Paulianity, Part 6
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 1 Corinthians 13:4,6
For all that I find bothersome about the writings of Paul, I confess that many of his writings are truly inspiring and enlightening. I also confess that the way Paul came to Christ, to enlightenment, or to whatever else we want to call the process of awakening to the intimate presence of God with us, is exactly the way we come to Christ, which is to say indirectly, at least in a physical sense. The first disciples knew Jesus personally, walked with Jesus, sailed with Jesus, shared meals with Jesus, and were intimately in Jesus’ physical presence. Paul was not. Nor are we. Paul came to Jesus by an intense experience of Jesus coming to him. He was not looking for or expecting it. Our experience may or may not be so intense or so immediate. Our experience may be a more subtle calling over an extended time, but one way or another we are called to repent (turn around), to a rebirth, to a restart of our lives in the knowledge of our Oneness with God. Whether we accept the invitation is our choice. Such a rebirth, however, changes everything, even as it changes nothing. It changes our perception of the life around us, even though it changes nothing in the life around us. What it changes is how we see our place in the world, bringing with it a desire to do what we can to improve the conditions around us. This call to action is not an obligation so much as a grateful response to the realization that we live in a loving, interrelated universe where our lives are inseparably intertwined with all other lives. We realize that if the world is to be better it is up to us to make it so. Once we so commit, other powers from heaven and earth align beside us to help.
20th Century theologian Bernard Lonergan is quoted as saying, “Religion should be more like falling in love than proving anything.” Paul seems desperately to want to prove the truth of the gospel using reason and logic. He argues with passion and agonizing persistence. And then Paul, almost as if by accident, gives us a gift. He expresses a truth so deep in such simple, straight-forward language that we are halted, breathless in our tracks. Such is his “love chapter” in 1 Corinthians, chapter 13. Such are his “fruits” of the spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) found in Galatians 5:22. Such is his brilliant metaphor of our interrelatedness as individual parts of a single body, found throughout his writings. It is as if Paul tries desperately to prove the truth of the gospel when, in a moment of clarity, a beautiful gospel truth emerges from his words. It is like falling in love – unexpected, intense, and all-consuming. We are connected to a truth deep within, a higher self beyond our thoughts and actions, and a potential within waiting to arise. By confessing his own dire shortcomings, Paul claims his divine heritage. In the process he creates a safe place for us to acknowledge our shortcomings, even as we also claim our divine heritage. We know what love is, we know how we should treat others, we know God is always with us, even though our actions do not always reflect that knowledge Deep down, we know who we are and whose we are.
When we fall in love our world expands. We are vastly more accepting of the shortcomings of others and disappointments in life because we have entered an experience that transcends our petty frustrations. We when focus on trivial details our world shrinks and we find ourselves unable to give or receive much of anything. Such can be true of reading the letters of Paul, at least for me. I must rise above the seemingly petty frustrations he spells out in such excruciating detail in order to arrive at the pearls of great price interspersed throughout his writings.
And this is my frustration with Paulianity – that some Christians prefer to contract into the petty details of Paul’s teachings without expanding from them into his enlightening, freeing, and loving conclusions. One can make the gospel sound bigoted, exclusive, and small by doing so. In that sense, Paulianity does a disservice to Paul and to Christianity, even as it turns away those seeking after the spiritual guidance it was intended to provide.
This is the 45th in the series of Life Notes titled Churchianity vs Christianity. I invite your thoughts, insights, and feedback via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through my website, www.ContemplatingGrace.com. At the website, you can also sign up to have these reflections delivered to your Inbox every Thursday morning and browse the archives of my Life Notes, Podcasts, music, books, and other musings.