Day 6: 1 Corinthians 1–2

In a nutshell: Paul builds an argument for unity based on the “foolishness” of God, which trumps human wisdom.

Some of Chloe’s people have told me, my friends, that you are divided into factions. I put it this way because you are all saying, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollo,” or “I follow Peter,” or “I follow the Anointed.” The Anointed is not divided, is he? Paul was not crucified for you, was he? Nor were you baptized in the name of Paul, were you?
—1 Corinthians 1:11–13

I’ve posted some entries early for the (US) holiday weekend. This reading is for the 6th of July.

Myth, War, and Civilization: An Interlude

“The urge to reinvent one’s moral and physical universe through travel is so common that some students of trauma think it might be biological” (75), writes David J. Morris in his biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, The Evil Hours. In a moving reading of The Odyssey fostered by his own experiences with PTSD, this veteran Marine observes, “It is less the enigma of survival at stake in The Odyssey than the enigma of homecoming, the frustrated transit between worlds: the world of savage, warring nature and the world of civilization” (74). To Morris, war is “mostly myth, ancient ideas and dreams handed down to us by our fathers, stories we live out unknowingly, often having no idea of the invisible stories and archetypes that guide us from day to day” (76).

What a beautiful description of the constellation of myth, war, and civilization to guide us into our third letter of Paul, 1 Corinthians. I’ve mentioned previously that Paul is using the language of war to convey his “world-transforming message.” He talks of Jesus like a rival king (or emperor). He also speaks of the communities who “belong” to Jesus the way an army would rally behind an inspiring leader. Reading Morris, I can’t help but recall Paul’s rude entry into this cosmic war:

Surely you’ve heard of my own behavior as a practicing Jew, how aggressively I harassed God’s new community, trying to wipe it out. …

However, when the One, who designated me before I was born and commissioned me to be an envoy, surprising all human expectations, chose to make his son known through me with the intent that I would proclaim God’s world-transforming news to the nations, I did not rush off to consult with anyone. Neither did I set out for Jerusalem to get the approval of those who became envoys for God’s Anointed before I did. Instead, I left for Arabia and afterward returned to Damascus. (Gal 1:13, 15–17)

Claudius vanquishing Britannia
Elaine Pagels observed at Westar’s Spring 2013 national meeting that in prominent sculptures across the empire Rome would portray its defeated kingdoms (here, Britannia) as women to be raped and killed. More.

Is it any wonder that Paul felt the urge to move? “I left for Arabia,” he tells us, on Morris’ “transit between worlds.” While he was away he underwent a dramatic reorientation. Rome and perhaps Judaism to the extent that it cooperated with Rome were becoming Paul’s “world of savage, warring nature.” Meanwhile the promised empire of God blossomed into Paul’s “world of civilization.” He would come to embrace the new world. Indeed he would come to cherish and champion it to the point of nearly supplanting the content of the message with his own silhouette for later generations of Christians.

But it took him three years to collect himself. Three years passed before he sought the—what? approval? companionship?—of men like Cephas and James in Jerusalem. Maybe it isn’t fair to traumatize our reading of Paul. Still, there’s no denying his world changed. That may be fairly said of anyone who comes to love his enemy.

Trauma, Wisdom, and Communal Unity

Jesus is sometimes hard to hear in Paul’s letters, but Paul had without a doubt become a student of Jesus by the time he sent these letters. We don’t know where Paul got his information about Jesus, but he certainly knows of teachings including to love one’s enemies and to offer hospitality to strangers (see, for instance, Gal 5:15). With the Corinthians, Paul directly ties the wisdom of God to communal unity. 1 Corinthians 1–2 builds up to that crucial point. What generates this link between wisdom and unity?

