Intellectuals who are also Christians face the continuing problem of the tangled relationship between their vocation and their faith. As intellectuals, they necessarily immerse themselves in the wisdom of this world; as Christians, they understand that wisdom to be in considerable tension with what St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians (1:18-22), called the folly of the Gospel.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written [the reference is to Isaiah 29], “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart.”
Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? 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, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
Very often passages of the Bible seem remote: They come to us from distant times and places that are difficult for us to imagine, let alone to identify with. I think this difficulty is less frequently encountered in the Pauline Epistles. The late Hellenistic world out of which they come and to which they are addressed has a rather modern feel. This was a world of sophisticated cities—affluent, cosmopolitan, pluralistic, and more than a little libertine. I suspect that the people of the city of Boston, the place where I live and work, would find Paul’s Corinth quite familiar: a port city, a regional capital, bustling with commerce, with an ethnically heterogeneous population of diverse religious affiliations, endowed (among other things) with a flourishing sex industry.
To be sure, the Christian community to whom Paul wrote was not exactly the upper class of this metropolis; in all likelihood, its members were mostly what we would today call lower middle class. (Corinthian Christians read the Herald, not the Globe.) But, we may assume, they too must have participated in a sense of being part of an important, worldly-wise center. They too, at least vicariously, partook of the “wisdom of the world.” In that perspective, the Apostle must have appeared as a very odd fellow indeed, and his message as even odder. What he writes to the Corinthians makes it very clear that he was fully conscious of these appearances.
The historian Michael Grant, in the opening lines of his biography of Paul, calls him “one of the most perpetually significant men who have ever lived.” This statement can be persuasively defended, not on the basis of some theological presupposition, but as a sober historical assessment. Speaking humanly, it was Paul who transformed an obscure Jewish sect into a universal faith that decisively changed the course of history. It is clear from the sources that he must have been an extraordinary individual—a man of great learning and intellectual brilliance, an inspired speaker, with an overpowering personality and awesome courage.
Despite these qualities, which were certainly known to the Corinthian Christians, I doubt very much whether Paul impressed sophisticated people (or, for that matter, people with aspirations toward sophistication) as an appealing figure. He probably embarrassed them. Here was a man obsessed with his mission, unbending and endlessly aggressive in his religious views, absolutist and authoritarian in his dealings with others, and, in addition to all that, afflicted with a malady the details of which we don’t know but which, we may imagine, did not add to his social acceptability. We may reconstruct the adjectives and phrases used to describe him both at the cocktail parties of the Corinthian elite (if the latter was aware of him at all) and in the pubs where his petit-bourgeois clientele would gather: “fundamentalist,” “simplistic,” “compulsive-neurotic,” “asking too much of sensible people,” “never listening to the other side of an argument,” “perhaps a little crazy”—in sum, some thing of a disagreeable fanatic.
It is also clear, however, that the main reason for embarrassment was not the man but his message. It was that message, the “word of the cross” preached by Paul, that struck both Jews and Gentiles as scandalous foolishness, as an offense against both the wisdom of the educated and the common sense of ordinary people. Now, both the wisdom and the common sense of Paul’s time are not our own (despite the affinities we may feel for the Hellenistic world), and therefore we can be rather relaxed about these ancient discrepancies. To appreciate the outlandishness of Paul’s message, we should perhaps “translate” these discrepancies into contemporary terms of our own. It is as if someone were to take whatever we regard as scientifically established knowledge or commonsense wisdom and confidently and aggressively proclaim the opposite. Paul’s message must have been received by Corinth much as we receive the message of those who proclaim a flat earth.
Paul’s “word of the cross,” of course, is the core of the Gospel: that God came into the world in the improbable figure of a small-town carpenter turned into itinerant preacher, who was executed as a criminal, despised and abandoned, who was dead and buried—and who then, in a moment that transformed the whole structure of reality, rose from the dead to become the mightiest power in the universe and the lord of all human destinies. People, then as now, are relatively prepared to accept savior figures promising redemption from the ills of human existence. It is the “cross” part of the message that constitutes the “stumbling-block,” the “folly.” It is that crucial motif in Christianity that theologians have called the kenosis, the humiliation of God: The same God who has all power, who created this world and all possible worlds, has taken upon himself the form and the fate of an ordinary man, and indeed a man who suffered the most agonizing afflictions of betrayal, torture, despair, and death. No one, Jew or Gentile, would have been taken aback at a statement that the power of God is greater than men; Paul’s scandalous proposition is that the weakness of God reveals His true power, including the power to triumph over sin and death.
