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An Interior Faith

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Christ in Paul’s Eyes

An Interior Faith
Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Describing his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus in his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes a most telling line. He says, “God revealed his Son in me” (Galatians 1:16, JB, NIV). This high degree of trust, introspection, and self-confidence was quite unusual during a time that was more extroverted and literal. In my opinion, this is why the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity did not make much of Paul. Except for the rare Augustine and many of the Catholic mystics and hermits, it took widespread literacy and the availability of the written word in the sixteenth century to move believers toward a more interior Christianity, both for good and for ill. [1]

Note Paul’s primary criterion for authentic faith: “Examine yourselves to make sure you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Do you acknowledge that Jesus Christ is really in you? If not, you have failed the test” (2 Corinthians 13:5). So simple it’s scary! Paul’s radical incarnationalism sets a strong standard. He knew that the Christ must first of all be acknowledged within before Christ can be recognized without as Lord and Master. God must reveal God’s self in you before God can fully reveal God’s self to you.

It’s important to remember that Paul is just like us in never knowing Jesus in the flesh. Like him, we only know the Christ through observing and honoring the depth of our human experience and gaining new eyes. When we can honor and receive our own moment of sadness or fullness as a gracious participation in the eternal sadness or fullness of God, we recognize ourselves as a member of this one universal Body.

Thus, Paul shows that we too can know Christ’s infinitely available presence through our own inner dialogue, or the natural law, which is “engraved on our hearts.” Quite daringly, he declares that even so-called pagans, “who do not possess the law . . . can be said to be the law” (see Romans 2:14-15). This is surely why he spoke to the well-educated Athenians of “The Unknown God . . . whom you already worship without knowing it” (Acts 17:23). Paul likely inherited this idea from the “new covenant” to God’s people: “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts” (see Jeremiah 31:31-33). (This idea remained largely undeveloped until a natural law was sought out by the moral theologians of the last century—and now in Pope Francis’ strong understanding of individual conscience.)

Paul merely took incarnationalism to its universal and logical conclusions. We see that in his bold exclamation: “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11). If I were to write that today, people would call me a pantheist (the universe is God), whereas I am really a panentheist (God lies within all things, but also transcends them), as were both Jesus and Paul.

[1] See Krister Stendahl, “The Apostle Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West,” Harvard Theological Review 56, no. 3 (1963), 199–215. This scholarly work is key to understanding how the last five hundred years largely misunderstood and individualized Paul’s message. N. T. Wright takes the point even further in his marvelous and monumental study Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress Press: 2013).

Adapted from Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent: 2019), 40-41, 42-43.

Image credit: St. Paul Preaching in Athens (detail), Raphael, 1515, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, England.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: “You, all of you, are sons and daughters of God, now clothed in Christ, where there is no distinction between male or female, Greek or Jew, slave or free, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). “You are the very temple of God” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
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