Wisdom and Foolishness
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
It’s not often that you hear good things said about foolishness.
A fool, the way the word gets used throughout the Bible, is not to be stupid, or to be ignorant. It’s not about being unable to figure things out, or about simply not knowing things you ought to know. Foolishness is much more about making bad decisions despite what you know and what you understand. The young child who runs out onto the road may be ignorant of the danger, or may not have the cognitive skills to assess it – they aren’t being foolish, the way the Bible speaks of it.
The man who chose to have a couple of drinks at a party even though he was planning to drive home, on the other hand, is what the Bible calls a fool. Using knowledge well is wisdom; failing to use it is foolishness. And in particular, in the text of the Bible, wisdom is about bringing the reality of God and what you know of the character and the nature of God into your decision making.
The fear of the Lord – the knowledge of who God is – is the beginning of wisdom.
But the fool has said in his heart “there is no God”
So wisdom and foolishness have quite strongly ethical flavours to them, the way the Bible speaks of them. The books of Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job – which together make up a fairly healthy chunk of the whole of the Bible – are known as ‘the Wisdom literature’. Read Proverbs, especially, and over and over again you will find yourself exhorted to “get wisdom” – above all other things, it is to be desired. And nowhere is the word foolish used as a compliment.
But here we have Paul, writing to the Church in Corinth, railing against those who are wise, and singing the praises of the foolishness of God.
On one level, this is just a simple declaration of how much greater God is than us, that even the foolishness of God outshines the wisest of human wisdom – a bit like claiming that, for instance, that Australian cricket team at their worst are still better than the English at their best (not that I’m accepting that that is true, just using it as an example) – a way of declaring that the difference between God’s wisdom and ours is so great, so profound, so qualitative, that there is no meaningful comparison that can be made.
There’s something of that in the final words we heard read – God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. God on a bad day is still way better than us on a good day.
But Paul’s words about wisdom and foolishness are more than God saying “you think you’re wise? Hold my beer”. For this is not a passive dismissal of wisdom, but an active enmity towards it. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise”, and a glorying in the foolishness of the gospel.
So we need to ask – what is the wisdom that Paul describes God as destroying? And what is the foolishness that gets praised?
For as it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Whenever you see a New Testament writer saying “as it is written” it’s a good idea to ask where “it is written” and have a read of the passage that’s being quoted. In this case, words from Isaiah 29, in which God declared through the prophet:
I will again do
amazing things with this people,
shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.
Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the Lord,
whose deeds are in the dark,
and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’
You turn things upside down!
The wisdom that Isaiah spoke of, and the wisdom that Paul was speaking of, was not the sort of wisdom to which we are exhorted throughout the scriptures. Paul speaks of it as “the wisdom of the world”, and Isaiah paints a pathetic picture of people, holding themselves to be wise, making plans and hiding them too deep for God, convincing themselves that in their wisdom they can even pull a fast one on God, make a plan so cunning that you could, in the immortal words of Lord Blackadder, pin a tail on it and call it a donkey.
At its heart, the defining characteristic of this “wisdom of the world” is that it makes its assessment, makes its judgement and its decisions, without any reference to God, or with the assumption that God is simply not relevant to the matter at hand.
And you can see why such wisdom can be very successful, when used in the right way, in the right context. If you are called upon to make a wise decision about the right material to use to build a plane, it’s actually ok to do those calculations without including a God factor. Indeed, I would be hesitant to fly in a plane if God was explicitly invoked in the design phase.
Not, I stress, speaking against the engineers praying about their work, asking God for the wisdom to do it well – I’d be all in favour of that. I just wouldn’t be comfortable if I found those prayers included in the algebra.
The wisdom of the world – the ability to take knowledge and use it effectively – has an important place.
But Isaiah – and Paul – want to tell us about its limits.
Isaiah speaks of the so-called wise making plans as if were actually in control. Making plans that were predicated on the arrogant assumption that their wisdom enough, and that what they wanted to achieve was all that matters.
This is arrogance of wisdom; the worldly wisdom that mass produces single-use plastic because it’s cheaper than the alternatives. Or that continues to burn fossil fuels and to mock those who criticise as foolish, naïve, idealist.
It’s the arrogance of those who think that their way is best, and that they therefore have a right, even a duty, to impose it on others: to take the land of ‘primitive people’ ‘for their own good’; to tell transgender children that the wisdom of arbitrary gender binaries trumps their lived experience and thus denies the support and validation they desperately need.
And Paul extends this condemnation of ‘worldly wisdom’ to the very nature of salvation, and the knowledge of God.
“The world could not, through wisdom, know God”
The ultimate limit of human wisdom is that we cannot, by our wisdom and reason alone, ever know the depths of the ways of God.
Elsewhere Paul writes about the way that God’s nature is made known in creation – that there are some aspects of the character and nature of God that are accessible through human wisdom – what theologians call ‘general revelation’ – but that the heart of the way God is in relation to humanity, and the heart, therefore of the nature of the reign of God and of our way into the life of God, will never be derived by human wisdom. One cannot get from “I think therefore I am” and “I said to myself, what a wonderful world” to “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son”.
For what God has done is, by human reckoning, foolishness. The message of the gospel, the message of the cross, as Paul names it here, is a message of foolishness. You will never get there by thinking your way to it.
For it is foolishness to believe that you can conquer evil by stubbornly refusing to hate, by steadfastly persisting in love.
It is foolishness to believe that dying is a victory.
It is foolishness to treat all people as equally valuable and loved; to give to those who have no capacity to give back, to befriend the outsider who is shunned by your peers.
It is foolishness to give your life in the service of others when selfish ambition pays a whole lot better.
It is foolishness to believe that you can be saved by the grace of God, received not by working for it but simply by receiving it as a gift of grace.
It is foolishness to place a symbol of execution at the heart of your faith.
But it is God’s foolishness, so it still outshines the wisdom of humanity.
And this is the foolishness of the reign of God.
The foolishness of weakness
The foolishness of vulnerability
The foolishness of inclusion
The foolishness of equality
The foolishness of hospitality
The foolishness of love
The foolishness that Jesus exemplified, and that we are called to emulate.