Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe…. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor. 1: 21, 25)
The avant-garde composer John Cage once famously said, “I have nothing to say, and I am saying it.” Today, this kind of self-contradictory nonsense doesn’t seem like the domain of progressive musicians or artists, it seems, to many, like the domain of the church, who many suspect has nothing to say, but has been saying it loudly, nonetheless, for two millennia. Or, more poignantly, perhaps those who can either forgive the church, or at least be dismissive of her, attribute this attitude to God: that he has nothing to say, and he is saying it. This would explain nicely the disconcerting silence so many people find at the other end of their prayers.
Perhaps Cage knew this feeling, too. He once described a conversation he had with his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg:
“After I had been studying with him for two years, Schoenberg said, ‘In order to write music, you must have a feeling for harmony.’ I explained to him that I had no feeling for harmony. He then said that I would always encounter an obstacle, that it would be as though I came to a wall through which I could not pass. I said, ‘In that case I will devote my life to beating my head against that wall.’
To some, this, too, sounds like a description of religious life, a life of prayer, a life of going to church, Sunday after Sunday: beating our heads against a profoundly unyielding wall.
I regularly encounter people who, with the best intentions, want to engage me on the topic of religion, or of God (these are, of course, not the same thing). Such encounters with sympathetically minded people usually present me with an opportunity to unfold the wisdom of God in a well-crafted short answer. And you would think, that since I am supposed to talk about religion and about God for a living I would have such pithy presentations on the wisdom of God and of his church at the ready to be deployed in elevators, at bars, or dinner parties. But I have very few of such packets of powdered chicken soup for the soul waiting to be reconstituted in my day-to-day encounters. And sometimes this is a disappointment to me, and no doubt to the sympathetic soul on the other side of the conversation. I suppose it ends up seeming as though I have nothing to say and I am saying it.
It is not convenient to proclaim Christ crucified. If the message of the Cross is foolishness to much of the world, it is not always crystal-clear to those of us who believe, either. Nor is it immediately self-evident that Jesus’ teaching that it is the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those hungry for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, or those who are persecuted who are blessed. If this is God’s wisdom then no wonder many would rather dream of becoming a partner at Goldman Sachs.
It is hard to be a believer if you are reluctant to embrace the foolishness of God. His foolishness began in the beginning, when he created this magnificent universe, and a garden with a man and a woman in it, and told them to enjoy Paradise, with the exception of one famous tree. (This, of course, is not how it actually happened, it is just our foolish way of describing God’s foolishness.) It certainly looks like foolishness to have chosen an old man and an old woman to be the patriarch and matriarch of your chosen people, who, by the way, do not yet exist. It looks like foolishness to allow those people, once they have come into being, to be enslaved. It looks like foolishness to choose as their leader an incompetent speaker, who happens also to be a murderer. Shall I go on to describe the foolishness of God? Do you want to talk about David, his great king, who was also a fool of epic proportions?
And those examples come only from Act One. We have not the time to chart the foolishness that unfolds in Act Two, beginning with a poor Jewish girl and leading quickly to a manger and eventually to the grand foolishness of Calvary.
And in the midst of it, this foolish teaching:
Blessed are the poor in spirit;
blessed are those who mourn;
blessed are the meek;
blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness;
blessed are the merciful;
blessed are the pure in heart;
blessed are the peacemakers;
blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
blessed are you when people revile you.
I sometimes wish that there were a sort of pocket guide to all this foolishness: a secret manual that they would give you in seminary, a kind of key to turn in the lock, or lens to look through and see how it all makes sense, to see God’s wisdom for what it is, to hear that God has something to say and he is saying it loud and clear! I see on the shelves of the bookstores many attempts to convert the foolishness of God into the wisdom of this world, all more or less good for you than chicken soup, I guess. But none wiser than the foolishness of God.
Back to John Cage, who told this story:
“There was an international conference of philosophers in Hawaii on the subject of reality. For three days, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki said nothing. Finally the chairman turned to him and asked, ‘Dr. Suzuki, would you say this table around which we are sitting is real?’ Suzuki raised his head and said, ‘Yes.’ The chairman asked him in what sense Suzuki thought the table was real. Suzuki said, ‘In every sense.’”
Such is the wisdom of this world: we can as easily become confused about the existence of a table as we can about the existence of God. We know, for instance that money can’t buy happiness, but we have no intention of giving up trying to do so. We love to suggest that the pen is mightier than the sword, but we will never spend more on pens than we do on swords. And we listen to people all day long who have nothing to say, but they don’t know it, and they keep on saying it anyway, and we keep on listening.
At least John Cage knew had had nothing to say before he said it. I, myself, have never been very interested in Cage’s music, never found it engaging, never wanted to sit through 4 minutes and 33 seconds of ambient noise and nothing else at his suggestion, so I suppose it suits me well that he has nothing to say.
I am old enough to have been required to memorize a few things in my schooling. Did you have to memorize this:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
creeps in this petty pace from day to day
to the last syllable of recorded time,
and all our yesterdays have lighted fools
the way to dusty death. Out, out brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
that struts and frets his hour upon the stage
and then is heard no more: it is a tale
told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
signifying nothing. (Macbeth, Act 5, Sc 5)
Poor Macbeth. If life boils down to nothing, then why say nothing so eloquently? Why beat your head against the wall, even if you do it in iambic pentameter?
You and I gather at a table week by week; for some of us, day by day. You are largely silent as I natter on, saying what I will, whether or not I have something to say. I suppose from time to time you must wonder if I do. But let me ask you, what do you think about the table at which we gather? Is it real? What do you think about the bread and the wine we put there? What do you think about the words I say, to which you add your ‘Amens’? Is it tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing? Is it so much foolishness, as it seems to more and more of the world to be?
Let me give you some more of John Cage. This is what he said:
“The first question I ask myself when something doesn’t seem to be beautiful … is why do I think it’s not beautiful? And very shortly you discover that there’s no reason. If we can conquer that dislike, or begin to like what we did dislike, then the world is more open.”
I have never liked John Cage’s music, never been much willing to even call it ‘music’ because it has seemed so foolish to me, compared to, say, the brilliant wisdom of a Bach fugue. I have always thought that it is not beautiful. I have been all too ready to agree that he has nothing to say, and it has just bothered me that he keeps saying it. Perhaps you know people who make you feel this way. But I would like the world to be more open. And I think Cage may be right, that if we can conquer dislike (that is born of nothing really, no reason), if we can begin to like what we did dislike, then the world does seem more open. Then the world does begin to seem like a place where the poor, the mourning, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers, and the persecuted may truly be blessed.
And in a world that is willing to bleed and die for nothing but tribe, or class, or power, or oil, or money, or whatever other reasons we have invoked to justify the rivers of blood that flow through human history – if this reasoning is what passes for wisdom, then I would prefer to trust in the foolishness of God who sent his Son to bleed and die for me and for you, even though it is not always clear what that means, not always clear why that particular narrative of bloodshed is so beautiful.
When it seems to me as though God has nothing to say, when it seems as though faith, believing, holding fast to the hope of the Gospel may be an obstacle, like a wall through which I cannot pass, as it sometimes does seem to me, because of the foolishness of it all. Then I hope I may be willing to devote my life to beating my head against this wall. Because in something like 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, I think I can hear on the other side of that wall something that sounds like a Word that God has for me, something God has to say, though he has for so long seemed to say nothing at all. And I ask myself, as I prepare to beat my head against that wall one more time, What does the Lord require of me but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God?
And that is something worth saying.
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
30 January 2011
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia