Friday, March 25, 2011

Giving St. Paul a Chance and his Influence on Christianity




Saint Paul falling off his horse in Caravaggio painting
The Conversion on the Way to Damascus
 by Caravaggio

I have for some reason or another always had preconceived, mostly negative, notions when it comes to the legacy of St. Paul. Despite his invaluable contributions to Christianity, I have objected to many of his views, methods and even his personality. So I decided to look into the matter and give St. Paul a chance by investigating him, myself and everything in-between to reach a more balanced and hopefully more open-minded perspective.

The Personality of St. Paul

As a matter of fact, Paul the Apostle appears to have bipolar tendencies, since he moves from humility to grandeur, from being a servant to an equal of the Lord within instants. St. Paul embodies indeed striking contradictions. He was a persecutor of Christians turned into a persecuting Christian in a flash. He turned famously from Saul to Paul when he was blinded by the lightning flash of Christ's truth and fell off his ass, i.e. donkey.

He was also somebody who was eloquent in writing but supposedly miserable in public speaking. Yet it cannot be denied that after his miracle-like conversion, he was passionate and fully dedicated and convinced of his noble cause and that nothing could stop him. Apart from his courage, he was at an advantageous position, being not only of Jewish origin, but at the same time a Roman citizen fluent in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. As such, he could reach a variety of people during his numerous trips.

One of his greatest contributions has been the fact that he managed to open up a Jewish religion to include and embrace Gentiles as well; in other words, to turn a specialized religion into a universal one. The humanity of the teachings of Jesus interpreted and filtered through this saint's vast knowledge became hence appealing to the masses and spread like wildfire inciting and inspiring millions as a result.


On Original Sin and the Problem of Evil

One of my “thorns” with Christian doctrine has been the problem of “Original Sin.” According to this belief, Adam committed a grave sin by eating of the “forbidden fruit,” blemishing and cursing all of subsequent humanity with his deed.

In the ancient past, it was a commonly accepted belief that one's sins will be spread over and transferred to future generations, so that the sins of the father equal the sins of the son. In ancient Greece, for example, shame that was brought upon a family was not that easily erased but remained for various decades and stained the family name.

Today, with our firmly established concepts of individuality and responsibility for one's acts, it seems rather unfair that one person's wrongdoing should reflect to another just because of blood ties. We are not guilty of other people's sins, no matter how close they may be to us. Much less, when the sin is committed by someone eons ago in an undefined place far far away with whom we have very little in common except in an abstract form. And well, all Adam did was eat some fruit. Big deal.

But I think the view of St. Paul on the matter becomes a little clearer when we replace the overcharged and problematic term of sin with evil. What Adam did was wrong not because of its act, but because he disobeyed God's orders. This would mean that he may have acted not out of curiosity, but out of vanity or rebellious pride. His act then could be interpreted as one of open defiance with an underlying evil motivation.

As a result, this attitude may have remained with humanity; it is genetic. The evil -- or estrangement from God and the good – that is passed on is that dark unconscious that each of us carry inside from generation to generation. It is that force that made Cain commit the first murder of history by killing his own flesh and blood Abel. It is that which estranges us from our fellow being and leads to war and destruction. That such dark forces dwell in humans is not illogical considering the horrendous deeds of our history continuing into the future.


On Sex and Women

My other objection has been his treatment of sex and his view on women. St. Paul may be in large part responsible for turning sex from a pleasurable activity to a sinful and shameful act. His ideal persons were those who fought against the prickly thorns of desire, did not sleep with any woman (or man?) and who became fully engulfed in their divine mission of preaching the gospels. It seems then that the best one can do was to become a monk and live a cloistered life. For those who were “weak,” they could marry and have children, but they should still control their sexual appetite and not fall prey to the fleshy entanglements of lust.

At the same time, he along with his spiritual brother St. Augustine, fought hard with his own sexual demons. Since the two saints were so immersed in their own struggle, they saw women as temptation and the supposed cause and constant possibility of any saint's downfall. They were not unlike recovering drug addicts who cannot bear the sight of drugs in case of a relapse.

Yet unfortunately, and undeservedly of course, women had to take the fall. They turned into instigators of sin, hence evil. The charming and beautiful Eve was suddenly the main reason why Adam behaved the way he did. In its extreme, it may lead to the ridiculous assumption that the world would be a more tranquil place without women.

Again, I will try to give St. Paul the benefit of the doubt. At other times, he claimed that both men and women were equally endowed for spiritual greatness. His views on women being "inferior" in society, the wife serving the husband and the husband taking care of the wife may be rather a reflection of the times. We must not forget that St. Paul was living in a pre-feminist era that did not consider women equal to men, while Genesis with its insistence on woman being created as man's playmate out of his ribs did not help in this matter.


Above the Mosaic Law and Being in Direct Contact with God

St. Paul rejected the traditional observance of rites and rituals, generally known as the Mosaic Law or the Torah and replaced it with the idea of a more direct contact and interaction with God, through faith. He built on ideas, such as love and forgiveness that had surged mainly with the advent of Jesus, and these ideas along with the issue of faith had a direct influence on St. Augustine, Martin Luther and the later Protestant movements.

