Orthodox Western Christianity (both Catholic and Protestant) would like to have its Paul and keep its Jesus, too. But as the old maxim about keeping cakes and eating them reminds us, we have to make a decision. The church of the third millennium is going to have to throw in its lot with either Paul or Jesus. It can’t have both.
The United Church of Canada is valiantly struggling to cobble together Paul’s theology with Jesus’ praxis. This would allow them to keep their Articles of Faith (which ultimately originate in Paul’s Christ teachings) while “freshening things up” on the social justice front (thus allowing them to claim unity with Jesus’ teachings).
You can’t blame them for trying. But a continuing pattern of downward membership in the UCC speaks quite eloquently to the “success” of their patchwork solution.
The Mission and Service initiatives of the United Church are important, and I’m not trying to undermine them (well, not the service part, anyway). This is the best part of the UCC experience, as far as I’m concerned. But the theology . . . I can’t abide the theology. The blunt truth is that the theology is driving me away from the church. I love the sense of community in my church, I love the people there, I love the commitment to volunteering, and I especially love the way in which children are uplifted. But I have to sit there and listen to readings from Paul, and I’m not happy about this.
Rather, I should say I’m not happy about the way the church tries to insist that Paul and Jesus were simpatico. Paul and Jesus were anything but.
These two men had dramatically different things to say about God. They had dramatically different goals in mind when they tried to spread their respective teachings. They had almost nothing in common except a childhood strongly influenced by Hebrew teachings.
Paul doesn’t write much in his letters about his own life. (Acts of the Apostles is a secondary source, probably written three decades or so after Paul’s last known letter, Romans. Acts, which gives us far more information about Paul’s life than Paul himself gives us, was written by the same man who wrote the Gospel of Luke.) Paul himself doesn’t actually describe the famous conversion experience on the road to Damascus. (The famous story of Saul struck blind by a light from heaven is only found in Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18.)
For Paul, a mere conversion experience as an adult wasn’t good enough. Rather than saying he was brought to Christ through a vision from Jesus, Paul actually makes a much more radical claim for himself: Paul was so special in the grand scheme of things that God “set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace . . . so that I might proclaim [his Son] among the Gentiles” (Galatians 1:15-17). Paul says he was chosen by God while he was still in the womb, just as prophets of old in the Hebrew scriptures had been chosen.
Note: Paul has placed himself at the top of a very small and very select group of people, the prophets. Nobody who truly believes that God treats all people equally would make such a presumptuous claim about himself or God. Paul, according to his own testimony, has provided himself with an impressive pedigree. Yet most biblical commentators fail to note that in the first century CE, as in the third millennium, an impressive pedigree means nothing to people who aren’t driven by the needs of status addiction. Pedigree means nothing to people who truly believe that all creatures are equal in God’s eyes. Paul says that all people are one in Christ, but Paul means that some people are more important to God than others — starting with himself.
Christian authors such as John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed have bent over backwards to try to prove to modern audiences that Paul really was “a saint not only for then, but for now and always” (page 413 of In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom, A New Vision of Paul’s Words and World (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004)). In their book, Crossan and Reed try to minimize the brutality of the Letter to the Romans (which, of the letters we still have from Paul, is probably the letter that was written last). And they insist that Paul’s Saviour is identical to the man who taught and healed as Jesus of Nazareth.
Whoever wrote the Gospel of Mark a few years after Paul’s last known letter was clearly trying to refute what Paul had been writing about the man named Jesus. There’s no other way to explain the vast differences in their respective portraits of Jesus. I think it’s naive to suggest that the author of Mark didn’t know about Paul’s teachings, which predated Mark’s in both time and influence. Paul admits he visited Jerusalem and met with Jesus’ brother James (Galatians 1:18-19), and Paul claims he travelled widely in the Eastern Mediterranean. Can we really imagine that Mark, who knew so much about the details of Jesus’ actual life, knew nothing at all about Paul’s strategy to co-opt Jesus as the new face of the anti-emperor Saviour?
Barrie Wilson covers many of these points in the book I mentioned on March 6/10, How Jesus Became Christian. If you want to know more about the background historical elements of this complicated first century CE saga, I recommend Wilson’s book (although, for the record, I don’t agree with Wilson’s comments on the Gospel of Matthew).
Paul had a plan and Paul had a mission. But it was not a plan to spread Jesus’ dangerous teachings. It was a plan to minimize and control the subversive effects of Jesus’ dangerous teachings.
It was a plan to eradicate the rapidly spreading story about a man from an aristocratic family who voluntarily gave up his status, his wealth, and his family connections in order to serve the poor in small towns because he was an educated God-loving scholar-physician. (cf. Doctors Without Borders)
Can’t have the nobility slumming it, you know. It might just catch on.
God forbid that regular people might start to believe that real, live, flesh and blood, aristocratic males could WANT to give up all that power and status, and live a life of humble service to God!
How to fix the problem? Great idea — put the man back on a pedestal, only this time make the pedestal so tall that nobody else can reach it, or even want to reach it.
That’ll keep them in their place . . . .
For me, this subtext is audible every time I hear a reading from one of Paul’s epistles. It makes me want to gnash my teeth, shake my head, and bellow out loud, “Come on — Paul is lying to us.”
But, since none of these reactions would be considered popular at church during worship time, my solution is to stop attending worship. I’ve decided to hang out with God in Nature, in song, in kind words, and in the people I love until such a time as the church decides to follow the teachings of Jesus instead of the teachings of Paul.
I sure do miss UCC Coffee Time, though!