Divine Foolishness and Human Learning

by Karl Olsson

Inaugural address upon assuming the Presidency of North Park College and Theological Seminary, Chicago, Illinois, Thursday, November 5, 1959.

Some time in the year 50 of our era an unobtrusive Jew named Paul arrived in the city of Corinth in the Greek province of Achaia. The city was the provincial capital and because of its strategic location at the junction of sea routes it was the center of commerce, luxury, and vice. Paul had just come down from Athens where he had encountered Greek learning in its dotage. At Corinth he found another kind of sophistication which did not disquiet him less. Eighteen months later he moved across the Aegean to Ephesus, a great city in Asia Minor where Greek and Oriental cultures had formed a curious synthesis.

Much of the frustration of the apostle in the face of Greek civilization is reflected in a letter written from Ephesus to the Corinthian church, probably in the year 52. Commenting on his original visit to the Achaian capital, Paul writes:

When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom, for I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus and Him crucified.

This terse and uncompromising word is placed in a wider but no less unbending context in a preceding paragraph where Paul writes:

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, 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.

We are gathered today to pay a modest tribute to learning. This audience testifies to a long and honorable intellectual tradition. Institutions represented here have devoted themselves to the pursuit of ideas and have earned a rightful place in our society.

In the company of these representatives of learned societies and institutions are friends of learning, the patrons of the arts and sciences, who find in them both an intrinsic beauty and a social usefulness.

We arc confronted with a baffling question. How shall we bring together in any meaningful unity the words of a first-century religious enthusiast like Paul and the mass and weight of a tradition which all of us represent or to which we give our support? Is it possible that Paul has anything to say to schoolmen? Or must we divest ourselves of what we are and become lowly mechanics and slaves if we are to be saved? It is a question which was to plague not only the first century but all the centuries to follow.

In the closing years of the fourth century, in describing the tortuous process which was to eventuate in his conversion, Augustine tells us that it was the example of unlearned piety which finally persuaded him to repent. Having heard from Pontitianus the story of the conversion of two courtiers through the reading of the Life of St. Anthony, Augustine turns to his friend Alypius with the question:

What ails us?...What is it? What heardest thou? The unlearned start up and take heaven by force, and we with our learning, and without heart, lo, where we wallow in flesh and blood! Are we ashamed to follow, because others are gone before...?

It is impossible to put the contrast more sharply. On the one hand, the humble friends of God, people whose hearts arc sensitive to the divine voice; and on the other, the friends of learning, who have devoted their minds to the bitter and often unsustained pursuit of intellectual excellence.

The same contrast is furnished in the appealing character of St. Francis and his jesters of God, who in simplicity and ignorance ministered to the dolors of the world. Gilson has rightly said:

If we put together the few statements St. Francis made on the matter of studies, it is clear that he never condemned learning for itself, but that he had no desire to see it develop in his order. In his eyes it was not in itself an evil, but its pursuit appeared to him unnecessary and dangerous - unnecessary since a man may save his soul and win others to save theirs without it; dangerous because it is an endless source of pride.

Instances are numerous both from the Roman and the Protestant tradition. In their moments of greatest lucidity, the teachers of the centuries reiterate the dangers of intellectual pride and the blessings which accrue to the soul which lives in naked dependence upon God. We find it in Spenser and Milton, George Herbert and John Bunyan, Samuel Johnson and Dostoevski. It breathes in the terse lines of Pascal's Memorial:

In the year of Grace, 1654,
On Monday, 23d of November,
From about half past ten in the evening
until about half past twelve.
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,
not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ
Deum meum et Deum vestrum
"Thy God shall be my God."
Forgetfulness of the world and of everything,
except God.
He is to be found only by the ways taught
in the Gospel...
"Righteous Father, the world hath not known
Thee, but I have known Thee."
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
I have separated myself from Him..
I have separated myself from Him: I have fled
from Him; denied Him, crucified Him.
Let me never be separated from Him.

Such a simple and direct cry of the human spirit is beyond praise.

We feel in all of these expressions an overwhelming crowding of desire to find God and to be found in Him. We understand the universality of Augustine's words, "Thou has made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee." Nevertheless, and it is a significant nevertheless, we are educators, and we must take up, no matter how sweet the ravishment of God, the humble and sometimes thankless task of learning. Perhaps it will be possible for us, without violating the intent of the words of the apostle, to arrive at a sober understanding of the role of l earning in human life and to understand furthermore its relation to that moment which Paul calls daringly the "foolishness of God."

