trilogy -- are not intended to be political. An argument from etymology may not be entirely convincing, but the word "political" derives from the Greek word for city, and The Dark Knight Rises is nothing if it is not about the workings of a city. I'm not giving too much away when I say that The Dark Knight Rises presents a politics, a counter-politics, and a counter-counter-politics.

Even from Batman Begins and through The Dark Knight, the question has not merely been if Batman would save the city, but also if the city is even worth saving. That is a deeply political question, so it is utterly baffling how Christopher Nolan can claim that his films weren't tackling politics. Until you read the next line in the interview...

You don't want to alienate people, you want to create a universal story.

And there it is. Profit. Alienate people, especially 99% of them, and they won't come to see your film. Well, they probably will, but that's not a chance that any studio executive is willing to take.

As for the film itself, there's a lot to digest before I come to terms with what I think of it. All I know for certain at the moment is that I prefer The Dark Knight, and by some distance.

I remember a quote from a philosopher invoked by Sid Lowe when discussing Real Madrid a few of seasons ago: You will win, but you will not convince.

That's sort of the way I feel about The Dark Knight Rises. I recognise some of its qualities, and even at 2hrs 45 mins I was never bored, but it did not convince me. I was convinced by the darkness of The Dark Knight. I was not convinced by the rising of The Dark Knight Rises. To put it in theological terms, Nolan can depict the abyss of the cross, but he falters when it comes to the light of resurrection. What is worth saving? What should be resurrected? What needs to remain toppled? What needs to change? I wasn't convinced by Nolan's answers. I wasn't convinced by his city.

(Aside: It has been noted that Nolan pays homage to other works of film in The Dark Knight Rises. What I haven't read about is his tip of the hat in the direction of The Wire. The film contains (at least) two actors that starred in The Wire, no doubt indicating the not insignificant overlap in terms of their respective depictions of a city.)

Friday, July 20, 2012


It's hard to tell whether a love story involving 14 year-olds is innocent and pure, or just trivial and sentimental. In Flipped, Juli has had a crush on Bryce since they first met as kids. It's all in the eyes, is basically what her voiceover reveals. Bryce, however, has no such crush. In fact, he finds Juli's infatuation annoying and creepy. The thing is, while Juli is by no means ugly (in fact she's very pretty), she is just not the prettiest girl in school. (That title goes to a blonde called Sherry.) But what Juli apparently lacks in looks she makes up for in spirit, generosity, and heart. As dreamy as Bryce's eyes might be, however, he can't see what's right in front of him. Stupid Bryce.

I'm not sure if it's a general problem with males, but Bryce's stupidity is certainly my stupidity. If you're looking for proof, look not further than the fact that when Sherry came on the scene, I was all "Forget about Juli- that's the one you wanna end up with!" (Okay so I didn't say that, but that was the gist of my thoughts.)

I lament that - that instinct I've fostered that makes me see so narrowly. I wonder about all the people I've failed to see, which in turn makes we wonder what I've missed. Brad Pitt's character in The Tree of Life confesses toward the end of the film that he has "failed to notice the glory" (A Malickian theme carried over from The Thin Red Line. Indeed, a biblical theme carried over from Romans 1.) Do that, and life flashes by. What is glorious? Who is beautiful? Yes, these judgements are in the eye of the beholder, but that is not an argument for pure relativism. The character of that beholder will determine whether the judgements are wise or foolish, whether the desires are with the grain of the universe or perverted. The question to ask ourselves, therefore, and the question I am often too ashamed to answer, is, "Am I the kind of beholder who can see what is truly beautiful?" Nevertheless, whatever the answer, there is more to the story...

In Flipped, Bryce undergoes a major shift in perception. Juli remains Juli, yet all of a sudden she is Juli! It's not clear exactly how this happens. I've had that experience before, yet I have no idea what causes such a wholesale transformation. I'd like to think it's an increase in maturity or some such, but that would be granting too much credit. It is probably just an act of sheer grace. Deus ex machina, in film terminology. Whatever the precise cause, Bryce's eyes are opened, and he looks at Juli in the same way she's always looked at him. But that is not the end of the story either...

