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)
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?
Thanks 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 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.