In Closing: A Portrait of Paul

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)

CARTIER-BRESSON_1945_Simone_de_Beauvoir-copy1
“One’s life has value so long as one attributes value to the life of others, by means of love, friendship, indignation and compassion.” (Simone de Beauvoir)

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.

Letters of Paul small squareThank 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 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.

7 thoughts on “In Closing: A Portrait of Paul

  1. Based on Paul’s own writings:

    He was a person of extreme religious sensitivities driven to right-doing before God by an incredibly intense personality. Whatever formal education he may have had, Paul was also extremely knowledgeable of the scriptures of Israel, and he committed himself to obedience to their books of law. He reacted strongly to anyone who questioned this approach, and yet himself remained extremely dissatisfied, as he found himself in a vicious cycle of wanting to obey the law but victimized by the weakness of the flesh which condemned one to wrong-doing and death. In the midst of this intense personal struggle, Paul met face-on with the crucified and resurrected Jesus Christ. The conversion that resulted changed his approach to right-doing; he now advocated for trust which opened one to the Spirit for fruit and life. He found scriptural grounds for this experience in the story of God’s promises to Abraham and Isaac. He never gave up hope that the Jewish people would come to see this truth; after all, historically, it belonged to their ancestry Israel.

    But Paul’s fellow Jews were only minimally open to his message, and he turned primarily to Gentiles, perhaps most of whom had been attracted to worship in the Jewish synagogues, to form his communities of Christ followers. His message included a strong and imminent expectation of the return of the Christ, and so he focused primarily on the relationships within the communities, and much less, if at all, on their interaction with the larger secular society. He was steadfast and encouraging with regard to the behavioral fruit of his converts, but he could also be very impatient; he wanted the work of the Spirit to be a fait accompli when it was always a work with somewhat disappointing progress; Paul was constantly reminding these communities of the fruit which inherited God’s kingdom and the wrong-doing which did not. He was always after the communities to behave more spiritually among themselves. He was against any behavior that created separatism, such as required circumcision and eating regulations, and he was for any behavior that created joy in unity such as love and gentleness. He agonized, and spewed forth invectives at those opponents who tried to fudge this distinction. He also did some things to foster inter-community cooperation, including the collection of an offering for the Christ-community in Jerusalem.

    The imminent expectation of the second coming also drove him in mission across the then known world to do his part in bringing-in the number of Gentiles chosen by God. He had a few co-emissaries that he could count on, and he seemed willing to endure any hardship, including imprisonment, to accomplish this task.

    It should be expected that in the preservation and collection of Paul’s writings across many years, some admirers probably added passages which conveyed similar but not necessarily the same ideas as he himself expressed, while others altered and added in ways which Paul himself would not have accepted. All in all, however, the dominant hand in the writings is accessible. In some collections, some passages were probably not preserved.

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  2. Anybody all-in for 100 Days of the Gospels, to include 10 days of GThomas. Cassandra, maybe a few of the Westar scholars would be willing to share the leadership, so that all the work doesn’t fall on your shoulders. I can’t imagine all the responsibility that you must have in your position with Westar.

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    1. Gene, I am so grateful to you for your regular comments throughout the challenge. Thank you for taking this on with so much enthusiasm! I do think there’s a future for more challenges like this. Hundreds of people read each post, which was a wonderfully encouraging thing to see.

      Let me do a little exploring to see where we can take this in the future.

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  3. […] In Closing: A Portrait of Paul At the conclusion of 30 Days of Paul, I wrote a final entry describing the Paul I found in the letters. The most surprising and gratifying discovery for me was the frequency with which Paul referred not only to Jesus' death but also his life and teachings. Through years and years of church, nobody ever truly demonstrated that connection to me. Through Jesus, Paul was undone. I loved that. […]

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