Irrational Exuberance

Allow me to go directly to the heart of the matter:  At the core of the Christian faith is an irrational exuberance--a sense of profound goodness that defies human cognition.  For example, the Bible is full of fantastic stories that boggle the mind and stir the heart; and as people of faith we consider them to be true.  When you think about it, you can't help but chuckle to yourself at the thought of Lot's wife turning into a pillar of salt or Jonah being swallowed up whole by a whale--and living to tell the story!  I mean it is somewhat of a crazy thought--foolish even--that as Christians we believe in a Supreme Being that we cannot see or touch or smell.  And yet, because of our belief in the unseen, we are happy.

As a young black American raised on the ghetto streets of Buffalo, New York, amidst crack cocaine houses and drive-by shootings, I can't help but acknowledge how nonsensical it is for me to appear on Day1 alongside so many homiletical luminaries.  Logic would seem to deny the chain of events that have lifted me from rather simple beginnings to now be a pastor and an Ivy League student.  There is a certain irrationality about these things.  It defies the apparent laws of nature, the so-called ways of the world.  But, indeed, I count it as a blessing--not a result of my merit but of God's grace, not by my might but indeed a product of God's power.  And thus, I am exuberant today.  As they say in my church tradition, I am "happy glad" because things could have been much different. 

Yes, I am increasingly persuaded that the Good News is the Power of the Cross; and when we try to be too smart and too wise in the ways of the world, then we crucify our faith.  Though eloquent words and the sound reason of human wisdom tend to impress the mind, true wisdom begins in the fear of the Lord, says Proverbs (1:7).  These words--the Word of God--press much deeper into the inward most parts of the soul.  They get inside of you...under your skin, and they begin to move.  This feeling may come in the form of your favorite hymn or verse of Holy Scripture or the voice of a loved one or friend, and it causes your heart to become glad.  And when the Spirit of God begins to blow within your spirit, in a way, you lose control.  The Bible tells us that when the Spirit came upon King David that he began to dance...and to dance in a most undignified way (cf. 2 Samuel 6:14-23).  The Prophet Ezekiel instructs us that when the Spirit of the Living God blew through the Valley of the Dry Bones, the old, rusty and dusty skeletons took on newness and began to get up and to prophesy again (cf. Ezekiel 37).  Indeed, when the Spirit of the Lord filled the temple of the Most High God during the reign of King Solomon, we are told that everything just had to cease.  Because the people were so overfilled with joy, the priests could not perform their work, the musicians could not play on their harps and lyres, the preacher could not preach because the glory of the Lord had filled the place (cf. 2 Chronicles 5).

And to the observer, these things undoubtedly appeared absolutely ridiculous.  It was an irrational exuberance.  Indeed, it looked like utter foolishness....Particularly in this day and age when our technological capacity and knowledge of science expands exponentially each day, it too seems like utter foolishness that there still are people of faith.  You see, for those who are perishing without the hope of Christ's salvation, our exuberant praise seems unruly and unreasonable.

In our reading from Corinthians, Paul writes about the divisions of the church, arguing that bickering over allegiance to different leaders of the early Church should not be grounds for discord.  He asks rhetorically, "Is Christ divided?"  Thus Paul forcefully contends that because Christ is united, there must be unity among Christians.  And he spends the remainder of his exhortation explaining that as long as Christians focus on human associations and alliances, deriving their happiness from human wisdom and scholarship and the fame that it brings, then the point and the power of the Gospel is lost. 

Now, there is a quite a bit going on in our reading, so I will only touch on just a couple of points.  First, Sophia--"Lady Wisdom" (cf. Proverbs 1-9)--is explained to have different forms.  She manifests herself both in a lesser and a greater sense, human and divine.  And human wisdom, which may be selfish and carnal, is juxtaposed against the wisdom of God, which is always peace-loving, merciful and sincere (cf. James 3:13-18). 

Second, Paul writes that as Christians we are called to preach the Good News, not the news that results from human wisdom.  Paul says that you can preach words of human wisdom if you want, but it if you do, this declaration will lack power.  You will be speaking, but the words will be empty.  They will be heard, but not received.  They will fall on the rocky and unfertile soils of the hearers' ears because, though well-reasoned, the words are unpersuasive (cf Matthew 13:1-23).  Within them lies a cognitive propensity, but nothing that speaks to the soul.  You see, when sickness and death, heart-break and emotional helplessness come into your life, carefully turned phrases and well-structured sentences just won't do.  Augustine's restless heart cannot find rest until it is united with the wisdom of Christ, and it is only then within the bosom of God's knowledge that we can find true rest (The Confessions).

But, in fact, this power is called foolishness and scandal because the world order as we know it is turned upside down.  And this scandal is far more exhilarating than anything you can read in the "National Inquirer" or see on Fox News.  Indeed the Gospel is folly because Christ empties his divine self and takes human form so that we might rise above human frailties and participate in the kin-dom of God (Philippians 2:6-11).  And it does not matter how well-educated or how small in status, Christ cuts across all and invites all to join His body.  Through Christ's self-emptying, we become full of the Spirit of the Living God.  

But, in a way, foolish things are not always what they're cracked up to be.  Indeed we do not call it foolishness for no reason--and it seems that Paul's use of hyperbole is instructive too.  During the tech boom and bull market of the 1990s, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, described extraordinary faith in the financial system as "irrational exuberance".[1]  He coined this now popular phrase to suggest that the speculation and confidence in the rising stock prices and incredible returns was unmerited and groundless.  And true to Greenspan's warning, the dot-com bubble would burst, and the stock market took a tumble.  Indeed, there was too much excitement and happiness and the system could not contain all this joy.