Flipped is not without its faults, but I liked it. I liked it because I cared. I cared because I could relate. I could relate because I, too, am stupid and in need of constant eye-opening.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pacifism and the Grain of the Universe

Speaking at the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre as part of a dialogue between the Radical Reformation and Radical Orthodoxy, John Milbank had this to say about pacifism:

[pacifism is] counter-intuitive in relation to our created nature, trying too much to jump out of our animality and the limited range of our responses like the instinctive protection of those close to us. We're not angels. We can't quite, we shouldn't try to, jump out of that kind of animality, because it belongs to our created nature.

If you want to get a room full of pacifists to temporarily abandon their non-violent convictions, saying something like that is probably your best bet.

But does Milbank have a point? Is, for example, the intuition to protect through necessary coercion/violence a part of our created nature? Does pacifism expect too much of us by asking us to shed our animal skin and adopt an angelic complexion? To put it more starkly, is "pure pacifism" (Milbank's term) anti-creation?

Far be it from me to tell John Milbank what's what (or pace John Milbank, as they say), but "We're not angels" is not a sustainable avenue of argument against pacifism. I say this in part because of Milbank's own assertion elsewhere that "resurrection, not death, is the ground of the ethical." Given Jesus's description of resurrection life, Milbank actually ends up falling on his own sword (to use a confusing metaphor given the topic at hand): 

"For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven." (Matt. 22:30)

Eschatologically speaking, while we may not be angels, we will in some sense be like them. Indeed, according to Paul, we will judge them. So the admission "We're not angels", far from excusing a more animalistic morality, actually calls us to a more excellent way. My theological jujitsu is complete.

As one of the dialogue partners said to Milbank, pacifism is not an ontological state; it is a practice. A way of being in the world shaped by Jesus's way of being in the world. It is not so much interested in conforming to the created order as it is in being a witness to new creation.

Lionel Hutz on Truth

The Simpsons explains ideology in 10 seconds:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Power of Love

If I were to use this blog to lament and ridicule the hurtful and stupid things Christians say I would be both overworked and, ultimately, self-defeating. Besides, theology -- if we can be generous enough to attach that label to some of the stuff on this blog -- is done rightly as a joyous, imaginative and creative work. Of course that doesn't mean we don't have to say "Nein!" from time to time, but only by way of underlining the "Ja!".

One such "No" goes to Douglas Wilson, who wrote the following some years ago (which was quoted with appreciation on a blog by Jared Wilson and with anger and lament on a blog by Rachel Held Evans):

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.

I think that qualifies as both hurtful and stupid, though I'm sure I know some people who'd be interested to hear more about this "egalitarian pleasuring party". Where? When? Should they bring anything?

Anyway, what interested me about Rachel Held Evans's response was her conclusion: this is about power. Not sex. Power.

I disagree. I think it's very much about sex. Of course we can't reduce everything to the outworking of some Freudian libido or Nietzschean will to power. So I suppose it is really more a "both/and". (It's razor sharp analysis like this that keeps people coming back for more.)

The same holds true for rape. Is rape about power? Absolutely. And it is also about sex. It is about a particular body that has been formed to derive pleasure from a violent, sexual act. The rapist has to be aroused. Not by an abstract entity called "power", but by the act, by the situation, by the body of the particular victim.

The separation of agape and eros has been a theological blunder of epic proportions in Western theology. I think it's a similar mistake to separate dynamis/exousia and eros, especially when we consider that God's power is never anything but desire, love.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Favourite Sports Stars

Me and some friends were compiling lists of our three favourite sports stars. Here's mine:


The Violence of Conversion

Without wanting to turn into a poor man's Pete Rollins, there is a sentence at the end of a long and brilliant Zizek quote that I posted a few months back that resurfaced in a conversation with my sister.

... the “subject of free choice” (in the Western “tolerant” multicultural sense) can only emerge as the result of an extremely violent process of being torn away from one’s particular lifeworld, of being cut off from one’s roots.

