Christ & the End of Meaning, Paul Hessert: Chapter Two

This post is a continuation of a previous post on Christ and the End of Meaning by Paul Hessert.

In Chapter one Hessert laid out the basic idea of his book: much of Christianity agrees with the culture's primary task, the search for and maintenance of meaning and power. He also describes the basic structure within which this search for meaning and power functions.

Chapter two assumes this cultural structure and asks how faith exists in relation to it. It is helpful to remember Hessert's definition of faith is not the same as what most of us might think of when we hear or read the word faith. At this point, Hessert hasn't introduced us to this definition directly. Before we get to that and as an introduction to my first post in this series I wrote,

If faith is a deficient way of knowing, a kind of believing that surrenders reason to make-believe, then I am afraid I cannot be a Christian. If, however, faith defines a way of being, a stance toward reality that sees it clearly for what it is, then it is possible that I might strive to be faithful—a "faither" has Paul Hessert puts it. All the better if that faith sees the reality of our human situation more clearly than other ways of being and knowing.

Hessert argues that the unique meaning of "faith" has been conflated with the ambiguous meaning of "to believe" in its translation from New Testament Greek to English.

Signs and Wisdom

Hessert begins chapter two with a passage from the Apostle Paul that, Hessert argues, "distinguishes the Christian Gospel from from two characteristic religious outlooks of [Paul's] age." The quote comes from 1 Corinthians 1:22-35. Hessert explains that coming to terms with this passage is the most important purpose of his book. He argues that the passage "brings into focus the break with the cultural structure" that is a part of what it is to be a follower of Christ (18).

In the passage Paul distinguishes the proclamation of the crucified Christ from two religious outlooks, one "of the Jews" and the other "of the Greeks." To modern ears this sounds discriminatory or even offensive. To those concerned with supersessionism and antisemitism it may be particularly concerning. However, Paul is not interested in setting cultural groups against each other, nor with replacing one group with another. Instead, as Hessert will argue, he aims to challenge the cultural structure through which these two religious outlooks—outlooks that still function today—understand reality.

For the sake of clarity and in an effort to respect the Apostle Paul and Paul Hessert, while also avoiding the possible supersessionist and/or racist connotations of "Jews/Greeks", I will replace "of the Jews" with Outlook X(Jews) and "of the Greeks" with Outlook Y(Greek). Here I attempting to maintain the author's meaning while also retaining his words. Outlook X corresponds to what Paul calls the demand for signs. Outlook Y corresponds to the search for wisdom.


  • Outlook X(Jews) = Signs
  • Outlook Y(Greek) = Wisdom

Outlook X(Jews) – Demanding Signs

As I have already touched on, those who demand signs of divine favor, labeled by Paul as "the Jews," are not confined to the people of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, and certainly not modern Rabbinic Jews. Indeed, Hessert points out that this outlook is perhaps most dominantly held "among certain contemporary Christians" (19). The particular people is not important, however. The outlook is the thing.

A sign, in this sense, is simply an event that is interpreted as a manifestation of divine power in favor of the search for meaning of a certain group that otherwise does not have the power to manifest such meaning in time. A perfect contemporary example of this kind of thinking is the reaction to Hurricane Katrina among various groups in the United States and worldwide." The linked article includes views from the mayor of New Orleans, an ultra-Orthodox Israeli rabbi, terrorist organization Al-Qaeda, Christian minister Louis Farrakhan, a Roman Catholic auxiliary bishop, and Evangelical Christian Pat Robertson. The outlook clearly is not limited to one group or ethnicity, but stems from anyone seeking divine confirmation of their particular reading of meaning in the world.

Paul argues, for all these groups the preaching of "Christ crucified" is a stumbling block. Hessert explains that the crucifixion of Christ cannot be a sign in the positive sense. It is not a "self-manifesting act of God confirming our values" but "can only be an unfortunate event." To be a positive sign for those seeking God's approval, Jesus would have had to have been delivered from condemnation and death at the hands of Roman authorities. "Christ crucified" may be a negative sign, a confirmation of God's curse: Jesus, who was crucified, was not the Christ. To preach that Jesus was crucified but remains Christ is counter to the circle of reality that searches for meaning in signs. As Hessert writes, "Preaching 'Christ crucified' is not saying merely that bad things happen to good people but that God's approach to us belies our expectations—in fact, is manifest in the very contradiction of our experiences" (20-21).

Hessert also points out that there is a difference between explaining the historical event of Jesus' crucifixion and the preaching of "Christ crucified." That Jesus was crucified at the hands of Roman authorities, that he was a good man, a friend to the poor, an enemy of injustice, and that he was misunderstood and killed may move one to sadness or the determination to be with the poor and oppressed as Jesus was. But to hear the preaching of "Christ crucified" and to react to it with faith is to take part in contradiction—even paradox. "Christ crucified" does not invite one to respond with preconceived understandings provided for us by our society and its search for meaning. To these preconceptions "Christ crucified" is offensive, an obstacle, a stumbling block, because it condemns the search for meaning through signs. "For faith, however, Jesus' crucifixion manifests Christ crucified, and Christ crucified become a judgement on our circle of reality" (21).

Outlook Y(Greek) – Searching for Wisdom

Outlook Y(Greek), is simply the search for "the overall rational pattern in which everything can 'make sense' for us" (21). This is the quest for meaning not contained within any discrete event, but for ultimate meaning—the meaning that provides a key to everything else (22).

This meaning is understood by the intellect and is held to be unapproachable by anything except the perfection of the rational mind. With outlook, God is seen as most perfect Mind and the source of all rational order. An event itself as it relates to the future is less important than the act of bringing our intellect to events, which gives us a perspective on them. Every event, everything that exists is an extension of the mind of God and is reconcilable as part of the ordained order of things. That is, if one has the wisdom to see it as such.