The Jews of Paul’s time were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, a miraculous savior who would end the sufferings of God’s people and institute a reign of perfect justice. The “stumbling-block” to them was the truly outrageous proposition that the Messianic expectations of Israelite tradition were fulfilled by this Jesus of Nazareth, of whom they had either never heard or who, as far as they were concerned, had died an obscure death over ten years previously. The Gentiles, or at least many of them, were accustomed to savior cults. Corinth, it seems, was not an overly religious place (commercial centers rarely are). Hans Conzelmann, a New Testament scholar, describes it as the “absolutely normal picture of a Roman Hellenistic city,” but he does mention sanctuaries to Isis and Serapis, familiar divinities of the ancient world; we can be quite sure that other denominations had their local branches. They all worshiped very powerful beings—that, after all, is what gods and goddesses are—and the more recently imported cults were very much concerned to offer salvation, including the promise of eternal life, to their adherents. The “folly” to the Gentiles was, once again, the kenotic core of Paul’s message—the utter degradation of the savior as the necessary precondition of his triumph. To be sure, there were other offensive aspects to the Christianity that Paul preached, but it seems probable that this was the most offensive.
The Christian community in Corinth probably had in it people of both Jewish and Gentile back grounds, and even after their conversion, they must have been troubled by the discrepancies between the faith they affirmed and the taken-for-granted assumptions of their culture. They must have suffered very much from what modem psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”—the painful disagreement between what we believe and what others maintain with assurance. Assuming that human nature has not changed from that time till this, we may suppose that the Corinthian Christians did exactly what people in this predicament do today—namely, try to reduce the dissonance. This would entail finding some way to reduce the discrepancies between the Gospel and the culture, to somehow accommodate the Gospel to the “wisdom of the world” and thus to make it less “foolish.”
It is clear from Paul’s letter that there were a number of heresies of which he disapproved in the Corinthian community. New Testament scholars, I understand, disagree on just what these heresies were; apparently there is a weight of opinion favoring the belief that they involved doctrines related to what later came to be known as Gnosticism, an ingenious synthesis between Christianity and various Asian redemption cults that went a long way toward de-emphasizing the kenotic dimension of the Gospel. Be that as it may, it is reasonable to surmise that the Corinthian heresies sought to reduce the offensive starkness of the Christian message, to make it less of a “folly,” more in line with conventional assumptions and values. In other words, what Paul was faced with was an early form of aggiornamento, to use a modern Roman Catholic term which means, literally, to bring Christianity up to date. Protestants use other terminology to recommend such accommodations to the spirit of the times—they speak of making Christianity “more relevant,” or of getting the Church “on the right side of history.”
Paul invites various accredited experts to come forward: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age?” Here we reach a point of comparison where today’s Boston clearly outstrips first-century Corinth. Boston, after all, is known as the Athens of America, not the Corinth of America: This city, with good reason, has been called the academic capital of the nation—and, given the massive accumulation of institutions of higher learning here, it may well be called the academic capital of the world. We are home to accredited experts of every conceivable type. We have no shortage of individuals quite certain as to their wisdom. If scribes are people whose wisdom has been certified by credentials of one sort of another (the Greek word that Paul uses literally means “grammarians”), then we have more than enough of those; that, indeed, is the category to which I belong, my particular “grammar” being that of the modern social sciences. We have as well in our lawyers and public controversialists an abundance of the “debaters of the age.” All in all, contemporary Boston is as central a depository of the wisdom of the age as one could imagine.
