Christ Crucified: the power of God and the wisdom of God

James speaking to an audience

Transcribed by Rev. Karen Hanson from the audio recording of the talk given to the Leeds Church Institute (Leeds, England) in April 2018.

Good afternoon. Well, thank you very, very much for having me and thank you for challenging me to come up with something I hope may be useful to talk about. One of the challenges which I think that we have is learning to speak in the first person at a time when our respective churches have usually been used to referring to us in the third person. Until recently we have been a “they” of some sort. Does that make sense? Does that jibe with your experience? And of course when you are talking about the “they” you can say all sorts of objective-sounding things about them, usually slightly contemptuous, objective things about them. But, once they stop talking about a “they” and don’t really know what they’re talking about, which I think is probably the state of play right now, it becomes clear, for instance, that there actually has been no real church teaching on the issues of LGBTI people for centuries if not, say, millennia because such teachings as we have inherited have all been presupposed on something which isn’t the case. And we now know it isn’t the case.

But this means, and this is a curious phenomenon, that it’s up to us to start trying to work out how we are spoken to as listeners of and we hope practitioners of the gospel. It’s gonna be a first-person account. So one of the challenges which this places for me, since I have the pretention of being a Catholic theologian, which means merely that I talk Catholic better than I talk Protestant but I shall try to talk some Protestant today, since I guess that most of you are of Protestant backgrounds. But what that means is at last, I think, being able to say, “Well, of course, the coming into visibility and awareness of what we might now call matters LGBT is not a sideshow from Christianity or a piece of special pleading designed to upset “real” Christians. It’s actually the logical outworking of the gospel.” 

There is something organic about where we are now starting to be able to say “I “and “we” in this sphere and the outworking of the gospel. That for me is the challenge and I’m supposed to be writing a book on that. But instead of writing a book I’m doing what I far prefer which is trying to toss the ideas out here so you can all put me right on it and eventually it will be a better book. That’s what I want to get across today, something about an organic wholeness in which we find ourselves just so to remind us actually quite how mainstream to the inside of everything that’s important about the gospel what we’re about is. Does that make sense? Okay. 

So, the text I used, which is the one from Corinthians: “Since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly that we preach to save those who believe. 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 humans and the weakness of God is stronger than humans.”

Okay. Let’s take that seriously. What was it that Jesus had done that threw St. Paul into this glorious conniption? Because that’s really what it is. He’s understood something amazing. And the amazing thing he seems to have understood is that Jesus’ going to his death had been the greatest act of God’s power imaginable. It is utterly weird. And that’s why he puts it in that language so you will remember that it’s weird. That the greatest power and sign that God could give us was not some redemptive act of rescuing people from something. The Jews seek signs. They want something like someone who with mighty hand and outstretched arm will lead them out of Egypt, the kind of thing where you say, “Yes, we know that God’s here and we’ve got a more powerful God than the Pharaoh and his gods.” He said no, the ultimate power of God is shown in Jesus being so unimaginably powerful that he’s able to come into the midst of us at our most nasty, which is us squabbling over power, religious power, political power, all together seekingto survive by casting someone into the pit. Because that’s what“us” at our most powerful looks like. Us at our most powerful looks like ganging together in a huge unanimity over against someone. And his greatest power says no actually that’s merely losers pretending to win. His greatest act of power is saying no I’m going to occupy that place which is your ground zero of togetherness. It’s from your having achieved your unity over against someone that you get your entire sense of good, bad, in, out, right, wrong, us, them, pure, impure, etc., etc., etc. That’s where you get all that from. I’m going to occupy that place, your ground zero. I’m so strong that losing is not a problem because I’m losing so as to show you that you no longer have to live like that. That’s the power of God.

But it’s not merely a particular act of losing. It is occupying the ground zero of human culture, which is why it’s not only the power of God but the wisdom of God. You see, Paul knows what the Greeks understands by wisdom- philosophizing, thinking, but the ancient Jewish understanding of Wisdom was that it was God’s creative power. So what’s actually being brought into the open for the first time, which the kings and rulers of this world could not understand and if they did they would not have crucified him. What is being brought into understanding is that ground zero is the ground zero of creation. Fake creation, in what we’ve made with its fake goodness and fake badness and fake order and fake structures and fake binaries like male, female, Jew, Greek, slave, free, trans, cis, hetero, etc., etc. You know what I mean. All of those are our cultural construct. Undoing all that, occupying ground zero so that the wisdom of God may, at last, be brought to life. In other words the creative power of God starts from occupying that ground zero so that we can actually start to enter into new creation as daughters and sons of God. Take that literally. We usually say all that stuff about new creation it’s all very nice, but no, take it damn seriously. The power of God means losing in the ground zero, the wisdom of God means that is where creation comes from.