Paul singles out for particular attention two dominant types of thinking in his day — the tendency of his own people to seek for a sign and the equally persistent tendency of the Greeks to seek after wisdom. By sign the apostle means quite simply a particular manifestation of divine power. The history of his people was the history of deliverance at the hand of God. The formal event of their history was God's act of liberation in the Exodus, and it is not difficult to understand that those to whom the fate of Israel was dear would look in the flux of events for that great and signal happening which would be a new manifestation of the divine power.

The wisdom of the Greeks of which the Apostle speaks is more difficult to assess. He may mean by it simply the seeing of a rational order in things, the wonderful perceptiveness of the Greek mind in finding causal relationships among phenomena. Or he may mean something more mysterious: the fervent search of the philosophical schools for an immediate illumination and a closing with the divine. Whatever his meaning, it is clear that Paul sees in the wisdom of the Greeks an undue dependence upon human intellectual resources.

In thus simplifying the Jewish and Greek characteristics of his time into set types, Paul was trying to say something about the limitations of human religious and intellectual activities. He discerned in the theology of his people and in the philosophy of the Greeks an effort on the part of both to establish themselves in existence. Perhaps both devout Jews and learned Greeks were seeking a means for effectively combating the oppressive power of the Roman state. That for which the Jews sought so fervently in the days of Paul was liberation from Roman enslavement; and the wise men of Athens, remembering the political glory long since past, dreamed of erecting an effective bulwark against Roman arrogance.

The Jew, at least the strenuous Pharisee, as he was seen by Paul, was giving himself to the endless task of religious obedience. By achieving absolute congruity with the demands of the law, he hoped to produce in the midst of the bleakness of his lot that sign in the heavens which would be the evidence of God's favor. And the continued intellectual labors of the Greeks were intended as by an incantation, to call forth from the cold and sullen earth the image of Athenian glory long since fled.

Paul's objection to the conduct of his countrymen, as well as of the Greeks, was that it transferred the act of salvation from the hand of God to the hands of men. If the pursuit of a sign or the pursuit of learning is thought to control human history, then God has become a captive God devoid of sovereignty and freedom.

In what has been said so far I have tried to suggest a crude, but I hope not altogether inappropriate, parallel between Paul's day and our own. This generation also seeks for a sign as a manifestation of power. In our search for rationality as a manifestation of order and in our somewhat pathetic attempts to keep abreast of political developments in the world, we have tended to deify both power and learning. The indeterminate energy which inhabits the atom has become a god from whom we hope to derive both the power and the wisdom by which we may be saved.

In the closing days of World War II after our atomic successes we believed that we had found a magic formula, a scientific talisman, which would give us power to order existence at will. Like the demoralized French of the 1930's who believed that you could make an adequate defense out of concrete and electrically trained guns, we felt that our new secret made us invincible. We were like children acting out a fairy tale. With this wand you transform this pumpkin into a chariot of gold. But unlike children, who arc never quite convinced, we believed our fiction. We have not discovered that our powerful and clever secret has only made us more vulnerable. And in a melancholy way we are re-enacting the defensiveness of Jew and Greek in the face of Rome. With an almost impotent rage we hate the crudity, peasant cunning, and barbarian gusto of the Russians. And we invoke our idolatrous divinities — our concentrations of power and our distillations of intellect — to assist us, hoping that we or they shall be a match for this colossus which bestrides the world.

I am not suggesting that we should take the Russians less seriously than we do. We must obviously make those political and perhaps military efforts which will permit us to cope with the peril of Russian power. What I would like to bring under scrutiny is the belief, strictly theological in character and pervading the minds of most of our people, that disposing of the Russians presents us with some ultimate solution, that if Russian power can be liquidated we shall have disposed of evil for all time.

It is Paul's contention that against human power and wisdom God has raised the cross — the mocking and yet charitable standard of His foolishness and weakness. For Paul the cross was the radical negation of all human strategies of force and cunning. The cross, in which the power of God seems utterly overwhelmed and in which all rational purpose for the universe seems frustrated, is for the apostle an evidence of the ultimate wisdom and adequacy of God.

But the cross is not mere demonstration. Through its humiliation and scandal God himself comes to men, ungodding himself, so to speak, in an act of mercy, in order to bring man from the delusion of his sin to a true view of himself and of his world. The intention of the cross is hence not primarily to prove man's stupidity; or even his perverseness, but to reclaim him for God.