In a passage just prior to that with which I began this essay, Paul deplores the presence of quarreling parties within the Corinthian community, parties apparently divided by this or that interpretation of the faith. He names one group claiming allegiance to himself, Paul, another to one Apollos, another to Cephas, and one (with all due modesty) asserting simply that they “belong to Christ.” One is reminded here of a number of modern American denominations, most of them distressingly limited in membership, that reserve for themselves the name “Christian.” But even this apart, we have no difficulty empathizing with the Corinthians’ doctrinal divisions. There is, among us, of course, the well-known Professor Apollos at MIT; there is the celebrity intellectual Cephas who publishes in all the right magazines and is seen weekly on PBS; there are Apollonians, neo-Apollonians, and post Apollonians, all quarreling vigorously and all provided with impressive financial support by various foundations committed to one side or another of our doctrinal disputes. Each party, of course, claims to possess privileged access to the Zeitgeist and to be the most authoritative or perhaps the only mouthpiece for the “wisdom of the world.” Most important, there are regiments of Christian teachers, clergy, and lay people working full-time to update the faith in terms of the latest Apollonian or Cephalian wisdom.
Allow me to put this in sociological terms (sociology provides a limited but useful “grammar” here): Every human society has its own corpus of officially accredited wisdom, the beliefs and values that most people take for granted as self-evidently true. Every human society has institutions and functionaries whose task it is to represent this putative truth, to transmit it to each new generation, to engage in rituals that reaffirm it, and sometimes to deal (at least in words) with those who are benighted or wicked enough to deny it. In most societies in history, this has been a relatively easy matter, because there was only one set of beliefs and values, a unified and coherent worldview that everybody knew and that almost everybody (except for a cranky Socrates now and then) took for granted.
Modern societies share with the Hellenistic world the complicating factor of pluralism: There are competing beliefs and values, there is more than one worldview. In this situation, the ongoing effort by Christians to accommodate to the “wisdom of the world” becomes a difficult, frantic, even somewhat ridiculous affair. Each time that one has, after enormous effort, managed to adjust the faith to the prevailing culture, that culture ups and changes. I think it was W. R. Inge, the Anglican theologian, who put it thus: “He who would marry the spirit of the age soon finds himself a widower.” Recent Christian theology is well-populated with bewildered and understandably resentful widowers!
Still, there are some beliefs and values that are quite generally shared and that persist for at least a while (say, a few lifetimes), even in a situation marked by pluralism and greatly accelerated cultural change. Modern science has provided some basic cognitive assumptions of this type, and modern technology has ensured that they are internalized by people (the majority of people) who know very little about science. Other beliefs and values are much more unevenly distributed—by class, education, ethnicity, and other factors. This is particularly so with moral and political values, which are much harder to establish by scientific methods and which therefore are much more dependent on social support. Thus a contemporary individual can afford to be more relaxed about the proposition that the earth is indeed a globe or that an appendicitis can be cured by surgery than about the moral position that abortion is or is not homicide, or the political position that the Reagan presidency was or was not a great breakthrough for American democracy. It follows that some views will be perceived as “folly” virtually everywhere in society, while others will be the accepted wisdom in one social milieu and utter foolishness in another. The latter case can easily be experienced by anyone who, like myself, frequently commutes between academic and corporate America; another but comparably sharp culture shock can be undergone if one moves between, say, the Harvard Faculty Club and a working-class tavern in South Boston.
The pluralistic character of our culture forces those who would “update” Christianity into a state of permanent nervousness. The “wisdom of the world,” which is the standard by which they would modify the religious tradition, varies from one social location to another; what is worse, it keeps changing, often rapidly so, even in the same locale. Each new theology should have attached to it as it comes along a label that gives its proper place of application (“Use only with people who have had four years of college”) and a terminal date for its applicability anywhere (“Stop using five years from date of issue”). Perhaps, for some individuals who have been chasing the Zeitgeist in this manner for a while, “folly” begins to seem like not such an unattractive option!
Of all the sociological indicators as to what people believe and take for granted, the most reliable is class. Put an individual behind a screen (so that I cannot even know his or her age, sex, or race) and tell me nothing about that individual’s background except occupation and income (which, of course, are the major determinants of class), and I will be able to come up with an impressively large number of plausible predictions about this individual’s beliefs (including religious and moral ones), political attitudes (including voting behavior), and lifestyle (including such allegedly private matters as sexual practices).
