For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe. (I Corinthians 1:21)
It is easy enough to characterize this verse from St. Paul, and indeed the entire chapter, as a broadside attack on and wholesale rejection of philosophy, and many have characterized it in that way. Naturally, philosophers have an interest in interpreting it differently, and I am no exception. I suggest that we compare this passage from G. K. Chesterton:
There is such a thing as a human story; and there is such a thing as the divine story which is also a human story; but there is no such thing as a Hegelian story or a Monist story or a relativist story or a determinist story; for every story, yes, even a penny dreadful or a cheap novelette, has something in it that belongs to our universe and not theirs. Every short story does truly begin with creation and end with a last judgement.
And that is the reason why the myths and the philosophers were at war until Christ came. That is why the Athenian democracy killed Socrates out of respect for the gods; and why every strolling sophist gave himself the airs of a Socrates whenever he could talk in a superior fashion of the gods; and why the heretic Pharaoh wrecked his huge idols and temples for an abstraction and why the priests could return in triumph and trample his dynasty under foot; and why Buddhism had to divide itself from Brahminism, and why in every age and country outside Christendom there has been a feud for ever between the philosopher and the priest. It is easy enough to say that the philosopher is generally the more rational; it is easier still to forget that the priest is always the more popular. For the priest told the people stories; and the philosopher did not understand the philosophy of stories. It came into the world with the story of Christ.
And this is why it had to be a revelation or vision given from above. Any one who will think of the theory of stories or pictures will easily see the point. The true story of the world must be told by somebody to somebody else. By the very nature of a story it cannot be left to occur to anybody. A story has proportions, variations, surprises, particular dispositions, which cannot be worked out by rule in the abstract, like a sum. We could not deduce whether or no Achilles would give back the body of Hector from a Pythagorean theory of number or recurrence; and we could not infer for ourselves in what way the world would get back the body of Christ, merely from being told that all things go round and round upon the wheel of Buddha. A man might perhaps work out a proposition of Euclid without having heard of Euclid; but he would not work out the precise legend of Eurydice without having heard of Eurydice. At any rate he would not be certain how the story would end and whether Orpheus was ultimately defeated. Still less could he guess the end of our story; or the legend of our Orpheus rising, not defeated from the dead.
The Everlasting Man
What is wrong with man? Man is a sinner, and man's sin brings much evil on the world, yet it seems to man that this ought not to be so. As Chesterton says just a bit above the passage just quoted, evil "is the prince of the world, but it is also a usurper."
Contrary to what one might be tempted sometimes to think, what is wrong with man is not that man is not smart enough. Very smart men can be among the most evil, though we should hasten to add, in a Thomist spirit, that such evil men are not following the proper course of Reason itself in discovering and following their own highest good.
My point here, however, is that what is wrong with man is something contingent. It is something that seems to have its origin in a historic rupture (which Christians, knowing the actual story, call the Fall) between what man ought to be and what man actually is. This contingent problem requires a contingent solution. Just as man did not have to sin, God did not have to save. The entire Christian message, the most vital truth in all the world, is a history from beginning to end, and as a history, it cannot be deduced by pure wisdom or pure reason. "The world by wisdom knew not God." That God saves must be revealed. And if it is revealed, that revelation must come with some sign or signs that allow us to know that it is a true revelation. Those signs will take place at particular points in time and will require particular witnesses, aka preachers. St. Paul again: "How shall they hear without a preacher?...As it is written, how beautiful are the feet of them that...bring glad tidings of good things." (Romans 10:14-15)
The salvation of man, then, cannot be attained or even known to be possible in the real world by a priori philosophy but must be known by revelation in history proclaimed by agents on the earth. This process of making known is what St. Paul calls the "foolishness of preaching."
What this means for philosophical types is that when we are doing Christian theology and/or apologetics we must get over any preference we have for purely a priori arguments. I am not here saying that there is nothing to be said for any of the a priori arguments for the existence of God. What I am saying is that Christianity (and, before Christianity, God's revelation of Himself in Judaism) really leaves very little space for the thesis that such arguments are better than reasons based on the messy contingencies of real history. "I am the Lord your God which brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage," begins God when he addresses His people Israel. Not "I am the necessary First Cause" or "I am the Being than which none greater can be conceived."
We may feel that historical reasons are shaky and uncertain and that a priori reasoning is preferable, more solid, more sure and certain. That's all well and good if we're talking about mathematics, but when it comes to applying the preference to theology, God apparently doesn't agree.
Not to be unclear: Of course the God who brought Israel up out of the land of Egypt and who sent His Son to be Incarnate, to die and rise again, actually is the First Cause and the Perfect Being. I'm not denying that at all. What I am warning against is a preference for non-empirical arguments for His existence and attributes over arguments based on contingent premises about His self-revelation in the real world. Both Scripturally and theologically, it seems that we should have a preference in the opposite direction, if only because a God who is known only as the God of the philosophers is a God who might or might not have actually done anything to save mankind.
Our great cause for gratitude, then, should be that God has not left Himself without witness. God has in fact spoken in the world, telling us who He is, who we are, and how we can be right with Him. It is through the "foolishness" of preaching that message that God will save those who believe in Him. And those who have been called to show the world why the message is deserving of belief are among the evangelists of whom it was spoken, "How beautiful are the feet of them that bring glad tidings."