2014 Lent 7

I Corinthians 2:1-13

One of the divisive issues facing Paul in Corinth was social injustice, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere over the past couple of days.  There were other disparities too, of course–something that happens anytime you get an assembly of people gathering with an intentionally countercultural agenda!

In today’s passage I see the suggestion of Gnosticism.  Was Paul fighting against its influence at Corinth?

Gnosticism wasn’t a religion so much as it was a way to understand the bigger scheme of things.  At its core, spirit was understood to be good; matter bad.  Knowledge, a good thing, then was found in the spiritual.  So those who focused their time and energy upon material things–bankers and merchants, for instance–those whose preoccupations were mainly material, in other words–didn’t typically attain knowledge and true wisdom to the extent that, say, teachers, orators, and philosophers did: those whose main preoccupations were more of a spiritual concern.  Some of the various schools of thought at this time were Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism; you might think of Gnosticism as a meta-school of thought, that is, a key philosophical worldview undergirding it all.  It was in the Empire’s air, so to speak.  (Insert good Star Wars joke here.)

That the Corinthian Christians were breathing Gnostic air is a given.  So it strikes me that today’s passage plays with yesterday’s paradoxical ideas of wisdom and strength.  And if this is indeed the case–that Paul was speaking in terms as familiar to the Christians in Corinth as the air they breathed–then they would have understood Paul’s unwritten intentions.  Were his words to be understood at face value–WYSIWYG?  Or were his words more sarcastic in tone, something of a self-parody, that he was poking fun at his own imparting of secret knowledge to initiates (like some Gnostic sage), and therefore to be understood differently?

After asking this question and reading the passage again, I am inclined to go with the latter.  For in that way Paul effectively undermines the prevailing culture’s Gnostic understanding of wisdom, or of what it takes to be a wise man; and elevates the perceived lowliness of the mind of Christ to a higher place on the wisdom pyramid.  True wisdom is found in Christ crucified, not spirit; and this true wisdom is for all, regardless of whether one is a banker, merchant, philosopher, teacher, slave, free, male, female, and so on.  Not sure we get this from the passage if we’re seeking to understand it from a straightforward face-value reading.

At any rate, we readers today remain uncertain.  And scholars today debate about how to read and interpret this passage (and others).  But I think the Corinthian audience would have gotten it.

Or would they?

Sarcasm’s difficult to pick up on in written forms of communication (like texts and emails–and blog posts), isn’t it?  (Insert good misunderstood sarcasm-story here.)  But that’s another post for another day.

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