Skip to main content
Center for Action and Contemplation
Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic
Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic

An Identity Transplant

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Feast of St. Oscar Romero of El Salvador

Scholars Marcus J. Borg (1942–2015) and John Dominic Crossan refer to Paul as a “Jewish Christ mystic,” and explore what the phrase “in Christ” meant to Paul:

He was a Jewish Christ mystic because . . . Paul was a Jew and in his own mind never ceased being one. He was a Jewish Christ mystic because the content of his mystical experiences was Jesus as risen Christ and Lord. Afterward, Paul’s identity became an identity “in Christ.” And as a Christ mystic, he saw Judaism anew in the light of Jesus. . .  .

Paul’s transformation involved an “identity transplant”—his old identity was replaced by a new identity “in Christ.” . . . We have in mind an analogy to modern medicine’s heart transplant, in which an old heart is replaced by a new heart. In Paul’s case, his spirit—the old Paul—had been replaced by the Spirit of Christ.

Borg and Crossan view Paul’s mystical teaching on the gifts of the Spirit, from 1 Corinthians 12–14, as an extension of his identity transplant “in Christ.” Here they reflect on the implications of Paul’s reflections on love, “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (13:13):

The love of which Paul speaks is a spiritual gift, not simply an act of will, not something we decide to do, not simply good advice for couples and others. Rather, as a spiritual gift, love is the most important result (and evidence) of a Spirit transplant. As the primary fruit of the Spirit, it is also the criterion by which the other gifts are evaluated. . . .

For Paul, love in this text is radical shorthand for what life “in Christ” is like—life in the “new creation,” life “in the Spirit,” life animated by a Spirit transplant. As the primary fruit of a Spirit-filled life, love is about more than our relationships with individuals. For Paul, it had (for want of a better word) a social meaning as well. The social form of love for Paul was distributive justice and nonviolence, bread and peace. Paul’s vision of life “in Christ,” life in the “new creation,” did not mean, “Accept the imperial way of life with its oppression and violence, but practice love in your personal relationships.”

To make the same point differently, people like Jesus and Paul were not executed for saying, “Love one another.” They were killed because their understanding of love meant more than being compassionate toward individuals, although it did include that. It also meant standing against the domination systems that ruled their world, and collaborating with the Spirit in the creation of a new way of life that stood in contrast to the normalcy of the wisdom of the world. Love and justice go together. Justice without love can be brutal, and love without justice can be banal. Love is the heart of justice, and justice is the social form of love.

Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary behind the Church’s Conservative Icon (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 26, 138, 204–205.

Explore Further. . .

Image credit: Jenna Keiper, Trash Can Study I (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Dorothea Lange, “Bum blockade.” (detail), 1936, photograph, public domain. Jenna Keiper, Trash Can Study II (detail), 2020, photograph, New Mexico, used with permission. Jenna Keiper and Leslye Colvin, 2022, triptych art, United States.

This week’s images appear in a form inspired by early Christian/Catholic triptych art: a threefold form that tells a unified story. 

Image Inspiration: The images on the left and right may not be immediately clear upon first glance. Perhaps there is room for our questions to stay with us gently, taking their time, until understanding slowly emerges as we walk along.

Story from Our Community:

Right this moment, I have had to let go. The three dearest desires of my heart have reached dead ends. I have even lost my physical mobility from falling while preparing for a birthday gathering. The only thing I am certain of is the faithful love of Christ. I am coming to understand what St Paul means in saying that we are people of the Spirit and not of the flesh. I am coming to know God better by walking with Him through this desert.
—Elise N.

Share your own story with us.

Prayer for our community:

God, Lord of all creation, lover of life and of everything, please help us to love in our very small way what You love infinitely and everywhere. We thank You that we can offer just this one prayer and that will be more than enough,  because in reality every thing and every one is connected, and nothing stands alone. To pray for one part is really to pray for the whole, and so we do. Help us each day to stand for love, for healing, for the good, for the diverse unity of the Body of Christ and all creation, because we know this is what You desire: as Jesus prayed, that all may be one. We offer our prayer together with all the holy names of God, we offer our prayer together with Christ, our Lord, Amen.

Listen to the prayer.


Navigate by Date

This year’s theme

A candle being lit

Radical Resilience

We live in a world on fire. This year the Daily Meditations will explore contemplation as a way to build Radical Resilience so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or burning out. The path ahead may be challenging, but we can walk it together.

The archives

Explore the Daily Meditations

Explore past meditations and annual themes by browsing the Daily Meditations archive. Explore by topic or use the search bar to find wisdom from specific teachers.

Join our email community

Sign-up to receive the Daily Meditations, featuring reflections on the wisdom and practices of the Christian contemplative tradition.

Hidden Fields

Find out about upcoming courses, registration dates, and new online courses.
Our theme this year is Radical Resilience. How do we tend our inner flame so we can stand in solidarity with the world without burning up or out? Meditations are emailed every day of the week, including the Weekly Summary on Saturday. Each week builds on previous topics, but you can join at any time.
In a world of fault lines and fractures, how do we expand our sense of self to include love, healing, and forgiveness—not just for ourselves or those like us, but for all? This monthly email features wisdom and stories from the emerging Christian contemplative movement. Join spiritual seekers from around the world and discover your place in the Great Story Line connecting us all in the One Great Life. Conspirare. Breathe with us.