In fact, St. Paul was not so much interested in the life and teachings of Christ, but rather in the fact that he was the Messiah. And the token of proof of his Messiah-ship was the Crucifixion and the subsequent resuscitation and ascension to the heavens to be at God's right side. Christ's resurrection was purported to be seen by a handful of people, including himself and the Apostles, but for the rest of humanity, it was to be taken on the article of faith.

Faith in the unbelievable became then an important aspect and cornerstone of Christianity. It was the unwavering belief said to redeem all of humanity regardless of status and position. Since faith knows no boundaries, it had an equalizing and democratic influence and made Christianity, at least in theory, accessible and appealing to anyone, whether slave or master, uneducated or learned.

Because of his teachings, St. Paul came into conflict with the authorities, making him a revolutionary in their eyes. His ideas were deemed controversial, and he had to spend time in prison. As he was completely dedicated to his ideas and causes, he eventually ended up dying a martyr for what he professed to be the truth.

As can be seen, I have tried for some reason, God knows why, to defend the case of St. Paul although I have only scratched the surface. After reflecting on his struggles, accomplishments and legacy, I find a certain type of admiration for him. He was like any person or saint, not without flaws. Yet at the same time, it makes him more human and a little more accessible to us. We may understand his motivations and his beliefs, while retaining the right to disagree with certain aspects of his teachings. Yet his decisive influence on Western thinking and on Christianity itself is beyond doubt.

11 comments:

John Myste said...

I think that St. Paul was not a follower of Christ at all. I think he (and some others) redefined what Christianity was for political purposes, and they use Christ as their idol. Furthermore, if they had not done this, Christianity would not exist today.

I have intended to write a long and uncharacteristically serious analysis of this for some time, but I never have the time.

I think the final product would be at least 10,000 words and no blogger would read it, so it would mostly be for me.

Paul was a Machiavellian genius who never intended for his letters to be partially packaged and presented as a coherent history of something.

Each letter was a political document intended to accomplish a specific purpose (or a set of them). His main task of tying Judaism to "pagan" religions while withstanding the attacks of purists in the Judaism camp, was enormous, and so he had to offer more (and he did).

More on this later. Must run.

Arashmania said...

That sounds very interesting, John, and I would love to hear more about it!

In fact, I am curious about what his political purposes were and why he was ready to die for them.

I believe that he, among others of the time, was a revolutionary and attacked the laws and practices of the times.

Yet I think that he did believe what he was preaching, so much so that he was ready to lay down his life for it. But then again, there may be other factors I am not currently aware of.

John Myste said...

I agree that he was willing to lay down his life. I tend not to think he believed everything he preached. I am quite certain he was deciding what preach as he went along. I will get to writing this one day. The itch is there and it is very itchy.

FishHawk said...

First of all, sin entering into this world through the disobedience of Adam, which was the very first sin committed by mankind, thus being the "original sin," was all by design. For it is written: For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. {Romans 11:32 NIV}

Secondly, our Heavenly Father has never held anyone accountable for the sins of another. For it is also written: The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. {Ezekiel 18:20 NIV}

Lastly, why seek to find fault with the Apostle Paul when he was just preaching what he had been given to say by our Heavenly Father? For it is also written: Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart. Rather, we have renounced secret and shameful ways; we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God. On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. {2 Corinthians 4:1-7 NIV}

John Myste said...

FishHawk,

“For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. Romans 11:32.” -- God makes no sense. He needed to make them sinful because He felt the need to “show mercy” on something weaker than Himself? Where was His need to show mercy? Can an immutable Being even develop such a psychological condition?

“Secondly, our Heavenly Father has never held anyone accountable for the sins of another.”

1. We all are guilty of Sin because Eve, who was incapable of sin, ate an apple, and thereby sinned. I think that is how the story goes.

2. Children were consumed by wild animals in Leviticus 26 to punish their parents.

3. Isaiah 14:21: “Prepare a place to slaughter his children for the sins of their ancestors; they are not to rise to inherit the land and cover the earth with their cities.” – That is very explicit guilt by association.

4. The second commandment says if you worship idols, your children will be punished for generations to come for your sins. This is four cases of guilt by association. There are literally dozens of places in the Bible where God holds children accountable for the sins of their parents and babies accountable for the sins of a community.

“The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them. {Ezekiel 18:20 NIV}” – Obviously, this is something Ezekiel made up from thin air, as noted above. He was trying to subvert God’s design. See what happened? Now he is dead.

“Lastly, why seek to find fault with the Apostle Paul when he was just preaching what he had been given to say by our Heavenly Father?” – Your causality is shuffled. He was in the process of designing our Heavenly Father, who was not yet complete. I do not have time to prove this now, but I certainly will. If you like, you can request that Arash send you an email when I do get around to writing the essay, as I would definitely like to hear an opposing view, and you seem to have your finger on God’s pulse.

