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Athena Sermon

Sermon (Job / I Cor 1) October, 2014


This term we are looking at some of the Olympian gods, or more specifically, looking at Christian belief through the lens of the Olympian gods.  Everyone knows, of course, that the Olympians are the sociopathic family from Mount Olympus, who live on a diet of tinned rice pudding and divinely supercharged Red Bull and – and not surprisingly the Olympians have (literally) titanic anger management issues.  So what on earth can they tell us about Christianity?  The point is not to follow the flood of recent literature about the wisdom of the Greeks, but to look at that wisdom through the lens of Christian scripture.


This evening, we are looking in particular at Athena.  Athena is the devious, warmongering, racial xenophobe who’s become associated with Wisdom.  And at the beginning of a new academic year and for many – your first term at Cambridge, what better place to begin than with the goddess of Wisdom.  Athena, divine patron of Athens – which probably explains her links with wisdom and philosophy, as well as her patronage of state-sanctioned war: she is the hater of Troy, helper of Odysseus and Achilles, violent, deceptive – the goddess of wisdom!  


The earliest literature we have are in the writings of eight century bc poet, Homer.  His two major works, the Iliad and the Odyssey, taken together pedal the dual ideology of city states.  Successful War and a successful household.  The Iliad is the story of Greek city states uniting to do and do war with the city of Troy, and the Odyssey is the story of one hero’s attempt to return home from Troy.  In the Iliad, Athena deceives Hector into accepting a fair duel with Brad Pitt – and then she cheats, by ganging up with Brad Pitt against Hector: her cheating is the only reason Achilles has become seen as the archetypal warrior.  In the Odyssey, Athena guides Sean Bean home from Troy, so he can rebuild his happy, stable household by butchering those terrible people who think that because he’s not been seen since he went to war 20 years earlier, were assuming he was dead.


The Iliad concerns questions of how to conduct yourself in war; the Odyssey paints a picture of what it means to belong to a household, an oikos, the social glue that kept Greek society together.  War and Economics, Foreign policy and Domestic policy, in Roman language, Mars and Venus, in biblical language, the beast and the whore, the Ilyiad and the Odyssey.  And Athena plays arguably the most significant role in both these works, and it is in these works there is a type of wisdom that is peddled ferociously.  It is the wisdom of the city state, an ideology conducive to the running of an empire.  It is the wisdom of the winners, the expansionists, the privileged.  The ideology that simmers through Homer’s writings could not be more different from the driving force of Christian scripture.  


Both serve as mythologies – not myth in the sense that these are fairy tales that never happened, but myths as ideologies that instill deep inside you a sense of your place in the cosmic hierarchy.  In Homer, if you’re a slave, then you do not question those above you in the celestial pecking order – be they freemen, nobles, kings, or gods.  In Christian Scripture, that is precisely the cosmic hierarchy that comes under relentless and sustained assault – since it is not only kings, but every human being that is made in the image of God.


The authors of the Biblical texts were usually writing for a people buffetted between the great warring empires – and by the time of the New Testament, there is a deeply subversive, anti-imperial strand that characterises many of the texts.  Whatever we find in scripture, it is not wisdom – because you can pop out any high-sounding, self-contradictory gem of received truth and call it wisdom.


Wisdom does not get a good press in the Christian bible.  In fact, the bible is pretty much against wisdom because wisdom suggests a fixed body of truth that doesn’t exist, wisdom suggests a timeless set of concrete facts in a universe that is in flux.  Yes, there is a whole genre in the bible that we call Wisdom literature, the authors who wrote it did not finish their work, stroke their beards and say, “I think I’ll call that, Wisdom literature.”  A lot of it, in any case, amounts to advice like “the wise man never ties his shoe laces in revolving doors.”  And yes, of course, there are people we might consider wise – but not this static body of truth called “Wisdom.”  In fact, the book of Job which we heard, is from this genre of wisdom literature.


