Sunday, April 27, 2014


Crucifixion, Jesus Mafa, Cameroon, 1970s 
For the message of the cross is foolishness 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;
the intelligence of the intelligent
I will frustrate.

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 ((1 Corinthians 1:18-25).

Who decides what’s possible?

Reword that: What framework do we use for deciding what’s possible?

What are the boundaries of plausibility?

And what does it take to break through the invisible walls of our plausibility structures?

The term “plausibility structures” was first used by sociologist Peter Berger to describe the interplay between culture and understanding, the ways that the undefined assumptions of our culture shape and control our ability to interpret information. Each culture, even subculture, has its own plausibility structures, its own ways of deciding what could be considered true.

Last week I quoted Lesslie Newbigin, missionary to India for forty years. Newbigin found that the idea of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection challenged the plausibility structures of his Hindu friends, who were happy to hear stories of the supernatural, and very willing to see Jesus as one more deity in a tradition that recognizes three hundred and thirty million of them. Less plausible was the idea that one deity might supersede all others, that one religious story might hold the clue to all existence, or that the divine would value the lives of those the culture deemed untouchable: widows, Dalits, slaves. 

Returning to post-Christian London, Newbiggin found a different reigning plausabilty structure, the “central citadel of our culture":
the belief that the real world, the reality with which we have to do, is a world that is to be understood in terms of efficient causes and not of final causes, a  world that is not governed by an intelligible purpose, and thus a world in which the answer to the question of what is good has to be left to the private opinion of each individual and cannot be included in the body of accepted facts that control public life.(Foolishness to the Greeks, p 79).
 Like Paul in First Corinthians, Newbigin recognized that the cross and resurrection, rightly understood, would challenge every reigning plausibility structure, from the days of the Greeks and Romans, through the rationalism of enlightenment, to our own post-modern pluralism. 
It is obvious that the story of the empty tomb cannot be fitted into our contemporary worldview, or indeed into any worldview except one of which it is the starting point.  That is, indeed, the whole point.  What happened on that day is, according to the Christian tradition, only to be understood by analogy with what happened on the day the cosmos came into being.  It is a boundary event, at the point where (as cosmologists tell us) the laws of physics ceased to apply.  It is the beginning of a new creation – as mysterious to human reason as the creation itself.
 But, and this is the whole point, accepted in faith it becomes the starting point for a wholly new way of understanding our human experience, a way which – in the long run – makes more sense of human experience as a whole than does the reigning plausibility structure.  That the crucified Jesus was raised from death to be the firstfruit of creation is – in the proper sense – dogma.  It is something given, offered for acceptance in faith, providing the starting point for a new way of understanding which, instead of being finally defined by the impassable boundary of death (our personal deaths and the final death of the cosmos), moves from death outward to an open world of infinite possibilities beckoning us into ever fresh regions of joy. (The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 12)
Newbigin’s own agnosticism was shattered in 1929 at the age of 19, when he spent a summer working at a Quaker service center in the economically depressed mining region of South Wales. Troubled at the hopelessness of the unemployed miners he encountered, he experienced a vision of the cross “as the one and only reality great enough to span the distance between heaven and hell, and to hold in one embrace all the variety of humankind, the one reality that could make sense of the human situation” (Journey into Joy).

St Paul:Conversion, Granger Collection, 19th C
His experience was one in a long, long line of such conversions: illumination shattering the plausibility Damascus was another. Once so committed to the structures of his own Jewish tradition, willing to stone those who threatened the authorities and beliefs he held dear, he experienced physical blindness in a way that shattered his spiritual blindness and opened his eyes to the good news of  resurrection. 
structures that make it hard to see the unexpected. The Apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,  that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. (1 Corinthians 15:3-10) 
As I celebrate resurrection, I find myself also wondering about the plausibility structures that obstruct my own sight, even now.

If the cross and resurrection demand a breaking down of walls between slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, Dalit and Brahmin, what does it demand of my own understanding of current categories: political, demoninational, economic, cultural?

If resurrection is the ultimate reality, and eternity the context of determining value, how should that reshape the contours of my day, or refine my daily priorities?

In a culture that demands evidence – now!
that wants results – today!
that judges every action, every person, by performance and appearance,
how do I live in a framework of grace, hope, endurance, compassion?

As both Newbigin and Paul made clear, the church – writ large or small – is no refuge from plausibility structures that enforce cultural norms and crowd out Christ’s good news. 

Even among Christians, it sometimes seems foolish to love those least loveable, to spend time on “lost causes,” to hope for change when change seems impossible, to insist on good news for those most in need of mercy. 

But if my life, if our corporate life, looks no different from those who doubt the resurrection, if my own plausability structures deny, or disregard, the power of the resurrection, surely I've missed the point?

Would that be the ultimate foolishness?
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people,  and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. (Ephesians 1:17-21)