Sin and Creativity (Day 13: 1 Corinthians 15–16)

In a nutshell: Paul draws his letter to a close with a carefully thought-out summary of his foundational message, followed by instructions for a monetary collection he planned to deliver to Jerusalem.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come back?” Stupid man, what you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which it will be; what you sow is a bare seed, it could be of wheat or one of the other grains. … And so the dead will come to life like that: sown in corruption, raised incorruptible; sown in humiliation, raised in a state of splendor; sown in a condition of weakness, raised in a state of power.
—1 Corinthians 15:35–37, 42–43

30 Days of Paul around the Web

I am finding these contributions from around the web moving and powerful. It’s a benefit and privilege to be participating in the challenge with such able companions! If you haven’t already read some, these contributions are simply excellent.

  • Justin DaMetz from Running Dirt Roads, on 1 Corinthians 9–10: Paul tells us we are called to anything but a life of separateness. What Paul is saying is, as Christians, we meet people where they are. We don’t hold back, we don’t cloister ourselves and win people by being separate from them. We join with them in their lives, in their struggles and their successes. In short, we are to join in solidarity with the people of the world, that we might play a part in their liberation.
  • Jack Gillespie from Celtic Odyssey on 1 Corinthians 9–10: I remember hearing this type of talk [about sex] when I was growing up in church. I even hear it now, sometimes, too. It’s often quoted with that knowing wink or smirk in a shaming way. But what’s never talked about is the next verse of the paragraph, “In my opinion that is what should be done, though I don’t know of anything the Lord said about this matter” (7.6; CEV*). In other words, Paul’s saying, “Don’t quote me on this; this is just my opinion. It’s not a command from G‑d.” And yet, too often, it’s taken just like a command because it’s in the Bible.
  • Glynn Cardy from the Community of Saint Luke on 1 Corinthians 13–14: In his closing remarks to the house church at Corinth he says: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.” [16:13, 14]. ‘Keeping alert’ in this context has to do with reading those cultural, political, and religious currents swirling around the group of approximately 30 people who made up the house church. Those currents might easily sweep you away to a watery end. ‘Stand firm’ is something I think of when wading in the surf and the wash of the tide threatens to sweep me off my feet. One braces one’s legs, and if possible holds onto the hands of those weaker or stronger than you in order to give or get help.

The City and the Fields

Paul tells us of seeds sown in corruption that birth something incorruptible in 1 Corinthians 15. This explanation of resurrection makes best sense when understood agriculturally, as sowing seeds in soil bedded down with corrupted materials—compost and manure. In the post-industrial world of the West, we live with an artificial separation between corruption and fertility. We often fail to realize the obvious: What is corrupt is also fertile. Sin is the root of creativity.

This artificial separation is now rupturing. I’m not trying to be intellectual in saying this. Ben Falk in The Resilient Farm and Homestead writes,

Composting is a no-brainer. No families or societies that maintained a direct and durable connection to their food and other basic resource systems over time (unless they were successful nomadic people) trashed their excess organic nutrients—including food scraps, urine, and feces. These “human effluents” are primary resources for keeping the cycle going, and landfilling such valuable assets would be as sensible as raking up the leaving falling onto the forest floor and hauling them to the dump. Insane. Yet that’s what most industrial humans do today. (105)

We sometimes hold a romanticized view of the ancient world, as though most people lived a rural lifestyle and therefore this very basic observation by Falk doesn’t apply to city-dwellers. Urbanization was alien to ancient people, we tend to assume, and therefore they experienced less alienation from the land on a personal, psychological level. They were close to the land, depended on it, and that is no longer possible for us.

If we assumed this, we would be wrong. It’s a false dichotomy, as Ellen F. Davis observes in her reading of the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy in Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture.

