The Apostle Paul
Paul as Nondual Teacher
Wednesday, May 17, 2017
Meeting the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus changed everything for Paul. He experienced the great paradox that the crucified Jesus was in fact alive! And he, a “sinner,” was in fact chosen and beloved. This pushed Paul from the usual either/or, dualistic thinking to both/and, mystical thinking.
Not only did Paul’s way of thinking change, his way of being in the world was also transformed. Suddenly the persecutor—and possibly murderer—of Christians is the “chosen vessel” of Christ, chosen and sent “to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel” (Acts 9:15). This overcomes the often artificial line between perfectly good and totally bad, between evil and virtue, which he believes cannot be resolved merely by obeying laws (see Romans 7). The paradox has been overcome in Paul’s very person. He now knows that he is both sinner and saint, as we too must trust. Once the conflict has been overcome in you, and you realize you are a living paradox and so is everyone else, you begin to see life in a truly spiritual and compassionate way, which demands that you let go of your too easy dualisms.
Paul often presents two seemingly opposing ideas, such as weakness and strength, flesh and spirit, law and grace, faith and works, Jew and Greek, male and female. Our normal, dualistic thinking usually wraps itself fully around one side and then fully dismisses the other—thinking this is truth—when it is much more just a need for control or righteousness. Like Jesus, Paul invites you to wrestle with the paradox. If you stay with him in the full text, you’ll see he usually comes to a reconciliation on a higher level, beyond the conflict that he himself first illustrates. Many readers just stay with the initial dualistic distinction he makes and then dislike Paul. It seems you must first seek an often dualistic clarity about the tension—but then grace takes you to a higher level of resolution instead of just choosing sides. Some of us call this “third way” thinking—beyond the usual fight or flight responses.
The dialectic that we probably struggle with the most is the one Paul creates between flesh and spirit. I don’t think Paul ever intended for people to feel that their bodies are bad; he was not a Platonist. After all, God took on a human body in Jesus! Paul does not use the word soma, which literally means “body.” I think what Paul means by sarx is the trapped self, the small self, the partial self, or what Thomas Merton called the false self. Basically, spirit is the whole self, the Christ self that we were born into and yet must re-discover. The problem is not between body and spirit; it’s between part and whole. Every time Paul uses the word flesh, just replace it with the word ego, and you will be much closer to his point. Your spiritual self is your whole and True Self, which includes your body; it is not your self apart from your body. We are not angels, we are embodied human beings.
Gateway to Silence:
I am God’s dwelling place.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, Jesus as Liberator/Paul as Liberator (CAC: 2009), MP3 download;
St. Paul: The Misunderstood Mystic (CAC: 2014), CD, MP3 download;
Great Themes of Paul: Life as Participation, disc 4 (Franciscan Media: 2012), CD; and
A New Way of Seeing . . . A New Way of Being: Jesus and Paul (CAC: 2007), CD, MP3 download.