Why is this so important? Why did St. Paul, why did he flip at this? Because he realized it meant that everything he had understood about God, everything that he knew, which was true, had not been able to overcome the fact that he was a persecutor. He ended up structured by a system of goodness that had led him in fact to persecute God. And that was a shock. Therefore, everything that he thought was good and bad and right and wrong, and it might have been, but none of it had helped because the really important thing was that the one he persecuted was in fact innocent, was in fact God, the source of all goodness and truth. And that put into terrible relativism for him the teaching, the law. The law itself is okay except that it constantly turns us into persecutors of each other. Let it be moot. Let it just hang there and get on with the real thing. 

But one of the things that became absolutely clear for St. Paul, and this is one of the things which has made it difficult for us to read him, is that thereafter there was no such thing as a specifically Christian moral teaching. This is one of the weirdest things for modern Christians to take on board, even for Catholics who ought to know better because St. Thomas Aquinas has been teaching this perfectly straightforwardly for several hundred years. We all assume that if you’re Christians there is such a thing as specifically Christian morality. Well, there isn’t. That would mean having become a religion, whereas the whole point of Christianity is, “I wish you would give up that damn thing called religion, with its special rules and its special ins and outs, and who does this and who does that.” The only thing that’s interesting is what is it like to be human, really human. 

One of the ways we can tell that that was exactly what was going on is that a fairly short time after Pentecost, St. Peter had his dream on the roof. Do you remember that? Peter has his dream on the roof, the sheets are lowered down three times with all the beasties in them and he’s told, “Take and eat.” And like a good Jew he says, “God forbid that I should allow anything impure or profane to pass my lips.” And three times God says to him, “Do not call impure and profane that which I call clean.” Three times. Then, after the third time, while he’s puzzling, a voice rings out, very muddling for poor Peter because there had been another time when he’d tried three times to deny something and a voice had rung out, which was when? His denial when the cock crowed. In the Greek in the Acts of the Apostlesit is exactly the same, the cock crows with exactly the same verb, in Greek, as the servants of Cornelius cry out in the Acts of the Apostles, exactly the same verb. It’s perfectly clear that Luke knows what he’s doing. 

Those three refusals correspond to those three denials. He’s betraying, trying to keep himself good. He’s refusing, trying to keep himself good. But on his way to Cornelius he starts to realize God shows no partiality and when he gets to Cornelius’s house he makes the first infallible papal pronouncement (yes, I was going to get that in somewhere), and the first infallible and really the most, the only important infallible papal pronouncement is, “You shall call no human impure or unclean.” Or rather, “My God has told me not to call any human impure or unclean.” And with that he opens heaven to the Gentiles, which is the proper exercise of the Petrine power of the keys. 

But even he is surprised when he’s explaining what Jesus did to them, and he explains quite specifically that what Jesus did included being hung from a tree, a reference to the curse in Deuteronomy. So Jesus upended everything that was thought to be done that had to do with God because God’s turned out to be the one who had been apparently cursed by God. Well, if God turns up as the one who was apparently cursed by God, that suggests that the text got it wrong. Right? The text exists in a certain suspension from reality after that. That’s a solidtext from the Torah, that’s Deuteronomy, that’s not a little text in wisdom literature from later. And, as he was talking the Holy Spirit fell on them and he said, “Who are we to withhold baptism?” Because the “they” had found themselves on the inside of the “we” despite not having undergone circumcision or the whole conversion process that would have made them acceptable insiders of the covenant with Moses. Okay? So, we all know that. 

But what we often forget is that the purpose of that was to demonstrate that there is no extrinsic criterion for goodness anymore. The purity code was undone. Goodness is going to have to be worked out. You can’t be good by obeying the law, you can’t be good by not eating certain foods. We all know that. Whether you eat certain foods or not depends on whether it’s good for you or not. It is sensible. What is utterly remarkable, of course, is the cut and paste operation whereby certain modern Christians seem to regard parts of  Leviticus to be uniquely important and other parts, only a couple of verses away, to be completely able to be ignored. So, boo to the queers and hooray for shellfish. 

This is nonsense. The holiness code, the collapse of the holiness code is not incidental to Christianity. It’s what allows there to be Gentile Christianity and I would guess most of us here are from Gentile families. There would be no Gentile Christianity if the whole code of extrinsic goodness had not been blown apart by God. That’s what at the root of Christianity. And what do we have instead? This is the weird thing. What we have instead is something which has proven very difficult for us to hold onto, because we’re great backsliders. We have something which Catholic theology at its best calls natural law except that Catholic theology at its worst immediately captures natural law and tries to make it into Moses’s law by the backdoor. Backdoor Moses. 