To paraphrase my sister's question, Is that not what conversion is? A violent process of uprooting?

Historically, conversion has been explicitly violent, with the threat of the sword awaiting those who refused the evangelism of the conquistadores, for example. But what about the kind of conversion that might have happened at a Billy Graham crusade, or through the efforts of a door-to-door evangelist? Is this violence of a different sort?

One could argue that the latter has New Testament precedent, with Jesus walking around Galilee calling some fishermen to drop their nets, leave their families, and follow him. Indeed one could argue that the mission of Paul was to tear people away from the normal lifeworld of Roman citizens, and to place them within the new lifeworld called "church".  Can we characterise this activity as "violent" in the way meant by Zizek?

I don't think so, though I'm not sure that makes things better or worse! For Jesus and Paul, evangelism was concerned not with free choice, but with calling. I can never call myself a Calvinist, but the debate over how a Calvinist can rightly engage in evangelism is not a debate fuelled by Scripture, but by the enlightenment project of violently creating subjects of free choice. In many ways, the biblically astute question should be, How can a non-Calvinist rightly engage in evangelism? Perhaps in this light, modern evangelism is quite akin to the "extremely violent process" that Zizek describes, for it assumes, if not creates, this independent, choosing subject.

Ultimately, what makes evangelism and conversion non-violent is that the one who calls is non-violent, and he calls us to follow him as agents of healing and peacemaking. The Christian way of evangelising must reflect this, in its practice and in its language. Efficacy, therefore, is neither a sufficient nor a necessary justification for a method. Since Christians are ways and means people as opposed to ends people, it matters not only that you become a disciple of Jesus, but how you become a disciple of Jesus.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ice Spy

My friend -- and more importantly, one-time guest blogger on this very site -- Dan has gone to one of those parts of Canada that has no people in it. Well not quite, but he is very much in the Arctic, on a sociological/ ecclesiological expedition. I may be wrong, but as far as I can gather his mission is to convince a sufficient number of Eskimos that if they part with a suitable portion of their wealth, then he can guarantee their safe passage -- and that of their huskies -- into eternal bliss.

Some of those details may be a little off, so feel free to read what the man himself has to say over at his appropriately named blog polarposts, where his pictures are called polar-oids. Eh!?


In the Christianity that reared me, the closing of eyes was a bodily habit that formed a central part of our expression of the faith. In prayer, heads were typically bowed and/or eyes were closed. In singing, the closing of eyes was a visible expression of union with God, or at least longing for that union. As with most things that one is given, I came around to questioning it.

It struck me as indicative of our introspection and individualism. We close our eyes to shut out everyone else in the room, to look within and there to find God. It can be almost a form of Christian solipsism, a period of time during which we inhabit only our minds because nothing outside of this inner life is truly real, nor does it truly matter. It is at this point that the word "distractions" might be used as motivation. But in the gathering of the people of God, this is a signifier of gross theological error. 

First, the people of God are not a distraction to our worship or our prayer. They are our partners, our fellow participants, members of the one body to which we all have been joined. If the visible, present, local church has become an obstacle to our relationship with God, then we have serious questions to ask ourselves.

Second, when we view the world around us as "distraction", we are in danger of diminishing our lived understanding of God as Creator. To see and hear creation is not a disturbance to our faith; it is to see and hear an expression of God that "pours forth speech". Our prayer and worship together must incorporate, in a very literal sense. Closing our eyes can thus be a distraction to the real nature of faith.

But of course none of that was or is the final word. The upshot is certainly not "Eyes wide open at all times." Upon further reflection...

Closing our eyes for prayer and singing can be used as a time to train our eyes so that when we re-open them we can see things afresh....We close our eyes in order to learn what it means really to see the world as redeemed by Jesus....Sometimes, though not all the time, we must stop our seeing so that we can adjust our sight and begin again to see things properly.

In short, we close our eyes so that they can be opened, in every sense of the phrase.

And because it makes things less awkward some times.