Back with the Galatians, Paul claimed to have special insight without outside authority. His message came straight from God, he says, and he considers this a count in his favor. How can he do that? His argument makes better sense when we evaluate it through the lens of trauma. Morris recounts this lesson from Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen, learned in turn from the Caribou shaman Igjugarjuk:

“All true wisdom is only to be learned far from the dwellings of man, out in the great solitudes; and is only to be attained through suffering. Privation and suffering are the only things that can open the mind of man to those things which are hidden from others.” In other words, trauma, which obviously leads to great pain, can also lead to deeper knowledge about human existence. (66)

Morris goes on,

Thinking about the question of trauma mythically for a moment, it is tempting to wonder if, on a certain level, what we call PTSD doesn’t represent an incomplete passage from the underworld of death and darkness back to a more fully realized consciousness of one’s role in the universe, a knowledge of the hugeness of existence and of the value of safety and comfort and social connectedness. (65)

Paul’s complaint leading into chapter 3 (tomorrow’s reading) follows on Morris’ observation exceptionally well:

I could not speak to you as discerning people, my friends, but as people preoccupied with worldly concerns, as mere toddlers in the Anointed’s new way of life. … You are still preoccupied with mundane interests. As long as there is rivalry and contention among you, are you not still preoccupied with mundane interests and behaving in a way that is all too common? (1 Cor 3:1, 3)

My hope in exploring this connection is to offer you a better frame of reference for interpreting Paul’s famous declaration in 1 Corinthians 1:17a that “the message of the cross is utter nonsense to those who are heading for ruin” and, in verse 27, that “God has chosen people the world regards as fools to expose the pretensions of those who think they know it all.”

Paul, who gained his special insight from God through a deep and very likely traumatic transformation from harasser to embattled champion of the cause, is sensitive to the value of social connectedness. He knows the sorts of insights he associates with God are not useful or meaningful to people who don’t first understand the fundamental value of community.

I had the special privilege of teaching philosophy courses to Iraq and Afghanistan war vets for three years before I came to Westar. I can say without blinking that they did bring a special level of insight into discussions of morality, the taking and giving of life, and the meaning and significance of concepts like loyalty, violence, justice, civilization—concepts that were often merely abstract to other students. One thing these vets could all appreciate was the tenuousness of the line between civilization and chaos, peace and violence. Many of these soldiers were my age or younger, social “nobodies” who joined up as a last resort. Who better to become “God’s fools,” those whose insights are capable of trumping the knowledge of the given world?

In short, the wisdom on Paul’s mind is of a highly specific sort: he wants to usher a new kingdom into being, a new civilization that operates out of rules evident in the life and death of Jesus. Step one: a commitment to unity.

One last thought, and not a minor one by any means: As someone famously said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” Anyone who has lived through violence, anyone who is in the business of overcoming trauma, can tell you that ideals like love, justice, and peace are kingdoms we build one interaction at a time.

Questions for the Road:

  • Has your life ever been touched by trauma? Were you able, as Morris describes, to discover wisdom through the pain? Is it fair to view Paul through this lens, too?
  • Individual Christian leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Theresa, Oscar Romero, and Desmond Tutu, are celebrated for their success in organize communities around causes. Is Paul vital to this spirit in the Christian tradition? Could this spirit have emerged without Paul?

Letters of Paul small squareThanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.

Cassandra FarrinCassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.

5 thoughts on “Day 6: 1 Corinthians 1–2

  1. What does one have with 1 Corinthians? When one has a salutation that goes out to the whole wide world, one should realize that this is not a “letter.” When one has a writing that is close to 7,000 words, one realizing one does not have a “letter.” When one can look through a writing and see ten different “treatises” about a fairly diverse number of subjects, one realizes that this is not a letter, so it should probably be looked at not with an attempt to “understand Paul” but to understand the literature.

    These are the subjects of this book, which was written for the instruction and edification (as Van Manen put it in “The Pauline Writings, and which I am using for these categories but will tweak) of the catholic audience: parties and divisions (1-3), authority of apostles (4), unchastity (5-6), married and unmarried life (7), eating of that which has been offered to idols (8), the veiling of women (11), love feasts (11), spiritual gifts (12-14), resurrection (15), and a collection for the saints (16). There are other smaller subjects, like those found in these first two chapters: preaching of the cross above the wisdom of this world (1.18-31, 2.6-8, 16, 3.9-23) and “the labors of Paul” (2.1-5).

    Treatise One – Wisdom
    Chapters one is interesting, because the author is worried that there there are at least four divisions in “the world.” None of this is attested in Marcion’s Apostolikon. That should lead one to wonder if it has more in common with a time period in the infancy of the movement or whether it would have been added later. Apparently, there were many variants in vss. 4-16. (We will find that these “divisions” come up in chapter three, but, as is usual with the Apostolikon, that is not found and it relates to the theme of “wisdom” and “foolishness.” Also, in chapter two of the Apostolikon there are none of the “labors of Paul,” but a clear connection of 1.22-30 to 2.6-8, 16, where he is still speaking of wisdom. The autobiographical note that begins chapter two is unattested, so one must wonder if the same person who is wont to hyperbole, bragging and considering himself a “legendary” figure in other places is the same one who is so weak, fearful, trembling that he can hardly speak.

