Leaving Paul profaned

I started writing some posts about Paul, sparked by an exchange at Wake, some while ago. These start with “Paul, the shit sandwich”. The three posts to date focus largely on a book “Profaning Paul”, by Cavan Colcannon. I ordered another book mentioned in the first post at the same time; Daniel Kirk’s “Jesus I have loved, but Paul?”, a title I’ve long liked. But I hadn’t read the book.

20/20 hindsight tells me I would have appreciated Kirk’s book far more if I’d read it first, but, of course, I was reading it in the light of Colcannon. Kirk’s book is some years old now, and, of course, couldn’t respond to Colcannon’s points – and Colcannon’s book is so much breaking new ground (for me, at least) that I don’t feel it entirely reasonable to criticise Kirk for not dealing with them much. But I don’t feel entirely reasonable on the subject of Paul!

I’ll start with saying that Kirk’s book is definitely worth reading. He’s a good, clear author. His main project is to argue that there’s more continuity between Jesus and Paul than is often thought – and yes, I’ve been guilty of suggesting in the past that Paul diverged too much from the message of Jesus to be worth attending to, summed up by “my Jesus trumps your Paul”. He does a pretty good job of tracing a continuity between much of Paul’s preaching and Jesus. But there is a snag there – Kirk was until 2015 a professor at an evangelical seminary, and for this book he reads Jesus’ words in the gospels through the lens of evangelical (and thus reformed) theology. And reformed theology rests massively on Paul. I might have hoped, given that Kirk also wrote “A Man Attested by God – The Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels”  (an excellent book which I strongly recommend) that he would have made at least some mention of the fact that the Jesus (or Jesuses) of the Fourth Gospel and of Paul is significantly different from that “human Jesus”, and there might therefore be rather less contintuity between synoptic Jesus and Pauline Jesus, but he doesn’t. Indeed, in the last chapter he comments that it is all about Jesus – and that is, to my mind, the division between the Synoptics and Paul: in the Synoptics we are looking at the religion of Jesus as he talks of God and of the Kingdom, in Paul we are looking at a religion about Jesus. I wrote a post criticising this position some while ago – “Direction finding with Jesus”, in which I argue that Jesus points to God, while the religion about Jesus points to Jesus.

It is, therefore, not until the second half of the book that Kirk starts to engage with any of the problem areas which Colcannon is concerned about, and to a great extent he merely suggests that Paul was operating in a different milieu to that of Jesus, one in which Roman household and other codes were deeply established, and he could do no more than nudge people towards the great understanding in Galatians 3:28. Which is also Paul, and is so contrary to the issues raised by Colcannon, and which Colcannon and myself would have preferred Paul to stick with and preach, even if it offended the sensibilities and prejudices of Paul’s Romanised followers (most of whom were first Hellenised, given that Paul’s activity was chiefly in the Greek-speaking east of the Roman Empire). In conscience, I think it probable that Paul’s radical universalism as expressed in Galatians couldn’t have found footing in the communities he was preaching to, as it would have been “too far, too fast” – and Kirk rightly points out that even the Jesus of the synoptic gospels didn’t disregard gender boundaries to the extent which the Galatians passage might demand, and that Jesus needed to be schooled into a disregard of racial boundaries in, for instance, the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

So, do I excuse Paul for pandering to the prejudices of his audience? Should I level my criticism at a church which elevates his every word to holy writ, given that Paul himself maybe didn’t intend his words to be taken as anything more than sermons from a celebrity pastor (though we seem to have problems taking celebrity pastors’ words as holy writ as well)? He does at times give us some pretty strong clues as to his position – in 1 Cor. 9:19-23 he is forthright in saying that he adjusts his words to his audience, and in 1. Cor:7:25 he explicitly states that what he is saying is on his own behalf, not a “command of the Lord” (the link also indicates other passages where he said something similar).

But there’s the problem exactly. He doen’t give us the “this is just my opinion” health warning all that much, so by implication one might reasonably read him as claiming he was speaking on Jesus’ behalf (or God’s) any time he doesn’t. OK, there are also some passages in which he explicitly claims something to be The Lord’s command; one might prefer that he be read as if any time he didn’t say that, it was just his opinion, not to be taken as divine dictation. That, unfortunately, is not the case – so I think Colcannon’s wish to “profane Paul” (i.e. strip him of the assumption that what he said is a direct line to God’s wishes) is eminently reasonable.

However, Paul did also say some things which I would want to preserve, of which the passage from Galatians is one of the high points.

What of him constucting a religion about Jesus rather than preaching the religion of Jesus? Well, I haven’t done the background research to be able to state this with authority, but I found, approaching Paul as someone very sceptical about him generally, that I could find an understanding of him far better by considering him as a “Christ mystic”. I’m convinced Jesus was a “God-mystic”. There have been both in the history of Christian mysticism – Meister Eckhart was a God-mystic, Teresa de Avila a Christ-mystic, for instance. I am, for what it’s worth, a God-mystic myself, having had my most formative mystical experiences at a time when I wouldn’t have considered myself a Christian. The difference is, I think, that what the God-mystic considers an experience of God, the Christ-mystic considers an experience of Christ. Once I started to read Paul with that assumption, much of what he wrote came into an entirely new focus – in particular, when Paul wrote of being “in Christ”, I translate that to when Jesus talked of being “in the Kingdom”. “The body of Christ” is then at the least the whole of humanity (none of whom, we might recall, Jesus would allow to slip from his grasp, in the terminology of that other Christ-mystic in the New Testament, the author of the Fourth Gospel), and possibly the whole of sentient creation (which might be the whole of creation if one tends to panpsychism or panentheism).

But that is only “much of what he wrote”. I am very nervous about considering that any human can be inspired in every action they take or word they utter – after all, even Jesus might be thought to have been distinctly uninspired at the beginning of the story of the Syrophoenician woman.

After all, I had some personal experience of being regarded as authoritative back when I was at university, and was talking about religion and spirituality from the position of someone who had had peak mystical experiences and had developed an ability to connect with what I called an “edge” of that routinely. As such, I would look into that experience and make statements based on that, and a few people decided that I was a guru and they would hang on my every word. The trouble was, they hung on words which were not the product of direct mystical experience, but were, for instance, rational deductions made on the back of those, or even off-the cuff remarks which didn’t have any mystical origin at all. I was grossly uncomfortable with them doing this, because I was only too aware both that some of what I said did not have the self-authenticating weight of mystical experience behind it and that actually speaking about it with any degree of accuracy was massively difficult, perhaps impossible. I told them to go away and develop their own mystical practice. They were not happy – it was, it seemed, easier to find authority in me than to develop their own experience of God. I fancy Paul probably had the same problem, but took a different route from mine…

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