Have Mercy On Me

A modern city bench. You might even say "postmodern", just because. But this is not just a bench. This is a political and legal device. It is a very particular and intentional part of the furniture of a contemporary urban environment; a product placed to "design out" another particular part of the furniture of a contemporary urban environment - the homeless.

My friend and graduate from a degree in Law wrote his final year thesis on begging - specifically, the legal response to it in a UK city. This bench represents one such response, designed as an "anti-sleep" bench and thus functioning to eliminate the homeless/beggars by forcing them to lay there heads elsewhere. The hope for this displacement is that either the homeless will leave the city, or they will pursue criminal activity to compensate for the loss of revenue gained in prime locations, thus giving the police the chance to incarcerate them for a significant period of time.

But why beggars? Are they dangerous, and thus necessary targets of the law? Not exactly.

The reasons beggars are unwanted in cities are far more, shall we say, capitalistic. The first is aesthetics. Cities seeking capital investment and tourist revenue need a pristine image to portray for their potential investors. Beggars are a blight on that image. They do not meet the desired aesthetic demands, and are therefore seen as a hindrance to the economic growth of the city.

My friend briefly mentions the case of graffiti to highlight the aesthetic sensibilities of the law. "He is no Banksy" was a prosecutor's case against one particular graffiti artist, who faces jail time on account of his graffiti being seen as "vandalism" as compared to Banksy's "art". The law, it seems, is far from blind when it comes to taste.

The second reason beggars are targeted is because they are "flawed consumers," or even "non-consumers". The city centre is first and foremost a place for consumption. Beggars work right against this ethos - they actually take money from consumers, money that could be spent in one of the nearby shops. There is an opportunity cost when one gives one's pocket change to beggars, and the authorities are determined for you not to miss out on an opportunity. Beggars are also just plain bad for business, with people less likely to enter a shop that has a beggar sitting in front of it. In fairness, given the society we have created for ourselves, what could be more punishable than anti-consumerism? (This reminds me of the Roman Empire's issue with monks, and Eisenhower's declaration that "It is the duty of every American to consume".)

There is much more that could be said. The thesis is both simple and fascinating to read, written with clarity and with a passion that has taken on far greater forms than the academic, but which translates well into this 10,000 word piece that is at once easy and uneasy reading. If you want me to send you a pdf copy just let me know.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Finiteness of the Infinite

It's posts like this one from Peter J. Leithart that justify Al Gore's invention of blogging. That we get to read paragraphs like the following in between a game of Helicopter and a search for the latest news on Riquelme's departure from Boca Juniors is one of the internet's great wonders:

Applying his understanding of the Creator-creature distinction to Christology, Muller says that the infinite God “graciously grasps the finite” and thus “shattered the Kantian barrier from his side.” But I don’t believe in a Kantian barrier, so I see nothing of that sort to shatter. God doesn’t dwell in a noumenal realm, nor are we limited to the phenomena. I’m with Barth on this point: The incarnation is no contradiction of God’s infinity; it’s the climactic expression of that infinity. God is so boundless that He can take flesh and live a human life from conception to grave and beyond without denying Himself, without ceasing in any way to be the infinite God that He is.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

An Essay; Or, A Blog Post Never to be Read!

To whom it may concern, this is an essay I wrote for a class on 1 Thessalonians/1Corinthians. The task was to explore the verse quoted below as a summary statement of 1 Corinthians, and to discern Paul's approach to remedying the situation.

The good thing about reading books throughout the year that aren't directly relevant to any particular class is that sometimes one of those books provides a fresh angle from which to tackle an assignment. In this case, that book was The Beauty of the Infinite by David Hart. This essay therefore amounts to little more than piecing together bits of Hart's ecclesiology and moral vision that are found in various places throughout his book, and finding natural correspondence between these and the ecclesiology/moral vision of Paul in this letter that I very much fell in love with.

