Introducing St. Paul
A Man of Contradictions
Monday, March 30, 2015
Paul’s conversion experience on the Damascus Road, which we’ll explore in more depth tomorrow, is the source of his immense inner authority and most of his themes. It is a phenomenal transformation of consciousness, which is why he becomes such a courageous teacher of what he is convinced is the very mind of Christ. Paul is able to trust his own experience of Christ against Peter (Galatians 2:11), James, the “circumcisers,” many of the Jewish Christians, and his own early training as a Pharisaic Jew. He undoubtedly has a huge ego, which God uses to good purpose. Paul often comes across as arrogant and overly self-assured. He is a complex man and seems to humbly admit in a number of places that he is a mass of contradictions—which allows him to proclaim and even define the mystery of grace and the meaning of mercy.
Paul accomplishes a lot in his brief ministry, nearly half of which he spent in jail. His three missionary journeys take him through Cyprus, Asia Minor, Crete, Greece, Malta, and on to Rome. These took place during the only hundred-year period in the first millennium of Western history when safe travel was possible, thanks to the roads and protection of the Roman Empire. The house churches he starts in places like Corinth, Ephesus, and Philippi were probably each composed of only forty people, but Paul was confident that this “leaven” of transformed people, living in a transformed way, would make a qualitative difference in the debauched, egocentric society of the time.
Paul is one of the most influential thinkers and doers in Western history. He is the first Christian theologian and mystic, which I will illustrate in the weeks ahead. He is probably one of the most misunderstood and disliked teachers in the Church, largely because we have tried to understand a mystic with our simplistic, dualistic minds (there are several anti-feminist paragraphs that we now know are later additions to his letters or found in letters not actually written by Paul). But his many unitive paragraphs and memorable one-liners are more than enough to allow us to love and forgive Paul. He joins all of us in being both terribly human and wonderfully divine at the same time.
We will have the key to understand Paul once we understand his capacity to participate in a deeper and universal reality, a cosmic notion of a new humanity. His central theme is that the new temple of God is the human person. It made his message magnificent and utterly magnetic for an empire overrun by slavery, abuse of women and minorities, debauched sexuality, oppression, and injustice. He almost single-handedly changed the assumptions of an Empire—toward love.
Gateway to Silence:
“I live no longer, not I; but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
Adapted from Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, disc 2 (CD);
A New Way of Seeing . . . A New Way of Being: Jesus and Paul (CD and MP3 download);
In the Footsteps of St. Paul (published by Franciscan Media, 2015) (CD)