Paul's message was delivered in a context of outward lowliness. He tells us that he came to the Corinthians "in weakness and in much fear and trembling." Furthermore his speech and his message were not "in plausible words of wisdom but in the demonstration of the Spirit and power." The audience to which he spoke was equally lowly, composed of the foolish, the weak, and the "despised in the world." Out of these human materials - so brittle and so unassertive - it pleased the Divine Foolishness to form the church.

When we act this ark of faith against the towering magnificence of the Roman Stale — its government, its laws, its armies, its monumental cities bound together by the nerves and sinews as well as the intelligence of power, we are seized by giddiness. How was it possible for this fragile community to prevail and to outlast the ponderous fabrics of the Empire? The answer lies in the preservation, in the midst of institutional generation and corruption, of the precious seed of the divine folly.

The dialectic of all institutions, particularly institutions of learning, is normally in the direction of greater sophistication and greater social prestige. A good school becomes better: more competent to deal with a bewildering array of facts and ideas, skills, and attitudes and more competent in transmission of these materials. And as the competence of the school grows, its social utility increases; it becomes more and more the oracle for the political powers of the state. Socrates is asked to utility increases; it becomes more and more the oracle for the political powers of the state. Socrates is asked to cease being the gadfly of Athens, Jeremiah is unctioned into the palace to prophecy the "truth" of the party in power. Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein, Martin Niemöller, Bishop Berggrav — the spirituals and intellectuals of the state are invited to become ventriloquist dummies, speaking only the party line.

In this situation intellectual excellence may turn into an actual liability and be corrupted into all forms of adjustment, adaptation, common sense practicality, and peaceableness. For intellectuality is not intrinsically moral. It has no built-in safeguard against rot. The professor who is only a professor and no more can readily become a palace eunuch providing specious arguments for his political master. We saw it in Germany under Hitler. We may see it again.

The intellectual disciplines maintain their independence, their courage, and their integrity in the face of corruption by having something more than intellectuality on which to draw. This school adheres to its Christian heritage not merely because it desires the redemption of man but because it desires the redemption of learning through the foolishness of God.

But even if it were possible for intellect to live in a social vacuum independent of those social and political pressures which now threaten its corruption, is it too much to say that intellectuality itself is not unalterably reasonable? Without the redemptive influence of the divine foolishness, intellectual vigor fades, systems of ideas become fabrics of speculation, and the landscape of thought takes on the redundancy and tedium of death. This is so because all life, and not least the life of the intellect, can only be sustained by its true source. Without an ultimate rootage in the being of God, the intellectual plant withers. It may not be true to say with Augustine that genuine learning is impossible without grace, but it is certainly true that without redemption even the best human learning sinks in to eventual [?].

In assuming the presidency of North Park College and Theological Seminary, I am aware of the perils which beset our path. Many schools in the Protestant tradition, embarrassed by the luggage of an outmoded theology, have become frankly secular or have been content with a wan gesture in the direction of so-called "spiritual values." Other schools in the desperate effort to escape this fate have become moralistic and doctrinaire, substituting piety for learning. The task of the Christian school is more complex and difficult. It must profess its adherence to the faith without becoming arrogant and rude. It must, to use a phrase of C. S. Lewis, have a countenance "burning with intelligence and charity."

Who is equal to these things? When the cardinal's hat was brought to Bonaventura, thirteenth-century governor general of the Franciscan Order, the great theologian was washing dishes in the kitchen of the convent of Mugello. He refused to receive the envoys until he had finished the dishes. How is it possible to be cardinals, professors, bishops, presidents, and princes of business and still bless the name of God? How is it possible to attain the frosty excellence of a great educational institution and retain the holy idiocy of faith?

We have the ambition to become a truly great school. Not a large school but a great one. Into this task we want to pour all that we have of imaginative vigor, intellectual acumen, and moral force. But we want also to embrace the freedom, the meekness, and the joyousness of faith.

Who is equal to these things?

In a sense this question is intolerable; its effect is to land us in an impasse where question must be transformed into prayer.

We are not better than our fathers. Competence leads to achievement and achievement to self-respect and self-respect to pride. We become in our own small way centers of wisdom, power, or status and hence insensitive to the divine vocation.

In such a situation it is well to remind ourselves of the divine foolishness which is wiser than men. God will continue, no matter how much we may protest, to choose the foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, and the low, the despised, and the nothing of this world to bring to nothing the things that are. So inscrutable is his wisdom and his ways past finding out.


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