April 9, 1996, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia delivered an address in Mississippi on religion and public life, a topic which has gotten a lot of attention the past few years, particularly since the publication of Stephen L. Carter's book The Culture of Disbelief. In the course of that speech Justice Scalia quoted from the apostle Paul's letter to the Corinthians where he says that we Christians are sometimes called to be "fools for Christ's sake" or, in the NRSV, "fools for the sake of Christ."
Working from secondhand wire-service reports and without the benefit of a full text of his speech, Washington Post reporter Joan Biskupic quoted Scalia and, obviously not recognizing the biblical citation, ventured the opinion that by this Scalia meant that "the modern world dismisses Christians as fools for holding to their traditional beliefs." I don't know if people were more indignant with the fact that a U.S. Supreme Court Justice would allude to religious faith, or that he seemed to imply an anti-religious cultural bias, but that phrase set off one of those tempests within the beltway teapot. For the next ten days denunciations appeared in the pages of The Washington Post, The New York Times and letters to The Christian Century as well as, I am sure, lots of other sources that I never peruse.
Now, I will confess that I have never been a member of the Justice Scalia fan club, and I am sure that many of those piling on were taking advantage of the moment because of past skirmishes and disagreements with him as well as his increasingly bitter rhetoric. Indeed, as one of the justice's former law clerks remarked, "If Scalia were to announce that the world was round, the Flat Earth Society would be flooded with applications from law school professors and National Public Radio would soon broadcast a series entitled 'The Shape of the World Reconsidered.' " But what really caught my attention, as a minister and sometime professor of the Bible, is that nobody -- no reporter, no researcher, no data bank -- caught the fact that Scalia was quoting that venerable book that adorns our coffee tables. It was only after ten days of flap that Robert A. Sirico, an attorney who also happens to be a Catholic priest, pointed out in The Wall Street Journal what should have been obvious, that Scalia was quoting the apostle Paul. And in good priestly fashion he gave a little biblical interpretation:
Saint Paul's remark about himself and the other apostles being "fools for Christ's sake" was meant to draw the contrast with the haughty and self-satisfied. It was a remark born of humility when faced with God's power over our lives.
There are two things that jump out of this episode at me -- maybe really two sides of the same coin. The first is the increasing, and increasingly bemoaned, ignorance of Scripture on the part of all of us, inside as well as outside the church. I was recently speaking with a chaplain friend who had been accosted by the Art History professor at his university. His colleague was complaining that in his courses on medieval and Renaissance art he was reduced to telling Bible stories because none of the students recognized the scenes portrayed in painting, sculpture, and stained glass. "Can you imagine," this professor bellowed, "that I have to spend my time telling students about Abraham's willingness to sacrifice Isaac, the crossing of the Red Sea, even the Annunciation!" The chaplain found it somewhat amusing and responded that there were worse things in life than telling Bible stories, and of course there are plenty of worse things. But the episode of Justice Scalia's speech reminds us that this lack of familiarity with a text which is not only regarded as sacred by Christians and Jews but which has provided a lingua franca of stories, images, and phrases for Western Civilization really does matter. It does not always just amount to a bemused professor having to divert from her or his syllabus to fill in the blanks. It often means that we have profound yet unrecognized cultural, religious, and political disagreements about who we are, the nature of the world, and the importance of our individual and corporate decisions -- topics that the Bible addresses directly and repeatedly. Because of this ignorance, while thinking we are in dialogue, and assuming a common moral and religious base, we are really speaking past one another.
In his 1995 book Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America's Culture Wars, evangelical author Tom Sine does an analysis of how he believes Christians of every variety and theology have been co-opted by non-biblical world-views. He points out, for example, how many progressive mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics have committed themselves to working for a positive future. They have embraced such biblical mandates as care for the environment as an aspect of our call to be good stewards of God's creation, efforts to ensure justice and peace for all persons, and the affirmation and utilization of the gifts of all members of the Christian church, not overlooking women, ethnic minorities, and the disabled.
But he also shows how some of these progressive Christians have overlooked or ignored the biblical contention that we are all sinners in need of God's grace. This, he contends, is because many progressive Christians have, perhaps unconsciously, bought into the popular notion of victimization. How comforting it is to feel that all of my problems are due to the fact that I am being victimized by big business, the press, the government, you name it. I am not in need of any kind of salvation or redemption, because nothing is wrong with me. The problem is with all my victimizers. They need to change, be regulated more closely, be thrown out of office, and get off my back. So, Sine contends, while getting many biblical teachings right, many progressive Christians overlook the Bible's overarching theme that we all need to look within ourselves in the light of God's love, and acknowledge our own sin and need for redemption.
On the other hand, Sine asks, "How is it possible, that the political agenda of the religious right looks so much like that of the secular right, when the leaders of the religious right contend that their views come directly from the Bible? Either the secular right has been divinely inspired all along and no one noticed or the religious right has allowed their agenda for social change to be determined by right-wing political ideology instead of Scripture ... I believe conservative Protestants have been co-opted."
I think he is right about how many of us Christians -- right-wing, left-wing, liberal, conservative, Catholic, Protestant -- are increasingly basing our theologies and opinions not on Scripture and the tradition of the Church, but on other popular world-views and ideologies without even realizing it, largely because of our profound lack of familiarity with the broad sweep of Scripture and its inescapable themes.
