From the First Letter to the Corinthians:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – 1 Corinthians 1:20 (NRSV) – March 11, 2014.)
The religion vs. science debate is heating up! Bill Nye the Science Guy recently debated Ken Ham, the founder of a “creation science” museum in Kentucky; they made headlines but not a lot of progress in resolving the phony conflict. Sunday night Neil deGrasse Tyson premiered his reboot of Carl Sagan’s classic Cosmos series, which included potshots at religious certainty including a very amateurish looking cartoon about Giordano Bruno which was, at best, inaccurate and, at worst, dishonest. (There’s been a lot of discussion among my Facebook friends about that.) I hope the series improves and doesn’t become a polemic against religion; the Sagan original certainly never was.
Recently in conversation with someone who has, shall we say, a rather more “conservative” view of the Bible and, thus, a considerably different view on the matter of creationism as opposed to the theory of evolution, I heard this very verse trotted out in support of the creationist view. Talk about misapplication of Scripture! Proof-texting gone crazy! This text has nothing to do with that debate. “Give me a break!” I said, “Do you seriously believe that Paul’s use of ‘wisdom’ is meant to refer to scientific knowledge? Do you even know what the Greek word used by Paul was? Or what Hebrew concept he might have been trying to express in koine Greek?” It turned out the other speaker knew nothing of Greek or Hebrew!
Well, I know a little . . . enough to know that “wisdom” is not “science” and that neither Paul nor God (assuming God was speaking through Paul – an assumption I do not make) meant this to refer to the scientific knowledge of the 21st Century! Sophia, the Greek word translated as “wisdom,” was used in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew word chokhmah. This referred to skill in social intercourse, to shrewdness in dealing with one’s fellow human beings, to ethical practice, and to the proper conduct of religious affairs. It is likely that this is what Paul, the Pharisee, the classically trained rabbinic scholar, was thinking of when he chose to use the word. He was not referring to scientific knowledge.
Indeed, it is probably anachronistic to even talk about “scientific knowledge” as a thought-form in which or about which Paul would frame an argument; it really is a concept of the post-Enlightenment world. The closest Paul might have come in the Greek of his day would probably have been gnosis (knowledge), or he might have said something about philosophia (philosophy or science). In Hebrew, the closest concept would madda’ (factual knowledge) or possibly tushiya (applied wisdom or efficient wisdom). But Paul did not use any of these; Paul used sophia, so we can be fairly assured that his reference was to the social wisdom of chokhmah.
I could wish that Paul might have found a different way to express what I take to be his meaning, that God refused to follow the social norms of the day and, instead of choosing to be incarnate as a king or high priest or mighty warrior, appeared as a lowly, poor, carpenter-turned-rabbi from a backwater village. Unfortunately, he didn’t. But that’s no excuse to be proof-texting and making ignorant and idiotic arguments against science and scientific knowledge!
God has made foolish the social conventions of the age, not its science! Give me a break!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.