Now, please note: When I say “predictions,” I am implying a statistical relationship between class and these various cognitive, normative, and behavioral characteristics. In other words, I would be making a probability statement, a statement about the frequency distribution of these characteristics among different groups. There are always exceptions. Thus, for example, if you tell me that the individual behind the screen is a middle-income English professor, I will predict that he or she is likely to be unchurched, is politically liberal, votes Democratic, drives a fuel efficient imported car, and is pro-choice. This prediction may well turn out to be false in a particular case: Remove the screen, and what comes out may be a fierce Evangelical who is a fervently conservative supporter of the Republican party and who drives a used Cadillac from one pro-life rally to another. As a sociologist, I cannot say that such a figure is impossible; I can say that it is unlikely. Conversely, if the individual behind the screen turns out to be a middle-income stock broker, I would not expect him or her to be averse to church-going, a liberal Democrat, an environmentally oriented consumer, or much of a pro-choicer. And once again, a different set of probabilities would apply to an individual whose occupation and income place him or her in the working class. (Let me point out here that my use just now of what may seem like feminist usage—“he/ she, his/her”—is not that at all; I am not given to feminist English. Rather, I want to stress that class, not gender, is the determining factor in these matters.)
The result of these considerations is quite simple: The “wisdom of the world” always has a sociological address. In consequence, every accommodation to it on the part of Christians will be “relevant” in one very specific social setting (usually determined by class) and, conversely, will be “irrelevant” in another setting. A good example of this is the feminist use of language that I just referred to. It calls itself “inclusive language.” Sociologically speaking, it is precisely the opposite: It serves as a linguistic boundary-marker. Those who employ this language announce their inclusion in a particular ideological community; those who do not employ it are ipso facto excluded from that community. What is more, that community is class-specific to a very high degree, at least at this juncture in cultural history. Put up that screen again and from behind it let me hear a voice, female or male, awkwardly stumbling through a few sentences with this “her/his,” “humankind,” “repairperson” business, and I can make a strong prediction as to the class of the individual speaking.
Christians, then, who set out to accommodate the faith to the modern world should always ask themselves which sector of that world they seek to address. Very probably, whatever aggiornamento they come up with, it will include some, exclude others. And if the aggiornamento is undertaken with the cultural elite in mind, then it is important to understand that the beliefs of this particular group are the most fickle of all. These are people professionally trained to deal with symbolic knowledge; they turn out such symbols (beliefs, values, opinions) with great ease, and they turn them back in again. A project of religious accommodation to today’s cultural elite, therefore, could be compared to doing an instrumental accompaniment for a singer who begins with one song, changes to a second song in mid-performance, and ends up with a poetry recital.
Now, let me draw back just a little from the class relativism I have just enunciated: There are some cognitive and normative assumptions that are found, even today, pretty much throughout the society. (If this were not so, the society could not hold together at all.) By their very nature, these are not beliefs and values that are politically “relevant”: Political battles are about ideas and propositions that people do not have in common. As already mentioned, many of these society-wide assumptions derive from modern science and (more important, I think) from the everyday applications of science by way of technology. To that extent, there is some validity to the widespread notion that there is such a thing as a “modem worldview,” and perhaps even such a creature as “modern man.”
The question that Christians (or other religious people) should ask themselves here is philosophical rather than sociological: Granting (as I think we must) that modern science has given us new and often penetrating insights into reality and that modern technology has enormously increased our control over our lives, is it not possible that in the process some very precious things have been lost? I am not thinking here of the unfortunate by-products of our technologized world that we hear so much about today: that we may all live to be a hundred, only to swelter under the greenhouse effect or to be kept going attached to life-support machines. I am thinking of truths that may have been lost in the process of modernization. Our ancestors didn’t know about particle physics, but they spoke with angels. Let it be stipulated that we have gained through the knowledge of particle physics—I mean, that we have gained a new measure of truth. But could it be that we lost a truth when our conversation with angels came to a stop? Are we, can we be, so sure that the truths of modern physics necessarily imply the untruth of angels? I am not sure at all; indeed, I am strongly inclined to believe the opposite. In that case, the Christian churches (and other religious institutions) would be paying a very high price for the “updating” of their tradition—the price being some precious truths that they were the last to hold onto.