You know the story of Job.  God is very happy with Job, so the devil approaches God and says, ok – if Job is so great, give me permission to mess his life up, because when I do that, he is bound to curse you.  And God says, OK, help yourself – but don’t kill him.  So all these horrible and attrocious things happen to Job.  He loses his sheep, his chickens, his wife… it comes in that order!


And in the midst of his misery, he has three friends who approach him armed with Wisdom.  That is, each of them offers him a tidy formula to give meaning to his suffering: the first one says, oh, god punished you so you must have done something wrong – even if you don’t know what it is, so go and have a good long look in the mirror.  The second one says, you have sinned – so cause and effect – now you suffer. The third one says, Oh God must be testing you so just take it for what it is.


And Job rejects it all, he rejects every attempt to put some kind of a comforting label upon his suffering and instead he just sees it as suffering because that is what the world is – there is no equilibrium, or stability.  He just ignores his friends and refuses to curse God.  In other words, we see Job rejecting wisdom.  

And at the end of the book, God speaks directly to Job, and says – well done for not listening to the wisdom of your friends.  They were stupid – you were right, there is no deeper meaning to suffering.


And then comes this passage that we heard – where were you when I created… Now the way that is usually read is this: Job should be humble, because he wasn’t present when God created everything, so – wind your neck in Job, and don’t be obnoxious because I know everything and have always known everything.  But this is not a great way to read the text.  A far more satisfying view is the one offered by G.K.Chesteron – that God turns round and says – You think your life is a catastrophe?  You should have been there at the beginning – the creation was a celestial catastrophe: I created a mess out of everything!  This is a world of radical instability, and uncertainty, insecurity.


(Yes, I know that the creation story of genesis is usually told as a nice tidy order-out-of-chaos story, but I think that is also a mis-reading of the text, although that’s a question for another day.)


No – God says that in this world of flux, and chaos, and upheaval and unfairness and evil and death, there is no stability, there is no safe place to stand, there is no objective concrete body of timeless godly wisdom.  Instead, says God, there is me.  And of course, as the story of scripture unfolds, believers are invited to encounter this god in particular ways.  Always and invariably, Christian theology is not a body of correct truths or received wisdom – no absolute, eternal principles or values or foundations.  Instead – there is only this God as revealed in Jesus Christ, and if there is such a thing as wisdom then it comes only in dynamic encounter with this Christ as a pure event.  This is the point of the New Testament reading – confronted with wisdom, Saint Paul and his friends declare that the key to making sense of the world, and finding our place within it, is to build our lives around a failed, publically humiliated political criminal.  


That sounds disturbingly radical, and unstable – when of course, in a universe of chaos, we want to feel secure about where and who we are.  But that is the role of wisdom.  The Bible refuses to provide that.  Adam and Eve grasped after wisdom when they grasped at the knowledge of good and evil, and looking then at the world through the received wisdom from the serpent, they end up withdrawing from one another behind fig leaves and withdrawing from God, who had to go looking for them.  Anyone with an apple computer sees the apple has a bite taken from it, the knowledge of good and evil, the quest for wisdom…

No – the bible refuses to provide this thing called wisdom.


It is not only Steve Jobs, but Homer too gives us wisdom in bucket loads.  In Ilyad and Odyssey, in war and in domestic life, we are exhorted to know our place in the universe.  When the historian herodotus tells us of the significance of these two works in Greek society, they clearly carry the same weight as does the bible in Christian circles.  There is an ideology that is drilled into the cultural psyche, a Wisdom in other words, that is a received Wisdom.  That wisdom, as you will hear from me throughout the term, is that you should know your place in the cosmic hierarchy, that you should know your limits and think yourself no more or no less than you really are.  Seen in this light, Christianity is a monstrous distortion, a destabilising abberation, an anti wisdom.  As we approach Christmas, the liberating nature of this anti-wisdom should come into sharper focus.