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Mellencamp Theology

In the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, the Apostle writes, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor 13:11-12). Unto itself, it is a beautiful passage, echoing through time and culture, but, indeed, the entire thirteenth chapter is something of a masterpiece of poetical prose – its imagery and rhythms, its fearlessness, the depth of its introspection, the universality in which as readers we find something of ourselves. Its description of Love, for example, I wish really could form the entire basis of religion: “Love is patient, love is kind” writes St. Paul. “It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud” (1 Cor 13:4). These phrases are read at weddings and funerals, perhaps appropriately, but I can’t help but feel that something of the larger comment is lost when I see 1 Corinthians crocheted onto potpourri pillows – living a life that is of love is surely more difficult to do and understand than that sort of empty enthusiasm and cheerleading theology suggests. And likewise, we forget in the beauty of the passages the mind of St. Paul, the extraordinary intimacy into which we step, telling us that he has put away his childish things and that now, when he looks into a mirror, it is not clarity that is reflected.

St. Paul creates for us a hierarchy, placing Love famously above hope and faith – not to their exclusion, I should add; it is almost to the near-nihilistic extremes of Ecclesiastes that St. Paul brushes away everything except Love, saying: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2). The nothingness that St. Paul’s lovelessness becomes is the same ultimate nothingness that Christian apologists see in a universe without God to author the laws of logic and morality – it is a nothingless that contains prophecy, unraveled mysteries, all knowledge, and faith and likewise, a nothingness that might contain all sorts of temporal, finite, agreed upon moral agreements, but it is ultimately nothingness. It is interesting to me that Christian apologists see that nothingness as a fiction, sometimes believed in, but certainly never an actuality since, after all, in their arguments – or, as they would say with prepositional idiosyncrasy – on their arguments, God really did author the rules of logic and morality – there is always somethingness. But, St. Paul seems to think differently of nothingness – it is not an erroneous description of reality, competing with Christianity, but an actual possibility – sometimes, there is really is nothingness and no somethingness – that could consume us if we do not have Love, a nothingness that is not competing with Christianity, but participating within Christianity’s description and escaped by its prescription.

Love, knowledge, and nothingness cannot, I think, be properly considered without some sense of the story told in time; St. Paul depicts Love as a thing he arrived at in the course of his life, approximating the arrival at Love with maturity and adulthood and while he seems to have escaped nothingness, it is interesting that his knowledge has not increased. He comments that he looks through a “glass, darkly,” a phrase which suggests that he does not have the sort of self-knowledge that we would think comes with wisdom or experience or maturity, but that because he has Love, the somethingness that he has become is more than the nothingness that he was, the child that he was, even if he had had all knowledge. In time, St. Paul’s story is one that points from birth towards the future and towards Love and from Love to the eternal – and, although the text does not support it explicitly, I can’t help but image that St. Paul would feel something like shame were he to glance backward into the past and perhaps that is part of the darkness he sees in his own image.

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