I recently read the review of a book on management (Knoke, William, Bold New World, Kodansha International, NYC) which celebrated the fact that as a result of computers, cellular phones, modems and modern communication and transportation we are now in the age of knowing "everything everywhere." As many of us find ourselves on the on-ramp to the information superhighway we probably need to be reminded that having access to all kinds of information is not the same as knowing, understanding, and using it properly. And this is, of course, an age-old problem in new clothes. "Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich!" the apostle Paul wrote to some Corinthian Christians. They were rich, wise, and strong, held in honor in their own opinion -- or as my mother would say they "thought they knew it all" -- while in their eyes Paul and the other apostles were weak and held in disrepute -- "fools for the sake of Christ."
And this brings me to the second thing, or the other side of the coin. Authentic biblical faith, based as it is on a personal encounter with God and a recreation of the self in the divine image, will always be out of step with the pragmatic way that things are done in "the real world." It will always appear "foolish." "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" Paul asked in the introduction to his letters to the contentious congregation at Corinth. The gospel message of Jesus turns things upside down, saying that forgiveness is better than vindictiveness, that peace is of more value than strife, that we should give rather than receive. And we tend to notice people who are standing on their heads. So Paul knew that he looked like a fool. "When reviled, we bless; when persecuted we endure; when slandered, we speak kindly."
Some of you no doubt saw a story on 20/20 about the youth minister who was dismissed from his church position when his child was discovered to have AIDS. The story focused on the effect the dismissal had on both the father and the grandfather of the boy, both of whom were Southern Baptist pastors, the grandfather having served for a time as "head" of the convention. Two things struck me. First, the expected bitterness of the young clergyman at his abrupt dismissal. He, like many of us no doubt, felt that in their pragmatism that congregation missed a chance to show the community what it really means to follow Jesus. But more inspiring was the story of the grandfather who, rather than enjoying his well-deserved retirement, has mounted a one-man crusade, preaching and speaking wherever he can, often in remote, rural congregations, telling them of the love of Christ, and how that love should be extended to HIV positive persons. In some ways this distinguished elder of the church looks foolish traipsing around the hinterlands, and that's the point, isn't it?
You don't need national television for that kind of story. A seminary classmate of mine became quite concerned about AIDS -- and in particular the church's rejection of HIV positive persons -- after a life-long friend was infected by the virus. The congregation he served made it clear that they did not appreciate his activism on behalf of AIDS education. He ended up taking early retirement. I know many people thought he was playing the fool. And for that matter, how many persons who spend their lives in the mission field or the classroom or on the small campus or in a modest pulpit or simply living largely unnoticed lives of faithfulness and service are motivated not, as many assume, by a shortage of talent or by a lack of ambition, but by a desire to follow Jesus Christ. There are, after all, things that money and position can't buy; and, as incredible as it may seem to say today, there still are times when "what's in it for me?" is the wrong question. Nobody wants to look foolish or be thought the fool. But as Justice Scalia noted, that's exactly what the gospel sometimes calls us to do.
It is no accident that in many of the world's great cathedrals in addition to the vaults and spires, the buttresses and wonderful stained glass windows, there are gargoyles, grinning foolishly down at all they see. There are times when we all need to take ourselves less seriously and be willing to stand on our heads. There are times when we need to open ourselves up to the love and grace of God regardless of the kind of spectacle it may make us or how at odds it may place us with prevailing ideologies. Sometimes each of us needs to be a fool for the sake of Christ.
If anything looks like it could withstand time, it's Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota. But up close, maintenance crews have found something disturbing -- cracks running through the granite faces of Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln. The monument isn't in immediate danger, but experts say that without a facelift the world's largest sculpture could begin crumbling. Water runs into the cracks and freezes in winter, pushing on the rock with a force of 2,000 pounds per square inch.
The tragedy of life is not that it ends so soon, but that we wait so long to begin it.
Richard L. Evans, Bits & Pieces, March 4, 1993, p. 2.
Someone has calculated how a typical lifespan of 70 years is spent. Here is the estimate:
Our Daily Bread, November 25, 1992.
In an average lifetime, the average American spends 3 years in business meetings, 13 years watching TV, Spends $89,281 on food, consumes 109,354 pounds of food, Makes 1811 trips to McDonalds, Spends $6881 in vending machines, Eats 35,138 cookies and 1483 pounds of candy, Catches 304 colds, Is involved in 6 motor vehicle accidents, is hospitalized 8 times (men) or 12 times (women), Spends 24 years sleeping.
Tom Heymann, In an Average Lifetime.
The seven ages of man: spills, drills, thrills, bills, ills, pills, wills.
Richard J. Needham, The Wit and Wisdom of Richard Needham.
A story making the rounds concerns a Biology I examination in which the students were asked: "Suppose you could take to Mars any of the laboratory equipment used in this course. How would you determine if there was life on Mars?" One student responded: "Ask the inhabitants. Even a negative answer would be significant." The student got an A.
Carl Sagan, Other Worlds.
If I had my whole life to live over again, I don't think I'd have the strength.
Seize the moment. Remember all those women on the Titanic who waved off the dessert cart.
As Vice President, George Bush represented the U.S. at the funeral of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. Bush was deeply moved by a silent protest carried out by Brezhnev's widow. She stood motionless by the coffin until seconds before it was closed. Then, just as the soldiers touched the lid, Brezhnev's wife performed an act of great courage and hope, a gesture that must surely rank as one of the most profound acts of civil disobedience ever committed: She reached down and made the sign of the cross on her husband's chest. There in the citadel of secular, atheistic power, the wife of the man who had run it all hoped that her husband was wrong. She hoped that there was another life, and that that life was best represented by Jesus who died on the cross, and that the same Jesus might yet have mercy on her husband.
Gary Thomas, in Christian Times, October 3, 1994, p. 26.