I’m standing in a swirl of suffering, trauma, and grand stories of reality that try to account for both. It’s as though we humans cannot bear the thought of our suffering being merely incidental to existence. Painfully aware of a basic need for connection and belonging, the parent in me wants to gather us all up and say, “I choose you, I love you.”
Paul saw himself as both mother and father, enemy and lover of his communities. He browbeat them shamelessly. Like Moses he wanted to haul every last member stiff-necked through the wilderness to God. But he also needed them. Like Humbert Humbert and his Lolita, Paul’s legitimacy depended on his communities buying into his story. In Paul’s case, he wanted people to trust his story even where it disagreed with the story told by people with more apparent authority. Like all of us, he craved a sense of meaning and purpose that only other human beings could give. His whole identity is wrapped up in that oft-neglected web of names that float through the edges of his letters.
Paul had witnessed suffering and experienced it himself. He recognized that no amount of physical, earth-based power could defeat the natural decay of all living things. We all must die. Yet Paul was not the Buddha. Siddhartha Gautama Buddha taught people to live with and to some extent overcome suffering through cultivating awareness of the present moment. He encouraged people to put down any extra burdens of suffering rather than carrying them into the future (either ours or others’). The practice of meditation is ironically the mastery of self in order to relinquish the self and participate in a wider reality.
Paul’s solution was nuanced differently although not at odds with the Buddha’s approach. He spoke of overcoming suffering through the practice of communal unity and self control, but only after first binding oneself to Jesus by ritually dying and being reborn with him. In other words, Paul believed pledging a very personal and particular allegiance to another person—building a deep and abiding relationship with another person—could invoke a special power to overcome suffering. That special power then enabled individuals to bond with others.
Where Paul’s thought falls flat for me and for others today is in his choice to overemphasize sexuality as the space where self control is best exercised. Surely today food is at least Americans’ most obvious locus of self-control issues. Frankly, though, the same problems around self control exist in Buddhist cultures, too. I think also of Simone de Beauvoir’s heartbreaking observation about her experience of caring for her mother, who (as was typical then and is still typical now worldwide) was not told she was dying of a terminal illness:
The misfortune is that although everyone must come to [death], each experiences the adventure in solitude. We never left Maman during those last days… and yet we were profoundly separated from her. (A Very Easy Death)
Paul’s choice of a crucified man as king still has resonance, as does his anger toward people who clamber over the backs of others to survive. They point to the personal nature of Paul’s answer to suffering. I have always loved the passage below from Judith Butler. I even read it at my grandmother’s funeral. It helps me to understand Paul’s ideas about unity and relationships:
I am not sure I know when mourning is successful, or when one has fully mourned another human being. I’m certain, though, that it does not mean that one has forgotten the person, or that something else comes along to take his or her place. I don’t think it works that way. I think instead that one mourns when one accepts the fact that the loss one undergoes will be one that changes you, changes you possibly forever, and that mourning has to do with agreeing to undergo a transformation the full result of which you cannot know in advance. So there is losing, and there is the transformative effect of loss, and this latter cannot be charted or planned. I don’t think, for instance, you can invoke a Protestant ethic when it comes to loss. You can’t say, “Oh, I’ll go through loss this way, and that will be the result, and I’ll apply myself to the task, and I’ll endeavor to achieve the resolution of grief that is before me.” I think one is hit by waves, and that one starts out the day with an aim, a project, a plan, and one finds oneself foiled. One finds oneself fallen. One is exhausted but does not know why. Something is larger than one’s own deliberate plan or project, larger than one’s own knowing. Something takes hold, but is this something coming from the self, from the outside, or from some region where the difference between the two is indeterminable? What is it that claims us at such moments, such that we are not the masters of ourselves? …
Let’s face it. We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something. If this seems so clearly the case with grief, it is only because it was already the case with desire. One does not always stay intact. It may be that one wants to, or does, but it may also be that despite one’s best efforts, one is undone, in the face of the other, by the touch, by the scent, by the feel, by the prospect of the touch, by the memory of the feel.” (Gender Trouble, 18–19)
I think Paul grasped this on some basic level. He experienced it personally in his encounter with Jesus and the followers of Jesus he once harassed. He was, if anyone was, undone.
Paul related with Jesus. Paul’s Jesus was somebody who died in an embarrassing way given what people like Paul wanted to say about him, that he was an anointed king. And for Paul this memory of undoing was his undoing. Somehow it made sense to Paul that God would use such outrageous means to strengthen human beings to emerge from suffering, corruption, and the seductive power of diverting that corruption for one’s own ends—to avoid the inevitable suffering that comes with belonging to the world.
More than that, Paul was a student of Jesus’ life and teachings. Paul talked most explicitly about Jesus’ death, true. We are right to be frustrated that this tendency of his translated into later generations of the movement, especially the Christian creeds. Nevertheless, he alluded just as frequently to Jesus’ words and deeds. Jesus was remembered by Paul as someone who consorted with the ragtag of the world, who turned the other cheek, and who expected his students to make such good sense of the world that those ragtag people would be willing to share what little they possessed for the sake of hearing more. In the future of the movement, students of both Jesus and Paul would refer to such insights as a pearl that only the poor would receive, and they would get it free of charge.
You don’t have to be Christian to appreciate the problem Paul was trying to solve or the strategies he offered. We all suffer, and we all crave relationships. I started this challenge feeling that Paul might have nothing to say to me, but I’ve ended the challenge feeling that I relate with him as a fellow human being. While I would find it difficult to quote him because of how embedded his language is in the culture of his time, I think it is worthwhile to find new ways to paraphrase him for today.
Thank you for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. Today concludes our reading of the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. It’s not too late to take the challenge for yourself. Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul. You can find all the blog entries for each reading listed in chronologically here.
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.