When Paul spoke of the “folly” of the Gospel and counter-posed it to the “wisdom of the world,” he was pointing to what we might call a cognitive aspect of God’s kenosis, of God’s abasement. In Christian preaching, and quite properly so, we more often hear of its moral aspect: Jesus came especially to the poor and the despised, to the margins of society, and he died as a criminal; and today, too, we are more likely to find him visible on comparable margins than among the rich, the powerful, and the respected. This is the morally revolutionary content of the “word of the cross,” and, it seems to me, this shocking message has never been fully absorbed in all the centuries of Christian history. It continues to shake the foundations of all moral systems invented by men, it relativizes all social hierarchies, and, in the final analysis, it shows up the hollowness of all humanly constructed orders. But the “wisdom of the world” is part and parcel of every such order; the “folly” of the Gospel is precisely that it relativizes, puts into question, everything that passes for “wisdom” and everyone who claims to possess it.
Protestant theologians have described God’s work of salvation as an opus alienum, an “alien work.” By this term, they meant to emphasize that our salvation is not in our own hands, that it is altogether God’s doing. This emphasis, of course, was at the core of the Protestant Reformation, in its emphasis on the primacy of grace and its rejection of “salvation by works” (that is, human works). This aspect of Christian faith does not concern me at the moment. (For the record, let me say that I tend to think that the Reformers had a very important point to make here, but that, perhaps inevitably, they exaggerated it.) Rather, I want to emphasize the alienness of the Christian message as a whole: This savior, whom the Gospel proclaims, is an intruder, one who breaks into human reality like a “thief in the night”—unexpected, unrecognized, indeed unappealing. In this, the savior actually authenticates his divine provenance: The divine (and not only in Christianity) always manifests itself as that which is alien, not human, not part of ordinary reality. Rudolf Otto, the great historian of religion, spoke of the quality of totaliter aliter, the “totally other,” which, he claimed, is of the essence of religious experience. The same quality is intended by the term “transcendent”—the divine, wherever it manifests itself, transcends (literally, “goes beyond”) anything that human beings are familiar with. In this aspect of alienness, Christianity does not fundamentally differ from other religious traditions—after all, Christianity is one religion among others, so this should neither surprise nor trouble Christians. But the kenotic dimension of the Christian message adds an alien quality distinctively its own. This, precisely, is the “folly” that Paul spoke of.
If the Church gives up this “folly,” it gives up itself and its very reason for being. This is why the pursuit of the “wisdom of the world” is finally so pernicious. It is not just that it is more or less futile (for the sociological reasons I have mentioned) or that it is philosophically dubious. More importantly, if the Church (or, for that matter, individual Christians) gives up the transcendent core of the tradition in order to placate this or that alleged spirit of the times, what is given up is the most precious truth that has been entrusted to the Church’s care—the truth about the redemption of men through God’s coming into the world in Christ.
To be sure, this message must always be delivered differently to different audiences. It must be translated. Just as it would make no sense to preach to an American congregation in Greek, it would be counterproductive to force on American Christians all the cognitive and normative assumptions of the Hellenistic world that even Paul took for granted. But, as every good translator knows, translation must not distort (or, more modestly, distort as little as possible) the text being translated. It is one thing, say, to translate Homer into English in such a way that modern Americans can try to understand him; it is quite another thing to translate him in such a way that he appears to be a spokesman for this or that modern American ideology—as an advocate, say, of democracy, or capitalism, or whatever. Such care in translation is a matter of simple intellectual honesty. It is that also when it comes to the texts of the Christian tradition, but in that case there is more involved. I suppose that there may be some professor of classics somewhere who looks upon the Iliad as containing knowledge necessary for our salvation, but there cannot be many such people. But the Church has claimed salvific import for its sacred texts. For this reason, more than intellectual dishonesty is involved when these texts are “translated” in such a way that their transcendent contents are turned into propaganda for this or that modern agenda.
We do not know just what were the parties that divided the Christian community in Corinth, those followers of Apollos or Cephas. It would be interesting to know, and perhaps some discoveries will be made that will allow future New Testament scholars to identify these competing ideological groupings. But it matters little as far as the main message of the Apostle is concerned, for what concerned him was not so much the specific doctrines at issue, but (or so I think) the fact that any doctrine, any putative representation of the “wisdom of the world,” should take the place of the Gospel that is the “word of the cross.” Similarly, an understanding and an assessment of the various doctrines and ideologies that divide us today is interesting; on a certain level, such as that of politics, it may even be important or morally urgent. But in the face of the Gospel, sub specie aeternitatis (and the Gospel points us toward eternity), these distinctions and judgments are quite unimportant, indeed irrelevant. Thus the Gospel is not to be identified with either the “American way of life” or any conceivable challenge to it, not with capitalism nor with socialism, not with “traditional family values” and not with any “liberation” from these values. In sum: The Gospel is not of this world, and to try and make it so is to lose it and to lose the redemptive power it contains.