    So, if one takes out what is not attested in the Apostolikon, one is left with a treatise dealing with “the wise of the world,” framed around the “song for a poor man” (1.28-29), with “the low-born, the least, the despised” as the chosen ones. The rest is later window dressing, reflecting a time of different sects.

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  2. 1 Corinthians 1, a paraphrase: Paul, called by God to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the community of God in Corinth made holy by Christ Jesus, called saints, in company with those in every place who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours. God called you into the fellowship of his Son, and you have grown in your testimony of Christ, and your spiritual gifts have increased in your preparation for his day of revealing. I am troubled by reported divisions among you. Put them aside. You apparently are divided into factions along the lines of who baptized you. Remember only the annointed was crucified for you. He sent me to proclaim the good news, but all of the power is in the cross. It destroys the wisdom of the world and the search for signs which has failed to know God. Consider yourselves, friends, not many are wise and powerful by the world’s standards. Our only boast is in the Lord, and it is he who provides the gifts of wisdom, goodness, integrity, and freedom.

    1 Corinthians 2-3:3a, a paraphrase: I revealed the mystery of God to you, not through human wisdom, but by knowing only Christ crucified, the true source of Spirit and power. It is true, of course, that those of us who are mature in Christ share a wisdom, decreed by God before the ages, but it is unknown to the rulers of this age. These are the mysteries of what God has prepared for those who love him. We know what is truly God’s because His Spirit within tells us. The Spirit teaches us the words to interpret these spiritual things not understood by outsiders. These spiritual matters are foolishness to them. We, ourselves, however, see the spiritual with he mind of Christ. 3:1-3a But since you are still infants in Christ, influenced by flesh, I could not speak to you as one mature spiritual person to another. You still need milk rather than solid food, as your behavior is influenced by the flesh.

    Note: 1 Cor 1:1-2, in my opinion, is not an indication that the document goes everywhere that Christ followers are found. 1 Cor, I think, is specifically written “to the Corinthians.” But the Greek conjunction “sun, with” indicates, I suggest, that Paul and the Corinthians identify with the larger Christian community. “Paul…to Corinth…in company with those everywhere who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that any follower couldn’t benefit from reading the letter.

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  3. Cassandra: Your PTSD perspective is interesting. Clearly Paul had issues with personal weakness of some sort. The topic keeps popping up in his letters. And his personal weakness, whatever Paul perceived it to be, was integrated with the weakness of the Anointed, which for Paul is greater than the power of Rome, as well as the weakness of the nations before Rome’s attempt to establish law and order over and against a barbarian world. Those 3 weaknesses I think get integrated into a whole in Paul’s world view, and one way or another their dawning integration is at the root of his ‘Damascus’ experience. That integration becomes the driving force for community formation, and the core rational why the nations should remain the nations, not converting through circumcision.
    I know that Dennis’ read of the letters maintains an abstractness and 2nd or 3rd person connivance to the letters for ulterior theological motives, and those kinds of hints do become pretty obvious in Ephesians or Colossians. But for me the tone of the 7 letters characterized as authentic have a markedly different, and more direct feel. Unless you live in a world where everything seen through a theological filter, the difference between the 7 and the others is pretty obvious.
    PS: Thanks for the Bessler tip. I like a lot of what he says. We need to learn how to talk to each other in a Post Platonic world. I just don’t understand why we have to labor so hard to redefine ‘god’ for a culture that doesn’t find the god word useful.

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    1. Peter, I really like this: “That integration becomes the driving force for community formation, and the core rational why the nations should remain the nations, not converting through circumcision.” It does ring true for my reading of Paul so far. When it comes down to it, Paul RELATES to Jesus. I have a quote pasted on my wall from The Paris Review that continues to refocus me as I read:

      “A man may cry for more than one thing at once, and when you ask him why, he may not tell you. This appears to me to be the kind of thing that a novelist notices and that historians manage to ignore, generation after generation.”

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