1 Corinthians: The World in the Church

“Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly…” (1 Cor. 3:1)

The strength of this statement as a summary of 1 Corinthians lies in its subtle disclosure of Paul’s ecclesiology: the church as God’s chosen alternative to the world for the sake of the world. The present essay aims first of all to show – using three examples – that it is precisely the failure of the Corinthians to be God’s alternative community (i.e. their worldliness) that occasions the letter and dominates its content from beginning to end. I will then discuss the roots of this “spiritual immaturity,” seeking to attain Paul’s diagnosis of the Corinthian malaise based on the symptoms that are evident. Finally, I will examine Paul’s understanding of the cure.
Church as World
The Corinthian failure to be an alternative to the world propels the arguments of the letter. To be called into the church[1] is to be called out of the world.[2] In other language, it is to be called out of the flesh and into the Spirit.

The question to ask of this letter first is, What does it mean to be “of the Spirit” or “spiritual”? To be “spiritual” was not to excel in a particular facet of life that we might term “religion.” It was, rather, to practise a set of social, political and devotional habits[3] in light of the love of God revealed in Christ and in light of the time of God that judged this age of the flesh with its powers and rulers as passing away[4] and the new age of the Spirit as dawning. The spirituality that Paul advocates is thus not a new way of doing religion but a new way of life, leaving no sphere untouched and unredeemed by the gospel.

The Corinthians’ worldliness was their maintenance of the status quo, and we can cite examples of this in the realm of politics, social practices, and ritual – though no easy division can be made between the three.

o  Politics
In chapter 6, it emerges that there are members of the church taking other members to court on account of defrauding.[5] While the economic issues cannot be ignored, the worldliness that Paul decries is the community’s failure to carry out the politics of justice and love that the church must now be known for. The church in Corinth has left political matters to the “unjust” system of the present age, which represents a negligence of their political vocation and witness.

o  Social Practices
Attendance at cultic meals was a regular practise in first-century Corinth, and helped to maintain social standing within the polis. The meat served at these occasions was “sacrificed to idols”, which created tension within the community. Some – perhaps the upper class who would have received regular invites to such meals[6] – insisted on their rights to continue this social norm because of their knowledge that “an idol is nothing at all in the world”.[7] Paul saw this language of rights as problematic for the community’s welfare and evidence that the Corinthians didn’t know as much as they thought they did about what it meant to be the church.

o  Ritual[8]
Just as “worldly” practises such as politics can be conducted in a spiritual manner, so “spiritual” practises can be conducted in an altogether worldly manner.[9] At the Lord’s table in Corinth, “one goes hungry, another gets drunk”[10] - evidence that the Corinthians may well have carried their class division from wider society into the church, with the upper-class hosts failing to properly share in the celebration with those from the lower classes. Disorder and boasting also permeated the elements of communal worship, with giftedness understood as cause for elitism and division.

In all these spheres – the political, the social, the ritual – the life of the Corinthian church looks as if it is still “of the flesh”. To the outsider looking on – an important person in the letter -- the status quo has merely been given a Christian flavour by the gospel. This worldliness is unacceptable for a church which Paul understood to be his “workmanship in the Lord.”[11] It is the root of this worldliness to which we now turn.

The Root of Worldliness: Knowledge as Power
“That the power of the Spirit to communicate [the ancient beauty of creation] anew is infinite is an article of faith; that human beings resist the Spirit with indefatigable ingenuity is the lesson of history.”[12] This is a lesson taught from the beginning of Christian history, with the church in Corinth as an unwitting typos.[13]

The argument of this essay is that the root of the problem for the church in Corinth has to do with knowledge.[14] We must be careful in what way we understand the word “knowledge” and its cognates, however. Paul was against a form of knowledge that prolonged class division, economic disparity and ethical complacency. We can describe this as “knowledge as power”.[15] For Paul, however, to know – that is, to know as the people of God ought to know – was a virtue. It was a way of being in the world grounded in God’s way of being in the world and in communion with God’s way of being in the world. In this way of being, to know is to love and to love is to know. To live in this way is to have “the mind of Christ”.[16] This is the argument of 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, an argument that calls for an “epistemological revolution.”[17]

As Healy writes of the Old Testament’s concept of knowledge –and by extension, Paul’s concept of knowledge -- “To know the Lord, or to be known by him, involves both understanding his will and acting accordingly.”[18] In the world created by the gospel, then, knowledge was not the potential pathway to obedience. Knowledge was obedience - the obedience of faith carried out by the Spirit-people.[19] The Corinthians’ failure to obey, therefore, is not their failure to apply the knowledge they had. Their failure was that they did not know as they ought to know. It was, in short, a failure to love; a failure to root their communal life – that is, their social, religious, economic, intellectual and political habits and practises -- in the love of God revealed by Christ in his death and resurrection.

