Paul’s Unanswered Challenge

“A pencil on top of an open notebook” by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

The term “cynic” has a negative connotation — someone who doesn’t like anything. “Epicurean” has a bad connotation — someone who indulges the flesh. “Stoic” has a negative connotation — someone who ignores or suppresses emotion.

All these were schools of philosophy in competition with early Christianity in the Roman Empire.

Paul knew his competition. He wrote:

Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.
Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. (1 Corinthians 1:20–29 New International Version (NIV))

The previous followers of Jesus had assumed that they were still part of Judaism. Paul was the first Christian, and he had an international — Empire wide — vision.

Paul set up his rhetoric so well that the philosophers of the Western world have still not adequately responded to his challenge. When we think of philosophy, chances are that we think of philosophy in exactly the sort of wrong-headed, egg-headed, ivory tower way that Paul wanted us to think of it. Philosophy is what privileged young people do in universities, right?

But consider this: respected religion scholar John Dominic Crossan provocatively claims what Jesus was perhaps a trained Cynic philosopher. The actions and teachings of Jesus match much of what the Cynic school taught. Most people don’t know that because early Christians succeeded in suppressing (and often subsuming) the knowledge of their day.

With Christianity in decline, it’s time for philosophies — schools of thought — to reclaim their former place by answering Paul’s challenge at last: out of the ivory tower and into the streets and farms.

A “philosophy” is a means of examining a life in order to give life meaning and purpose; to achieve a life of connection and service to humanity, the earth, and the living things on the earth.

Nothing abstract about that. Nothing boastful. And perhaps it will look a little foolish. But that’s OK.