Friday, February 17, 2012

Two Adams: An Answer to Brooks’ “Jeremy Lin Problem”

1 Corinthians 15:42-57;Philippians 2:1-11

In a provocative essay in today’s New York Times, David Brooks raises a spiritual dilemma.  He proposes that humanity lives in a tension between two moral universes.  One is a “sporting ethos,” which pervades and defines all areas of competition.  The “primary virtue is courage – the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.”  The second universe is the spiritual/religious morality that demands self-sacrifice: the last shall be first; the suffering servant is the savior; the weak and disenfranchised embody the most powerful force for change. 

Brooks refers to Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik, who “argues that people have two natures. . . ‘Adam the First,’ the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world. . . . [and] ‘Adam the Second,’ the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper.”  Brooks suggests that the anger people feel when either sports or politics mix with religion rises because we are uncomfortable with both the experience of invincible physical power, and the experience of transcendent self denial.  The anger arises, Brooks says, because “people . . . want to deny that this contradiction exists . . . and live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean.”

If he had ended the piece there, he would have deserved an A+.  Instead he dilutes his challenge with a cop-out: “life and religion are more complicated than that.”

In the Apostle Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, Paul lays out a theology that for centuries has made seminarians’ heads swim, and lay-folk nod off in the pews.  Now comes a new translation by Westar Institute Scholars Arthur J. Dewey, Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt: The Authentic Letters of Paul: A new reading of Paul’s rhetoric and meaning (Polebridge Press, 2010).  This translation pulls Paul’s theology down from the mind-numbing theological stratosphere into the here and now – which according to the scholars was where Paul was in the 1st century – here and now (in his own time and place.)  So when Paul gets going about “sin” and the “perishable” inheriting the “imperishable” he is not talking about going to heaven when we die if and only if we’ve been believers in Jesus’ “resurrection.”  He is talking about the “corrupting seduction of power” [hamartia for any Greeks reading this].  For Paul, this force is so strong that it becomes personified.  Think about how power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  That begins to get at what Paul was referring to. 

He wasn’t talking about the physical decomposition of human bodies after death, that will magically take on new “spiritual” bodies in heaven.  In 1 Cor. 15:45, he was talking about that same first Adam that Brooks does in his essay when he quotes Joseph Soloveitchik: “the part of us that creates, discovers, competes and is involved in building the world.”  The second Adam, according to the Scholars Version, “became a life-creating power . . . the body fit for life in God’s new world.”  The difference is that for Paul, that second Adam (which was Jesus, the Anointed One) is a prototype for how to bring about God’s rule on the planet.  For Paul, it is not enough to be “the spiritual individual who is awed and humbled by the universe as a spectator and a worshipper,” as Brooks (and Soloveitchik) describes the second Adam.  Paul’s second Adam is an activist who accepts that the way to overturn the inevitable injustices that come from the seductive power of corruption is to radically abandon self-interest.

For Christians, Jesus was the person who managed to contain the supposedly conflicting paradigms of 1st Adam (warrior, athlete, competitor, entrepreneur) and 2nd Adam (self-sacrificing servant, pacifist, humanitarian).  In his letter to the Philippians, Paul says, “I appeal to all of you to think in the same way that the Anointed Jesus did, who although he was born in the image of God, did not regard ‘being like God’ as something to use for his own advantage, but rid himself of such vain pretension and accepted a servant’s lot.”  Jesus was willing to go all the way to death at the hands of the representatives of the “first Adam,” who constructed the systems of Empire, and fell prey to the seductions of earthly power.  That is why – in 1st century Paul’s cosmology – “God raised him higher than anyone and awarded him the title that is above all others. . . Jesus the Anointed is lord. . . .”  small “l” – not a titan of Wall Street, not the Hollywood star, and not the emperor of the known universe.  An executed criminal is the model for how to save humanity from itself.

This is what is so annoying – even enraging – about combining politics or sports or business with religious or spiritual conviction.  That second Adam insists on distributive justice-compassion for the universe s/he holds in awe and wonder.  The problem is that for the work to be legitimate requires a radical abandonment of self-interest.  Like Mr. Lin, most of us have a hard time getting past that old devil hamartia.

No comments:

Post a Comment