It is therefore a subtle misconception to think of the letter to the Corinthians as Paul’s application of the gospel, with “ethics” understood as distinguishable from the good news of Christ. David Bentley Hart spells this out in no uncertain terms: “There is no autonomous sphere of ‘ethics’ in Christian thought, no simple index of duties to be discharged.”[20] Application or ethics of this sort too often appeals to our desire to fit the gospel into our pre-existing lives; to tag on “ethics” to a form of life that is essentially “of the flesh”, built on a foundation other than the gospel. Per contra, the gospel is not a disembodied message extracted from a sea of ethereal knowledge to be applied in the real world, but a new creation, a new form of life constituted by practices that are deeply countercultural yet in perfect accord with the kingdom of God that is displacing the kingdoms of this world.[21]

Hart writes: “The church cannot conceive of itself as an institution within a larger society, as a pillar of society, culture, and civic order, or as a spiritual association that commands an allegiance simply in addition to the allegiance its members owe the powers of the wider world.”[22]  This was precisely how the Corinthians perceived themselves, and it is this perception that Paul aimed to re-imagine.

The Cure: Knowledge and Power as Love
For Paul,
Christian theology contains within it an irreducible revolutionary possibility that ruptures with the predetermined co-ordinates of the world and offers an entirely new kind of political subject altogether….[T]heology provides a critical stance against the basic assumptions and ruling ideologies of this world.[23]
This critical stance, this new kind of political subject brought into being by the word concerning a crucified and resurrected king of the Jews was to be characterised by love, worked out not in the privacy of inner “spiritual” feeling but in a public and political spirituality that took seriously the church’s call to be a holy people[24] who exemplified the justice and wisdom of God in the world that the world could not know because of the offense of the cross – either as stumbling block or as foolishness.

As we look briefly at the political, social, and ritual issues above, we can take snapshots of how Paul set about fostering this society of the Spirit:

o  Politics
Paul’s argumentum a fortiori in chapter 6 is rooted in the identity and vocation of the church – an identity and vocation that, ironically, the Corinthians did “not know” (6:2 and 6:3). They are “the Lord’s people” – and therefore an eschatological people -- who are destined to judge the world.[25] The present is not a time to sit around and wait for that destiny; it is a time for the people of God to practise their alternative politics in front of a watching world. This is the politics of love, in which it is better to be wronged than to retaliate. In fact, Paul’s searching question, “Why not rather be wronged?” (6:7) anticipates his description of love in chapter 13 – “it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.”

o  Social Practices
For Paul, social practises were no longer a matter of rights but a matter of what is good for the society known as “church”. In light of the “weakness of God”,[26] the weak in the community have a status that the world cannot recognise but which the church must recognise. Each member of the church body must be seen as a “brother or sister for whom Christ died”.[27] “Love”, after all, “is not self-seeking,”[28] and so the church must become a community whose practices demonstrate mutuality, care and humility. Paul holds himself up as an example of one who triumphs the love of freedom with the freedom of love.[29] This triumph is what it means to know and share in the gospel, which is nothing less than a “resocialization” based on the community’s commitment to radical, concrete love.

o  Ritual
It is no coincidence that chapter 13 occurs during the discussion of the Corinthians’ ritual life of communal worship. The love described is the way in which the hymns, prophecy etc. must be practised if they are to be worthy of this called-out-community. Indeed, without love the elements of worship were utterly worthless in Paul’s eyes. This love is a matter of “discerning the body of Christ”. It involves each member of the body opening their eyes and seeing one another as those to whom they have been joined in Christ.