In a recent conversation, a sociologist in Spain who has studied the great changes that have occurred in the Roman Catholic church since the Second Vatican Council said something that struck me as very insightful. Christians who consider themselves “progressives,” he said, always tell us to “read the signs of the times”; has it never occurred to these people, he asked, that they might write some of these signs? At least in recent years, the stance of Christians (and by no means only Roman Catholics) in the face of the “wisdom” of the modern world has been largely passive, even supine—a “reading” rather than “writing” attitude. The Gospel was subjected to the judgment of this or that worldly standard; rarely did the reverse occur.
To be sure, there are all sorts of Christian orthodoxies and fundamentalisms around, and, in America at any rate, they have done very well. But they have not done well among those who are respected as thinkers and teachers of the Church. I am not for a moment suggesting that it would be better if they had. The very last thing I want to advocate is some sort of fundamentalism; I am not even advocating orthodoxy. I am suggesting that there is a middle ground between the “progressive” surrender to the age and the fundamentalist denial of it. The first only “reads,” the latter only “writes.” Or, to change the image, the one listens and has nothing to say, the other speaks without ever having listened. It seems to me that Christian wisdom must always encompass both attitudes.
There arise from these observations certain implications for those of us who are indeed “scribes,” members of that class which makes its living from producing and distributing what passes today for officially certified “wisdom.” Much of what I have said could be taken as a criticism of this class; to the extent that I belong to it, I could even be suspected of masochism or self-hatred. I would like to correct this impression. There is, to be sure, an element of “put-down” here: I intend to put down the arrogant delusion of intellectuals that they are superior human beings and the even more dangerous idea that, by virtue of their putatively superior qualities, they constitute a moral or even political elite. These misguided notions are thoroughly unchristian, but it seems to me that we do not need Christianity to instruct us on the foolishness of such pretensions—a realistic look at the world will do. Intellectuals do not have better moral judgment than people with little or no education, they do not live more wisely, they are certainly not more compassionate, they have not fewer but different superstitions, and they are capable of the most mindless fanaticisms. To say these things, however, is not for a moment to idealize or to romanticize people with little or no education. The ignorant, the poor, the underclass are not morally superior either (and it is not because of their superiority that Jesus preferred their company), they do not have deeper insights into life, their values and opinions have no privileged status. The “word of the cross” is radically egalitarian, not in a political sense, but in the infinitely more profound sense that before God all human pretensions are equally shown up to be as nothing.
At the end of the day, the “word of the cross” is addressed to all of us, whatever our class or our life situation. Jesus preferred to move on the margins of society, but he is able to appear in every social location. The “word of the cross” saves us because it tells us that we do not have to be strong in order to participate in God’s power. God reveals himself in weakness—in physical and social weakness, in moral weakness, and also in intellectual weakness. He moves among the poor, among sinners, among “fools.” Once we have had our various pretensions debunked, there is very great comfort in this message. In the ultimate, the most cosmic, sense of the word, we can relax!
The word of the cross directs our attention toward God’s weakness—his coming into the world in the weak form of a man, this man’s persecution and degradation, his lonely despair and his painful death. In contemplating God’s weakness and Jesus’ Calvary, we inevitably include the weakness and the suffering of all creatures, all those, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, “who are any ways afflicted, or distressed, in mind, body, or estate.” But if that were all there is to Christianity, it would be the most doleful religion imaginable, a truly masochistic and pathological belief. Of course that is not the case at all. The journey to Calvary is the prelude, not the culmination. In the rhythm of the liturgical year, Lent leads to Easter, the ultimate weakness of God to the blinding revelation of his omnipotence. The “word of the cross” culminates and finds its true meaning in the word of the resurrection—Christ’s resurrection and our own. It is this redemptive word that Paul carried with him on his restless travels and that he was anxious to protect against the false wisdoms of the world. The same redemptive word is the only reason for being of the Christian Church today, as it is the beginning and end of our faith.
Peter L. Berger is Director of the Institute for the Study of Economic Culture at Boston University and a member of the Editorial Board of First Things.