But the original idea of natural law is something wonderful. It is that it is God’s wisdom that’s the creative power of God in which we, through the Holy Spirit, have started to have a certain conscious participation. And please note that wisdom, God’s creative power, is not simply an intellectual thing but it’s actually to do with bringing something into being. So, we have the bizarre situation whereby when St. Paul says that Jesus is the power of God and the wisdom of God, the power shown occupying that place, that’s the real strength of God innot being run by death and shame and any of those things, so that we can start to become part of something else. And the wisdom is shown in the fact that we can allow ourselves to have the whole of our apparent wisdom deconstructed, all that religious law, all that purity, and start to become insiders within God’s thinking, creative act. Please notice that: thinking, creative act.

What does that mean in terms of morality? Well it means, at the first, in the first place, what St. Thomas Aquinas said, that there is no specifically Christian morality. It means that we have to work out what is good or bad for us. Something is not good or bad because God says it is so. That would be saying, “Well,  there’s a law so I must pay attention to that.” God only says that things are good or bad if they are in fact good or bad. So as we discover whether things are good or bad, we can work out whether what “God apparently says”is part of the leftovers of the purity code. Because the dynamic, the creative dynamic is, “God told me that no human is impure or unclean.” So there’s no “they.” Isn’t that terrifying? Which means that trying to work out what is good or bad is up to us. It always has been. 

Please note, this is one of the strange things about the gospel which again has become so lost in our time: it’s a radically secularizing force. Radically secularizing. It’s constantly dissing apparent religious cosmetic solutions to things because it’s opening up humans becoming really alive as humans. That’s the real inspiration for God. What does he want? He wants to see humans enjoying themselves. Sharing his joy, for the joy that was set before him. Do you remember that? He endured the cross, he despised the shame, and he sits at the right hand of God. The hope of this is to open up a space for many, many siblings. Time and time again this is being opened up for us. Okay. We have a weird history, don’t we, on this one. 

One of the things which, luckily, we’re beginning to find out is quite how little we know about the period of how Christian doctrine, if you like, was understood between the time of Christ and St. Paul and about the second century. One of the things we have learnt is quite how influential, not St. Paul or Jesus, but the Alexandrian philosopher, Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, was in the creation of what later became Christian. The law! Ooops! Our first inclination was to immediately disobey the letter to the Galatians and rush back to a system. 

Now Philo was interesting because he was the first commentator, he was a contemporary of St. Paul, though we have no reason to think that St. Paul knew his writings, but they shared the same Hellenistic background. Philo was the first commentator to think, in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, there was anything to do with homosexuality because he was a particularly homophobic person in Alexandria. So he was the person that invented the notion that the punishment of Sodom was basically, was at least linked, to same-sex behavior and that this caused a lack of fecundity, fertility around. 

In Jesus’s time, a generation earlier, it was still the old-fashioned view, Ezekiel’s view, that it was a failure of hospitality, the arrogance and conceit of the powerful in the country that mistreated visitors that was the sin. That’s what you get in the book of Ezekiel and that’s what you get in the book of Wisdom, which is, again, slightly before Jesus. So it’s the understanding of Sodom which then became normal until about 1950 when at last a very, very fine Anglican scholar from this country who really devastated that critique and that understanding, Derrick Sherwin Bailey. And people recognized that, yes, it had been a complete mistake to treat the story of Sodom as anything to do with homosexuality. 

But another funny thing about Philo is that he interpreted the passage on Leviticus, from Leviticus, as to do with the self-castrating priests, the priests of Cybele and Aphrodite. Because one of the things that was common in the Mediterranean basin were these fertility cults of the mother goddess in which certain people as part of, they would have these orgiastic frenzies and some of them would castrate themselves, throwing their members gently over the threshold of some people’s houses and the people in question would rush out with a robe and clothe them and they would become priests of Cybele. 

And certainly this was not thought particularly to be a de-masculinizing thing, strangely. There are burial grounds of Roman soldiers found in several countries including this country among whom castrated priests of Cybele have been found. So it was not thought an impediment to military service, clearly. And it’s difficult for us to understand the relationship between masculinity and femininity in the ancient world because it was absolutely nothing at all like ours. 

So, for instance, when we read the passage in Romans 1 where it talks about women doing unnatural things with women, remember that? We read it and say, “Oooh, must mean lesbians.” But in the ancient world it never crossed their mind that’s what it meant because well anyone, they never talked about lesbians anyhow because it was men doing the talking, (1), but (2) for them the notion of unnatural with women meant women on top. That was what was really worrying. Women on top in sex won’t do. It doesn’t particularly matter whether they were on top of another woman or on top of a man. It was the on-top-ness that was the problem that negates the order of nature. See the problem? 

So the two ancient commentators who we have on that passage from St. Paul just read it perfectly normally as a, they make no reference at all, they read it as an account, St. Augustine and Clement of Alexandria, they read it as a text to do with women on top. And the men who do shameful things with men and then pay the price in their own body, bear the penalty in their own body – pretty obvious for that ancient world. Nothing to do with what we call homosexuality and everything to do with the pagan cults which St. Paul, like Philo, took a dim view of. 