The terms ‘city’ and ‘field’ would not have denoted for the Deuteronomist two entirely separate settings and lifestyles, as they do for most contemporary readers. Rather, as the passage suggests, the Israelite city and its immediately surrounding fields formed a tight economic and defensive unit. Many farmers lived within the city’s protective wall and “commuted” with their draft animals to work in the fields within walking distance. Thus the picture of people coming in and out of the city gate, their baskets full of produce and grain for the grinding and kneading bowl, evokes the daily movement of the vast majority of adult males resident in Israel’s cities; and at harvest time, as many women as could be spared from food preparation and child care would have joined them. Although royal cities would have had a small elite class of administrators, perhaps courtiers, priests and sanctuary attendants, and also some artisans, in other cities, nearly everyone would have worked at farming. The small cities that were not founded or built up by the monarchy—for example, Bethlehem, literally the “house of bread” for nearby Jerusalem—had a fairly uniform subsistence-level agrarian economy. As in the villages, most of their inhabitants would have raised just enough food (in good times) to eat and pay their taxes. (158)

Davis goes on to explore the notion of a “habitable city,” a city that is fully integrated into the rural landscape around it (cf. Psalm 107). It is possible, she argues, for a city not to be parasitic but to serve as a protected place where people gather to share their resources, including food, materials, and labor.

The habitable city works in tension with the frequent reality of the uninhabitable city. Karen Armstrong writes at length about this in Fields of Blood, since it forms an important pillar in her claim that religion is not necessarily violent but simply reflects and responds to the human reality of violence. Nowhere is this more evident than in her introduction to Zoroastrianism. Following brutal attacks by urban Sanskrit-speaking cattle raiders on rural Avestan communities—attacks that developed with the emergence of cities in need of resources—around 1200 BCE the Avestan priest Zoroaster reached the conclusion that “these earthly battles must have a heavenly counterpart” (44). He experienced a vision of a great battle was waging between Ahura Mazda (“Lord Wisdom”) and Angra Mainyu (the “Hostile Spirit”). According to his vision, each human being must choose to serve one or the other to turn the tide of the cosmic war.

Zoroaster’s basic ethic was gentle. “The Wise Lord’s followers must life patient, disciplined lives, bravely defending all good creatures from the assault of evildoers, caring for the poor and weak,” and so on, writes Armstrong (45). Unfortunately, that’s not where the vision ends.

So traumatized was Zoroaster by the ferocity of the raiders’ attacks, though, that this gentle, ethical vision was itself permeated with violence. He was convinced that the whole world was rushing toward a final cataclysm in which the Wise Lord would annihilate the wicked daevas [divine lords] and incinerate the Hostile Spirit in a river of fire. There would be a Great Judgment, and the daevas’ earthly followers would be exterminated. The earth would then be restored to its original perfection, and the mountains and valleys would be leveled to form a great plain where gods and humans could live together in peace. (45)

Zoroastrianism was one of many influences on Christianity, as should be obvious from this apocalyptic vision. My broader point is that injustice was a frequent characteristic of big cities, which preyed upon smaller cities and rural communities to sustain their existence. This is not quite the same as saying, “The Roman Empire influenced Paul and Jesus before him.” It goes deeper than that. The unjust city that can be redeemed is an archetype as ancient as every writing of the Jewish scriptures. Think of Nineveh, which was rescued in spite of the prophet Jonah’s stubborn attempts to avoid helping the city he hated. Paul quotes the Jewish scriptures all the time, so we have every reason to believe he shares their basic orientation.

When Paul claims that what comes of the seed will be incorruptible, “a body fit for life in God’s new world.” My response to Paul today would be, “You didn’t realize that the incorruptible is also static and the very opposite of life-giving—quite literally devoid of life, an exit from the cycle of being.” Maybe Paul wanted that exit. If he, like the Buddha, associated the cycle with suffering, I would view that as likely. But frankly, I don’t read that connection in Paul.

I think it’s more fruitful to explore idea that sin, when understood as the natural corruption of all things, is the very bed of creativity. Paul wouldn’t have liked it, I’m sure, but he begrudges us the point. This is the way the world works on a physical and observable level. Paul might need to concede here that sin, broadly understood, is not the same as moral corruption. Moral corruption is human desperation in the face of the natural corruption of all living things in the cycle of life and death.