The preaching of "Christ crucified," more than a simple description of an event, carries a contradiction. The search for wisdom would reconcile this contradiction as a part of God's plan. To preach "Christ crucified," however, focuses on on this contradiction as the object of faith and as a denial of the idea that "the manifestation of God fulfills the quest for rationality and order" (22).


Outlook X(Jews) seeks to confirm the presence of god through the seeing of signs. These signs are possessed by the seer as a sign of God's special favor on them or their group (24-25). Outook Y(Greek) seeks knowledge of God by decoding hidden meaning in the physical world. The ideal is abstracted away from the physical world (the "is," or "existence") into the abstract ideal (the "ought-to-be" or "essence"). To gain this special knowledge is to know the mind of God, the Ultimate Mind that binds the whole world together in meaning. For Outlook Y, God is not present through signs, but known by them. This is typified by the gnostic (Greek: gnostikos, "learned" / Arabic: gnōsis, knowledge) outlook the early church fought hard against, and which is so popular now amongst popular religious commenters such as Elaine Pagels (25-26).

But Christ crucified denies both of these outlooks. As Hessert says, "'Christ crucified' is the absence of that divine confirmation of human values which seeing seeks and the absence of that rational coherence which knowing seeks." Christ crucified is not seen or known, but faithed (26).

The Uniqueness of "Faith"

Hessert argues that the Greek word πιστις (pi'stis), often translated into English as "believe" is crucial to understanding Christianity as a whole. He writes,

"In New Testament Greek, "faith" is both a noun and a verb. English lacks a special verb to translate 'faith' and so uses 'believe' instead. But the English 'believe' carries a very different nuance of meaning. Of the many things that conceivably could be known, some we definitely know, some we definitely do not know, and of others we are not certain. Uncertainty is not the same as not knowing, however, for although we may not know, we may have very good reason to 'believe' that something is or is not the case, and here 'knowing' and 'believing' function the same: I turn down the road I know goes to Franklin Forks or that I believe goes to Franklin Forks. We often speak of this latter situation as 'taking it on faith.'" (27)

The conflation of "faith" and this popular usage of "believe" leads to a misunderstanding of the "faith" referred to by Paul specifically and the New Testament generally." The "faith" Paul speaks of is not to be understood as a way of knowing, but as a specific relationship (or posture toward) "Christ crucified." In this case, "faith" ought to be approached through the verb form, what Hessert coins in English as "to faith" (27).

"To faith." The verb transforms our entire idea of what it means to be a Christian. Hessert goes so far as to argue that to qualify faith with the adjective "Christian" is redundancy, because the verb form of "faith" implies a unique relationship communicated by Christianity and the Gospel. Indeed, whether one is Christian, Buddhist, or Muslim in the cultural sense is beside the point. Rather, the existential stance of faith, in relationship to the divine, the world, and the other is the content of "faith." Faith does not claim signs, or propound a certain secret knowledge, but instead faiths a relationship with "Christ crucified" (28).

Hessert explains the content of faith like this: "'Faithing' is a willingness to live without the control and understanding (the 'power' and 'meaning') that the relationships of seeing and knowing provide." God is manifest in "Christ crucified" but is unable to be seen or known, only faithed. To live this way is to live without the reassurances that power and wisdom provide. "Christ crucified" contradicts the expectation that we will be granted a sign or come to understand a hidden, unifying wisdom (28).

Hessert admits that conceivably the repudiation of power and meaning could be expressed in other ways than "Christ crucified"[^1] but argues that the Christian tradition does not provide other expressions. However it is expressed, it is important that it tells us "that God must be found in the absence of power and in the absence of meaning" (29).

Criteria of Faith

Hessert concludes his second chapter discussing the criteria of faith. What checks are available to us to measure faith, not as belief, but as a new posture toward Christ crucified? Hessert provides two positive checks, one objective and one subjective, and two negative reactions to Christ crucified, unbelief/unfaith and make-believe.

Objective Faith

To be confirmed objectively, Hessert argues, faith must have made a break with striving after signs or seeking knowledge. Genuine faith lives without power over the future granted by the structure of meaning offered up by culture. And this objective reality is confirmed experientially by the individual in what one's faith responds to and what it affirms (30-31).

Subjective Faith

The subjective criteria of faith also lies in a break with the status quo. Human individuals are normally oriented toward self-interest both as individuals and as individuals with a self-interest in maintenance of culture. Faith, says Hessert, changes this orientation away from self-interest and orients an individual toward a relationship with God. This form of this relationship, according to Hessert, is contained by son-ship and daughter-ship, while a relationship toward meaning is contained by an illusion to slavery. In other words, as a son or daughter and not as a simple child, one stands with a posture toward God characterized by maturity, confidence that God loves oneself as God loved Christ, and by trust. Importantly, this relationship does not strive or seek for power, but remains open to receiving the gifts of the Spirit (32-33).

Unbelief/Unfaith and Make-believe

Finally unfaith and make-belive. Unfaith, interestingly, also rejects signs and wisdom, but rather than faithing, instead chooses the despair of death as giving ultimate meaning to life. Socially, the outcome here is a philosophical and practical nihilism that justifies every action by the lack of any sign from above, and the meaninglessness of any human action in a universe without order. Make-believe, on the other hand, abandons reality entirely and collapses into positivism, superstition, and feel-good platitudes based on nothing (34-35).

Faith, meanwhile, does not seek signs, strive after wisdom, nihilistically embrace death, nor does it rush past pain into make-believe. Like a ballerina moving on point[^2], faith remains suspended, existing with a strange confidence in the new identity given to the faither (35).

  • [^1]: Hessert suggests "Holocaust" in the Jewish tradition.
  • [^2]: A Kierkegaardian metaphor