The interesting thing is that Philo takes his attacks on the pagan cults very seriously. St. Paul uses the attacks on the pagan cults unseriously. He says to his Jewish Christian audience, “Yes, you know those pagans, they do these terrible things, all terrible things my dears, terrible, terrible, you know like engaging in – eww – sex on top and – eww – cultural castration rites and then they become, do you know what they become as a result of that? Let me tell you, they become gossips, slanderers, disobedient to their parents, ruthless, heartless, and yet they encourage people to do the same thing even though they know that it’s worthy of death. Therefore, you bloody lot, why do you judge anybody because you do exactly the same things as them?” 

In our Bibles, we miss that because the “therefore, you bloody lot” is chapter 2, verse 1. So we assume it’s something different but it isn’t. It’s the end of the argument. The whole purpose in Paul’s letter is to catch his audience agreeing with him (oh, yes, yes, they’re terrible, ooh yes, yes, yes, ooh), he even goes so far as to say, talk about how terrible it is in saying “Amen, brother, hallelujah,” it’s actually in the text. It’s clear he’s got a Pentecostal thing going with them. “Praise be to Christ, forever. Amen!” And they all said, “Amen.” So St. Paul doesn’t take it seriously at all. That stuff. 

Philo is saying that so as to explain to his Greek audience what Moses means. St. Paul is taking the things that Moses is against and saying, “You think you’re good by doing all that but in fact you do the same stuff as them. You who wouldn’t ever dream of having sex the wrong way around or going to orgies or anything like that but nevertheless you’re as much gossips and slanderers and all those other things as they. That’s what matters. You therefore need saving by Jesus just as much as everybody else.” Yeah? You see the point? 

But of course, by the second century the whole discussion had been caught into a discussion of, “Well, what then can we make as a basis for Christian morality?” And so you started having a use by Clement of Alexandria and others of Philo’s text as a way of trying to define what was good objectively. And the ability of the people themselves to work out who they were started to be limited. 

In a sense we are now, amazingly, in the rather good place of being able to start to say, actually to know after a good deal of pain, anguish, thought, prayer, discernment, I’ve been able to discover that I am not an intrinsically heterosexual person who suffers from an objective disorder called same-sex attraction, or whatever the term they’ve come up with now is. I just say, “I’m gay.” And guess what? It appears that that is what I call a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.

And the moment people started to be able to say that, other people started to be able to study them. And when they weren’t studying them in a moralistic manner they started to be able to say, “Yes, it’s curious, I wonder what makes people like that tick.” Of course it’s only for the last 65 years or so that that kind of study, non-moralistic study, has really been getting going. And the non-moralistic study depends on people being able to say “I am” and being visible enough for what they say about themselves to be checked against what seems to be true about a large number of people. 

In other words, actually, that is how the wisdom of Christ, the wisdom of God, gets going, by taking us into science which is genuine knowledge about what really is. And of course more recently the same is true of trans people. It’s only as people started to be able to say, “I am,” thenwho you are, what you are, how it works, starts to become visible and can begin to be looked at in a non-moralistic way. Then naturally, mostly our church authorities remain on the side of looking at everything in a moralistic way because that’s the only thing they know. What they have is a special dispensation from teaching because what they really want is a special dispensation from learning, and of course you can’t actually teach if you haven’t learned. So they have objective definitions whose particular purpose is to prevent them from learning. 

So now they’ve invented something called gender ideology, which is just a bad thing. In Spain, where I live now, during General Franco’s dictatorship, there was something called a Jewish Masonic Protestant conspiracy. And it was another, it was a way of describing a bad thing. No one knew exactly what it meant but everyone knew it was a bad thing. So now we have gender ideology which is a bad thing. No one knows what it means; it’s an excuse not to teach because in order to teach you have to have learnt. With the result that it’s we who are having to do the learning, we found ourselves forced into learning so that we can become viable human beings. We’re finding what it is like to be insiders in the life of God, which is what those Gentiles found. And what Jesus was offering anyhow. That our “I” should become the shared “I” of the Son, capital S, no gender intended, of God, that is, Jesus. 

So for me the question now which I hope we will look at in the afternoon, is, what shape is that discovery of being insiders who are able honestly to say “I” as people who to some extent have occupied ground zero and have had to have our sense of the extrinsic good, the “but God says,” the law, undone and are therefore rather happy to discover the wisdom of God is a shared participation of human intelligence in the creative act, and something much, much bigger than us. What does that actually look like for the body of Christ which we are creating and are going to inherit to the kiddos, the ones who are coming after us and are going to inherit the crazy mess which we leave them, but actually, in some senses, we are a more fun and open mess than the one that we inherited, right? That’s what we hope, anyhow.