In all of these spheres of life Paul is attempting to convert the imaginations of the Corinthians to a revolutionary ecclesiological and eschatological[30] vision: a vision of the church as “no less than a politics, a society, another country, a new pattern of communal being meant not so much to complement the civic constitution of secular society as to displace it.”[31]

Paul’s approach to addressing the Corinthian worldliness can thus be summed up by the signpost to the letter’s most resplendent terrain: “Now I will show you a more excellent way”.[32] The way knowledge of God is known – and, specifically, the way Paul knew it – is indivisible from the content of that knowledge. Like is known by like. Christ can only be known by those who share in his form of life. Paul shared in that form by the power of the Spirit, and sharing in that form is thus what it means to be “spiritual.” Paul’s showing the church a more excellent way is therefore not exhausted by the beautiful poetry of 1 Corinthians 13. Coupled with these words, Paul has offered the Corinthians a life that they can imitate – that life is his own. Twice he urges them to imitate himself as he imitates Christ.[33] This is a bold exhortation, but such is Paul’s confidence in the power of the Spirit to transform the believer into the image of the crucified and resurrected Messiah, who – despite the world’s verdict on where power lies and what power looks like -- is the very power of God.[34]

As such, Paul himself stands as an educator of vision,[35] an example to behold and see not as “scum of the earth” as the world sees,[36] but as beauty, as spiritual. Yet above Paul stands Jesus, the perfect form of God’s glory,[37] the last Adam through whom we see the true shape of creation.[38] For the Corinthians to see rightly Paul could do no more than live faithfully, write truthfully, and entrust his workmanship to the power of the Spirit, who alone could cause their eyes to be opened so that they might see as Paul sees. 1 Corinthians thus represents Paul’s “seeing as”, his apostolic vision of the world now illuminated by the light of the crucified and resurrected Christ.[39]

This vision was the vision of God’s love as “the gift given”.[40] “What do you have that you did not receive?” is Paul’s crucial rhetorical question in chapter 4. Paul desires for the Corinthians to re-imagine their world as gift: their knowledge, their charismata, their rituals, their political and social life together – all these have been received. And received not only for the enjoyment of individual members, but for the welfare of the community. The gift of God made the community possible. It can only be sustained when the gifts that have been given by God are given again, one to another, in the S/spirit of faith, hope, and love.

In discerning the roots of Christian immaturity and the appropriate remedies we must take seriously Paul’s mistrust of any knowledge or wisdom or power divorced from the virtue of love; indeed, of any knowledge, wisdom, or power that is not a virtue itself. We must take seriously the apostle’s conviction that even our best knowledge is partial,[41] and that it is God’s knowledge rather than ours that saves.[42] We must not circumvent the primacy of love, for love alone is the way through which all Christian truth is grasped; indeed love is the very form and content of this truth.[43] It is the sin qua non of the church,[44] and must always be exemplified, nurtured, and witnessed to by those whom God has called out of the world in order to imitate the form of Christ by the power of the Spirit.

Christ’s pattern has been handed over and entrusted to the church as a project; he does not hover above history as an eschatological tension, a withdrawn possibility, an absence, or only a memory, but enters into history precisely in the degree that the church makes his story the essence of its practices.[45]

