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Lent 3B: Faith Beyond Meaning

A sermon by Rev Abhishek Solomon

Tertullian of Carthage

Tertullian, one of the earliest defenders of the Christian faith (140AD), is known for his claim: "Credo quia absurdum." It translates as: I believe because it is absurd.

In the first instance, it seems crazy to think of the Christian faith in those terms. The idea of believing in something absurd is ridiculous. I mean, it would be scandalous if I say that I believe in the idea that if you venture too far off the horizon, you will slip off the edge of the world. Or, if you swallowed watermelon seeds, they would grow in your stomach. You will probably say, "That is absurd. Who believes that?"

But then I reply to you, "I know it all sounds crazy, but I still believe it." In fact, I add, "You are exactly right. Precisely because it is absurd, that's why I believe it." You would probably think I have lost my mind.

So, what does Tertullian meant? What does he mean when he is saying this?

For Tertullian absurdity emerges when a thinking being, a meaning-seeking being (a person) confronts a force beyond itself that resists meaning. This transcendental force cannot be neatly packaged and grasped by the one who seeks make sense of it. It is absurd because this transcendental force resists meaning. This resistance of meaning is the experience of the absurd. The sacred force resists meaning. But at the same time, confrontation with it breaks open our lives to new possibilities.

To put this differently, what Tertullian is saying that we humans are thinking being. We incessantly engage in the practice of making meaning. We want meaning, and so we ask: "What is the meaning of life?" "What is the meaning of death?" "What is the meaning of faith?" "What is the meaning in suffering?"

We have countless books and gurus and teachers giving us maps of meaning, telling us how to live a meaningful life.

But for Tertullian, Christianity does not bring meaning. Instead, it renders meaningless what appears meaningful to us. Christianity is absurd because we are confronted with Christ. He resists all labels, titles, and dogmas. It was absurd when people heard Jesus saying: "The first shall be last, and the last shall be first," "the virgin shall give birth," and "the dead shall rise," and "the greatest among you must be your servant," and "Blessed are the poor." All these truths go against the expectations, against common sense. They sound absurd.

Paul Hessert

Drawing on Tertullian's insights, Paul Hessert (professor of systematic theology) wrote a highly influential book Christ and the End of Meaning. For Hessert, Christianity is the original absurdist movement. Now, this may seem the opposite of everything we think of in Christianity. We assume Christianity is about meaning. Or a worldview. Or about understanding the world around us. We take for granted that it gives us a meaningful structure and framework to live our lives. Hessert calls this "A Meaningful Christianity."

For Hessert, there is something about us that seeks reasons to believe in something. In return, what we believe supports and sustains our reasons. And so, we have Christianity that generally either affirms the dominant meaning structures of society or creates a counter-cultural meaning system.

Hessert comes to this conclusion after studying Paul's writing in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. Christ crucified is the most scandalously ridiculous counter-cultural absurdist notion one can imagine. God dying is absurd. Now we don't experience the profound craziness and absurdity of this statement because we have heard it so many times. Historically, we have tried to understand this statement and make sense of it via atonement theologies. But, for Paul, Christ crucified is so profoundly outrageous that it escapes our system of meaning.

Søren Kierkegaard

For thinkers such as Tertullian and Kierkegaard, and Hessert, Christianity is absurd because it goes beyond our understanding of wisdom, truth, and justice. This is why Kierkegaard (Danish theologian) rejected the idea that Jesus was a wisdom teacher. Parables, for example, go against everything that was considered wise and ethical, and reasonable. They are always critiquing reason, always going against the way we see and interpret the world – the way we see who is inside who is outside, who is pure, who is impure, who is good who is bad. All of the boundaries that we create and that make sense to us explode when confronted with something that breaks down all our ideas about sacred and mundane.

"For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles," claims Saint Paul.

For Apostle Paul, some people seek signs, perhaps because, through signs and wonders, they can claim that God is with them, on their side. And, other seek wisdom because they can logically and apologetically say that God is on their side. But Christ crucified, claims Paul, does not fit in either meaning creating categories. Instead, it creates a rupture in our world because it is so foreign to what we understand the faith to be. Christian faith disrupts our world, opening us up to new possibilities.

To conclude, let me share an anecdote. A few years ago, I suggested to a group of loyal and well-meaning people in a study group that too often we read and study books and authors who more or less agree with what we believe to be true. We are continually seeking new words and language, and terminologies to communicate and understand the same message.

In contrast, I proposed that one year let's do something unthinkable. Let us study people like Hegel, Marx, Schelling, Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Freud, and more. Their ideas are fundamentally foreign to our belief system. I even offered to prepare study notes. My idea was to create a decentering space, what some mystics call "the cloud of unknowing," which demands a creative openness. I was hoping to create a space where we listen to some of the most important critical voices from our historical past and present critiquing Christianity as a worldview and as a belief system. The idea was to experience our beliefs through their critique by allowing them to disrupt the inner harmony of our belief system to see what blind spots are revealed. It was less about us judging them but more about let them judge us. Also, to experience how encountering something completely foreign might open new possibilities.

Although the idea never materialized, the sentiment behind it was more or less consistent with Tertullian and Kierkegaard. That is, to move beyond the symbolic safety net of what we think is right and true and delve into the depth of an absurd faith which continually calls us into the clouds of unknowing.

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