Third Sunday after Pentecost

Faith is neither a weakened form of knowledge nor its substitute

Snake in dimly lit foliage
Photo by David Jdt on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

June 9, 2024

Second Reading
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Commentary on 2 Corinthians 4:13—5:1

Paul—the textual Paul, the letters P-a-u-l, not the man who lived and died so many years ago and is beyond our knowing—is persistent and clever. He insists on walking blind and talking about his stumbling, open to whatever is next without the slightest reason for welcoming the unknown and without the least idea of what, if anything, is coming his way. Second Corinthians 5:7 is his motto: “For we walk by faith, not by sight.” The Christian tradition, however, with rare exceptions, has ignored Paul’s devotion to not-knowing. 

Now, in Paul’s name, faith and knowledge are complementary. Bits of knowledge (although without any sense of the irony involved, these bits are often called “articles of faith”) are added to the experience of suffering to make the path easier to discern. We are told: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”; “God is always good”; “God has a plan for you.” And the cruelest piece of knowledge: “If you have faith, you will be saved.” 

Yet, I believe Paul’s speech flows from his faith, from his blindness: “But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—‘I believed, and so I spoke’—we also believe, and therefore we also speak” (2 Corinthians 4:13). Faith is neither a weakened form of knowledge nor its substitute; faith is fear, trembling, stumbling forward without knowing it is forward that one stumbles. And this perplexity, according to Paul, is hosted by Scripture. 

Recall that Christians once called the Holy Spirit (pneuma) the Holy Ghost (pneuma), a translation in line with first-century usage and deserving a renaissance. As a ghost haunts, so also spirit haunts. Paul, having “the same spirit of faith,” writes of the experience of being haunted, of being on the receiving end of an inexplicable and unknowable otherness that speaks wordless words that cannot and must not be repeated (2 Corinthians 12:4). 

These words pull hearers/readers into impossible things. Like falling in love. Like mourning the dead. Like getting out of bed in the morning. Like giving justice to the long-since-murdered. And, in 2 Corinthians, like reconciliation with those Paul had hurt (see 2:4). Facing these experiences as they wash over and wash away the self, this is what Paul calls faith. 

Objections: Doesn’t Paul pepper 2 Corinthians 4:12–5:1 with sure and certain facts? Doesn’t faith depend on them? Doesn’t he relate, if not equate, faith with the knowledge of these facts? Take, for example, the immortality of the soul (2 Corinthians 4:7, 16, and 18). Surely, these verses are evidence of a certain indestructibility residing inside the body. The immortal soul has the power (if only we call upon it) to withstand the body’s suffering and even its death. Paul is in harmony with the most knowledgeable of philosophers, Plato. 

Furthermore, note that when Paul brings up the soul’s immortality, he also teaches that what doesn’t kill you does indeed make you stronger. Endurance of suffering demonstrates the soul’s strength (4:8–9) and creates greater glory at the end of time ( 4:17). Yes, these ideas are drawn from the ancient philosophers, but despite their pagan origin they merit Christian approval because they support faith. 

One more observation: We all agree (don’t we?) that the doctrine of the resurrection is the foundation of the Christian faith. Paul documents that truth in 4:14. The restoration of the crucified Jesus to life is a guarantee of the offer that God makes to everyone: If you believe, you will have life restored to your dead body.

One response to these objections is, of course, to agree with them. Another is to admit defeat and get on with life without Christianity. Another response (my preference) is to think that the textual Paul himself resists reducing faith to knowledge, and the dead Paul did too, perhaps. I think of Paul as a clever rhetorician and preveniently postmodern. Might we consider all of 2 Corinthians 4–5 in light of 5:4, where poetry swallows up and metabolizes certainty, foundations, the invincible self, immortality of the soul, and restoration of life to dead bodies? Paul includes certainty and its companions in his rhetoric only to undo them. That is why I called him clever. 

He releases us from the force these ideas have over us, inasmuch as we experience them as Christian truth. That is his postmodernism. Paul’s strategy is to challenge the stability of the “ego” so that neither the formation of the self nor its restoration after death makes sense from the standpoint of faith, if such an oxymoron is permitted. That is the way I read 1 Corinthians 15:50: “What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” 

There is no identity set in stone, no immortal soul to be reformulated into a modified identity or restored to a life that once was. Instead we, undetermined beings, existing in infinite ways, made new (not renewed, as if we were overdue library books) day by day (2 Corinthians 5:16)—all this is happening right now and is itself resurrection (compare 4:14–15 with 1:9–11). 

No wonder resurrection is a mystery, an incomprehensible mixing of life and death (1 Corinthians 15:50–55). Resurrection declines to be mastered by everyday ideas that rely on repetition of what we have already experienced and expressed with words like “reformation,” “resuscitation,” or “restoration.” Even the word “resurrection” betrays the otherness of what it refers to. It fails, like all words fail. Longing, a form of mourning, and groaning respond, but they do so with breath, not with words, as in 2 Corinthians 5:2–4 and Romans 8:22–27.