[1] Paul makes use of the language of “calling” in throughout the letter, but especially in the first chapter. E.g. 1:1-2; 1:9; 1:24; 1:26
[2] That is, the old world that is passing away, or what Walter Wink might call the “domination system”.
[3] Cf. R.A. Horsley, ‘1 Corinthians: A Case Study of Paul’s Assembly as an Alternative Society’, 247
[4] Cf. 1 Cor. 2:6
[5] Cf. 1 Cor. 6:7-8
[6] Cf. W.A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians, 68-72
[7] 1 Cor. 8:4. A similar argument was perhaps made by members of the community who wished to continue to sleep with temple prostitutes, considered at the time to be a normal social practice. “All things are lawful for me” (6:12) could be paraphrased as “I have a right to do whatever I want.”
[8] Ritual is used here to denote the church’s regular practise of the eucharist and the elements of communal worship – “a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation.”
[9] The distinction between worldly and spiritual here is simply heuristic.
[10] 1 Cor. 11:21
[11] 1 Cor. 9:1
[12] D.B. Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 338
[13] Just as Israel provided a typos for the Corinthians, so the Corinthians provide a typos for the people of God today. Cf. 1 Cor. 10:1ff.
[14] As Healy notes, “Gnosis appears 16 times in 1-2 Corinthians; 7 elsewhere in Paul”. M. Healy, ‘Knowledge of the Mystery: A study of Pauline Epistemology’, 134.
[15] “Power” here is understood as the power to coerce, to crucify, to oppress, and to marginalise.
[16] 1 Cor. 2:16. Philippians 2 also equates this “mind of Christ” with the form of kenotic love. Cf. Phil. 2:5-8
[17] Cf. R.B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, 27: “Paul has taken the central event at the heart of the Christian story -- the death of Jesus -- and used it as the lens through which all human experience must be projected and thereby seen afresh. The cross becomes the starting point for an epistemological revolution.”
[18] Healy, 142, who cites Jer. 22:16; Ex. 33:17; Ps. 147:19f. as examples.
[19] Cf. K. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1, 26: “Knowledge of God is obedience to God.”
[20] Hart, 339
[21] Theologically, the cause of Corinthian immaturity may be understood to be a diminished ecclesiology effected by an under-realized eschatology.  They failed to apprehend the nature of the kingdom of God which had come in the form of a servant and which had rendered the kingdoms of this world impotent. The failed to see the word of the cross as the word by which all other words and worlds have been judged, and by which the new world has come into being, with the church as its inhabitants and heralds.
[22] Hart, 339-340
[23] C. Davis, J. Milbank and S. Zizek, Paul’s New Moment, 2
[24] Cf. Horsley, 246
[25] 1 Cor. 6:2
[26] 1 Cor. 1:25
[27] 1 Cor. 8:11
[28] 1 Cor. 13:5
[29] Cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23
[30] Here I follow Richard Hays in arguing against the Corinthians’ problem as being “overrealized eschatology”, for as Hays writes, “If Paul was seeking to correct the Corinthians’ overrealized eschatology, he committed a colossal pastoral blunder when he wrote to them later, in 2 Cor 6:2, ‘Now is the day of salvation.’” R.B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination, 21
[31] Hart, 340
[32] 1 Cor. 12:31
[33] 1 Cor. 4:16; 11:1
[34] This understanding of power given by Paul in the first major discourse of the letter helps interpret a crucial couplet of verses in chapter 4: “But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant people but their power. For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power.” 1  Cor. 4:19-20
[35] Cf. Hart, 265: “[T]he moral task is to love because one truly sees and to see because one truly loves: to educate vision to see the glory of this particular one.”
[36] 1 Cor. 4:13
[37] Cf. 1 Cor. 2:8
[38] “Christian morality is a labour of vision – to see the form of Christ, to see all creation as having been recapitulated in him, and to see in all other persons the possibility of discerning and adoring Christ’s form in a new fashion.” Hart, 342
[39] Cf. C.B. Cousar, ‘The Theological Task of 1 Corinthians’, 91-92: “The theological intent of the letter is to confront the readers with an alternative way of viewing reality, specifically an alternative way of viewing God, the Christian community, and the future.” [emphasis mine]
[40] Hart, 394
[41] Cf. 1 Cor. 13:9
[42] Commenting on 1 Cor. 8:3, Hays writes: “…what counts is not so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us. That is the syntax of salvation.” Hays, 1 Corinthians, 138
[43] “For Christian thought...delight is the premise of any sound epistemology....Only in loving creation’s beauty – only in seeing that creation truly is beauty – does one apprehend what creation is.” Hart, 253
[44] Cf. 1 Cor. 13:2; John 13:35
[45] Hart, 340