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

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