Mount St. Quentin, by Arthur Streeton
Life is not always green, verdant, and on the upswing. In this 1918 painting of Mount St Quentin by Arthur Streeton, the yellowing grass and dappled shadows nearly make invisible the signs of human occupation, but even they are not immune to the decomposition and recomposition of all life. Likewise, even the mountain, given enough time, will disintegrate into a new form.

 

Paul is human and fallible. He himself admits it. As Jack Gillespie (linked above) pointed out, Paul’s whole discussion of sexuality in 1 Corinthians is framed by concessions and professions of opinion by Paul. He openly admits at moments that there is no “teaching of the lord,” on particular questions. So when Paul talks about resurrection, I really want to push back and write a letter of my own to Paul:

Maybe a separate future world—a “heaven”—isn’t necessary for your point, Paul. I’m not trying to pick a fight about this; you were working with a model of reality that is now outdated. We’ve seen a bit more of the universe and we now know there isn’t a pantheon of Gods up there in the skies. The material available to us for our lives is only what exists within the universe.

Maybe we can still rescue your notion of incorruptibility. That is, we know now that no new energy (including mass) is ever created in the universe. “The law of conservation of energy, also known as the first law of thermodynamics, states that the energy of a closed system must remain constant—it can neither increase nor decrease without interference from outside. The universe itself is a closed system, so the total amount of energy in existence has always been the same. The forms that energy takes, however, are constantly changing.”

Perhaps, then, we can satisfy our desire for incorruptibility and immortality by recognizing that no matter what, we belong. We belong to this universe. In that sense, we really are incorruptible and immortal. We may never like that our form of participation must change, but isn’t the deepest desire of the human heart simply to belong?

Questions for the Road

  • How much experience do you have with rural life, agriculture, gardening, growing? What would it mean for you to see resurrection as an occurrence within this natural process instead of as an interruption of it?
  • Is it fair to separate natural corruption (the normal lifecycle processes of aging, dying, and rotting) from moral corruption, that is, evil? What sort of relationship, if any, exists between these two forms of corruption?

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.

4 thoughts on “Sin and Creativity (Day 13: 1 Corinthians 15–16)

  1. 1 Cor 15, a paraphrase: Remember the things I told you that are important above everything else, that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the 3rd day, and then appeared to numerous persons and groups, even to me, a persecutor of God’s church, the least but hardest worker of the Apostles. How then, can some of you say that there is no resurrection. As all die in Adam all are made alive in Christ when the end comes and he destroys death. If not, we foolishly baptize for the dead and put our lives in danger daily for no purpose. Get your minds straight; you are shamed by this sin of denying Christ’s work. How does God do this raising, you ask? Like the lifeless seed sown, nurtured by the ground, a glorious body results – so it is with us, imperishable, powerful, spiritual. The living-being of Adam gives way to the life giving Spirit, from the image of the man of dust to the image of the man of Heaven. This change occurs suddenly at the last trumpet, fulfilling the saying, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ And this is all because Christ conquered the weakness of the law under sin. Beloved, your labor in freedom is not in vain.

    1 Cor 16, a paraphrase: Please be making regular collections for the saints in Jerusalem. We will agree on a plan for their delivery when winter comes and I am with you. In the meantime I will do battle with my adversaries in Ephesus until Pentecost. Be sure to treat Timothy with respect if he comes. Apollos will come when he has opportunity. In the meantime be sure to stand firm and do all things in love. Please put yourselves at the service of Stephanus, Achaicus, and Fortunatus, as they have refreshed my spirit. Aquila and Prisca send their greetings, as do all the brothers and sisters. “Our Lord come!’ I curse those who have no love for the Lord, but I send my love in Christ Jesus to all of you.

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  2. Cassandra wrote: “…incorruptible is also static and the very opposite of life-giving—quite literally devoid of life…it’s more fruitful to explore the idea that sin, when understood as the natural corruption of all things, is the very bed of creativity…moral corruption is human desperation in the face of the natural corruption of all living things in the cycle of life and death.'”

    Rom 8:19 (NRSV) “…the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself would be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.

    Could both readings be interpreted to say, “Care of the geosphere waits with eager longing for moral corruption to be swallowed by the revealing of natural creativity from the children of god.”

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