The Great Recession 2008 and '09 continues to demonstrate that excess is dangerous indeed.  Faith and confidence is one thing, but if the scales become too off-balanced with greed and hoarding, then the bottom will eventually fall out from under us and we will all suffer.

Indeed a Christian faith built upon an irrational exuberance, too, will bottom out.  When the storms of life rage, if our hope is built upon smiles and giggles, then this feel-good faith will certainly pass away.  You see, although we are warned against taking our human wisdom too far, Paul makes clear that wisdom is a gift from God and must be received as such.  Thus, we use our reason and cognition as a means of understanding our faith.  In all my studies, I have yet to come across a place in the Bible that calls us to dumb faith or for us to be stupid Christians.  But neither can our heads become so haughty that we forget the source of our strength--God enfleshed in Christ Jesus and enlivened by the Holy Spirit.

In a way, it seems to me then that the Great Recession in Christendom might teach our churches something else.  Perhaps mainline Christianity in the United States is in such steady decline because we too have become too caught up in the excesses of our own denominations and local church politics, and in turn have forgotten about our primary task: to preach the gospel and to honor God by serving the least and the lost. Has the Body of Christ, as Paul feared, become so divided among ourselves that we have forgotten that Christ unites all things?

So, in the end, brothers and sisters, I find the autobiographical words of David Read--former pastor of New York's Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church to be quite correct: God Was in the Laughter.[2]  Though our faith is perhaps the most serious thing in life--the place where we wrestle with Paul Tillich's "ground of being" and Karl Barth's "wholly other"--we cannot help but acknowledge how little we actually know about the meaning of ultimate reality.  Though we can be sure that God exists, we cannot say how or why.  No matter how we strive, it is impossible for us to know truly the mind of God.  But just the same, we should not stop trying.  David Hume's empirical skepticism, Kant's categorical imperatives,  Hegel's Absolute, Freud's psychoanalysis, even Nietzsche's Zarathustra get us somewhere--if only to know that we are farther away than when we first began.  We need only to remind ourselves day-in and day-out that our pursuit of knowledge and truth is a partial project.  "Our ways are not God's ways, our thoughts are not God's thoughts...."  Yes, the prophet Isaiah is correct:  "No eyes have seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love the Lord" (Isaiah 64:4).

But I believe God delights in our trying.  Yep, God is in the laughter.  Paul is correct when he says, "God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe" (1 Corinthians 1:21).  In a world that is caught up in a simultaneous process of perishing and being saved, what else can we do but wrestle in the gray spaces that are betwixt and between where we are and where we want to be.  No, we are not already saved, but as Paul reminds us: we are being saved...we are in process..."not that we have already attained it...but we press toward the mark," he says to the churches at Philippi (cf. 3:12-14).

It's a foolish proposition I will admit.  In general, Christians are crazy, and the Preacher-Scholar in particular is called to a near comical place...neither here nor there.  We are caught somewhere in-between irrational exuberance and exuberant rationality.  Never exuberantly irrational such that we dumb-down our faith.  And neither do we preach a message that is rationally exuberant and tries to conform to the ways of the world.  Because our happiness cannot be contained.  No, "The message of the cross is foolishness".  Rather, what we can do is to live in the tension between what appears as folly and what appears to be wisdom.  In other words, we preach Good News intelligibly.  If in fact the wisdom of God is greater than human wisdom, then God's wisdom expressed in spiritual forms should make sense....we may not be able to plumb its depths, but it ought not insult the intelligence either.

Finally, then, as Paul reminds us at the close of chapter 1, invoking the prophet Jeremiah, "Let not the wise one boast of wisdom or the strong one boast of strength or the rich man of riches.  But let the one who boasts boast of the Lord" (Jeremiah 9:23-24).

So I boast today because I am happy...yes, I am fact, I am exuberant--irrationally so because "God is not a man that he should lie" but God's Word is true...a strong foundation on which we might build our faith.

Yes, I boast today because I am happy...yes, I am fact, I am exuberant--irrationally so because God chose the weak things of the world to lift up. 

Yes, I boast today because I am happy...yes I am fact, I am exuberant--irrationally so because God sent God's Son Jesus Christ to take upon himself the pains of the whole wide world.  I'm so glad that we have a friend in Jesus, today.

Yes, I boast today because I am happy...yes I am fact, I am exuberant--irrationally so because Christ came to be a friend to the friendless and a mother to the motherless. 

Yes, I boast today because I am happy...yes I am fact, I am exuberant--irrationally so because Christ says to the wounded that I am your healer and your way-maker.  To the lonely, he says I am Emmanuel, God With Us.  To the one who is in trouble, he is an Advocate. 

So, in the end, what do we make of all this?  What do we do?  Well, quite simply...quite logically...and at the same time, quite irrationally: we laugh and enjoy life...and we smile.

Let us pray:  God grant us the wisdom of your Spirit to seek after your face and the joy of your Spirit to delight in your love.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1]Alan Greenspan, "The Challenge of Central Banking in a Democratic Society", 5 December 1996,

[2] God Was In the Laughter: The Autobiography of David Haxton Carswell Read (New York: Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, 2005).