Paulinian Cannonball-esque Inversions: Or, Damien Rice meets Corinthians

I was reading Paul’s two-part Corinthian correspondance recently. There is something deeply interesting going on in Paul’s thought in both of these letters. We see it very quickly in 1 Cor. 1, where it is said that God’s wisdom and strength is God’s pathea and weakness; power is rooted in weakness – as the weak shame the strong; and people who are absolutely nothing bringing to nothing the things that are etc. This theme is sustained in Paul’s thought as it carries right through to 2 Cor. 11-12, in which Paul (admittedly crazily) “boasts” in his weaknesses, just as those who boast in their strengths in Corinth do; Paul
states he is strong when he is weak; and that “power,”
is ultimately, “made perfect in weakness.”

Paul is trying to articulate a complete inversion as to how a person should interact with reality, that comes across as folly to those Greek philosophers who understand reality in terms of unilateral power, immutability and apatheia (well, lets not just bash those ancient Greeks anymore, I suppose – many Christians could benefit from rereading Paul). The inversion at the heart of all this is one that redefines how God and the world relate to power, and it is centred in no longer understanding power vis-á-vis unilateral, coercive strength and machismo (and/or omnipotence) but fundamentally in terms of and as a weak force.

As I was thinking over this a bit more and listening to some Damien Rice, I thought to myself that ‘Cannonball’ helpfully captures (quite unintentionally I’m sure) something of this Paulinian inversion.

Stones taught me to fly
Love taught me to lie
Life taught me to die
So it’s not hard to fall
When you float like a cannon…

So come on courage
Teach me to be shy…
It’s not hard to grow
When you know that you just don’t know

Damien Rice has elucidated an awful lot of inversions that life (I assume) has thrown his way. Is this a man “boasting” in his weaknesses? Is this what weakness making you strong resembles? Do we here have someone who believes courage is rooted in shyness, as strength (for Paul) is rooted in weakness? Is life teaching a person to die not something like a crucifixion that (apparently) identifies the very life, wisdom and character of God with the suffering of the nothings of the world, which all are then invited to identify with?

Catherine Keller has this to say regarding the Paulinian inversion and redefinition of power,

Paul is straining to give voice to a new idea of incarnational vulnerability: the idea of a God who participates in human flesh, and therefore in all our human sensitivity and pain… The metaphor of “power perfected in weakness” tried to make comprehensible the difficult alternative to coercive force: the contagious influence that flows from a radically vulnerable strength.

This understanding of Paul articulates a rather radical element in his thought, that in turn moves us beyond deeply unbiblical notions of power and strength (not least expressed in the supposed “omnipotence” of God) and moves us into the heart of Christianity, that sees power, God and life as related, existing together and acting upon the world as a contagious, influential, even alluring, weak force.

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