I know this commentary may seem disrespectful, and for that I apologize. I could not remain mute while God is misrepresented to this degree. I do acknowledge that the Bible contains lots of contradictory data, and it is hard to know which parts to embrace. Perhaps it is better used as a set of allegories, some of them perhaps heavenly inspired, and not a literal history. I tried biting my tongue, but it soon became numb, and the effort grew ineffectual.

FishHawk said...

No, my dear John, I do not consider your commentary disrespectful at all. In fact, I welcome it. For addressing such is what I am called to help do, and the worst thing I have to contend with is silence.

The point of making us as we naturally are is to keep us from taking who we are all created to be for granted. For our Heavenly Father could have made us just as impervious to the temptations of sin as He is.

Yes, it could be argued that our Heavenly Father could have also made us just exactly like He truly is in every way, which would have made it unnecessary to place us in a position of obvious inferiority. For He does not have to actually do anything wrong in order to understand that it is unrighteous.

Just to be clear, our Heavenly Father did not create us sinful, nor does He tempt anyone to sin. For what He did was to make us without the ability to resist sin, and He has Satan and his horde of rogue angels to make our sins all the more egregious in order to make it easier for us to realize just how desperately in need of a Savior we naturally are. This is reason for the establishment of His Law, as well.

In fact, the only reason for our existences in this world is in order to accomplish our Heavenly Father's purposes, which is to give Him opportunities to receive a very special kind of love from us. For it is relatively easy to love someone who almost always does what you would have them to. Whereas, it is another thing entirely to hang in there with someone who appears to treat you quite badly, and He promises to pour out His gratitude for all eternity upon all who will but be willing to give Him the full benefit of their considerable doubts.

Yes, it is naturally inconceivable that the Creator of all that exists (apart from Himself, of course) would subject Himself to all of the agony that He truly has. For our Heavenly Father does not shield Himself from any of our suffering, and the pain that He felt when His only begotten Son, who truly is the Lord Jesus Christ, had to spiritually die in order to pay for all of our sins is more than we can even start to naturally comprehend.

On the other hand, if it is indeed true that we are all just paying for the mistakes that He has made down through the ages, it would be better if nothingness is the only thing that awaits us after physical death. For if things could have went terribly wrong before, it could happen again, which would mean that none of our eternities will be all that secure.

Yes, it may very well be that everything that I have said is nothing more than a matter of my own opinion based upon figments of my imagination. For it is the same with me as it was with the Prophet Ezekiel and the Apostle Paul, and only the witness of our Heavenly Father's Holy Spirit can convince anyone of what is absolutely true.

FishHawk said...

P.S. @ John: As in regards to all of those references about the children having to pay for the sins of their parents, they are referring to the actual effect that sin has upon a family--even an entire community. For when someone murders, steals or whatever, the ramifications ripple far and wide, and this is also part of the apparent gross unfairness of being physically born into this world as we naturally are.

By the way, I have subscribed to your Mysterious Things, and I will try to leave comments when I can. Since I have been suffering from very poor health for quite some time now, it probably won't be as often as I would like.

If what I have been given to say intrigues you, please pay a visit or two to at least my FishHawk Droppings site. For it contains the books that I have been given to publish in the order that they are meant to be read, and I would welcome any comments that you would like to leave. The first book in line is The Crackerhead Chronicles, which is an abbreviated account of my life so far. The next two books expand upon what was started in it, and they may hold the most interest for you.

http://fishhawkdroppings.blogspot.com/

Furthermore, I would like to invite you to become a contributing member/author on my new(er) site, The Tribulation Times Herald-Exhorter. Arash is already there, and I am looking forward to his next article. The "Hear Ye! Hear Ye!" site explanation near the top of the side-bar should answer many of your questions.

http://thetribulationtimesherald-exhorter.blogspot.com/

Francis Hunt said...

Like you, Arash, I frequently get tired of simplistic Jesus- good guy, Paul - bad guy presentations of the origins of Christianity.

Part of this is the view that Paul perverted an initial pure version of Jesus' teaching. We don't have enough of Jesus' original teaching to really say much about it and without Paul and his formulation of Christianity for diaspora Hellenic Jews and Gentiles, the Jesus cult would have remained a minority group within Judaism and probably have died out with the destruction of the temple and the scattering of the Jews following Massada.

In that sense you could say that Jesus founded the Jesus cult, Paul formulated Christianity.

John Myste said...

What Mr. Hunt just said is exactly what I wish I had said. Again, I will prove this beyond all reasonable doubt eventually. I am just been too lazy lately.

Fishhawk,

I can honestly say I am speechless. I want to speak, but I was not expecting such a response. I don't want to get into a long debate and you were too nice and I cannot deal with that. Can you at least insult me or something?

FishHawk said...

@John: CHICKEN!!! (On second thought, I have been chased by a few banty (bantam) roosters that weren't scared of nothing. So, TURKEY!!! Nope, I've met a few of them that were done right mean. So, um...oh, never mind!)

In all seriousness, all that I hope for is that you will careful consider what I have been given to say. For I am convinced that it truly is coming directly from our Heavenly Father, and if you will take some time to read at least the last two crumbs (chapters) of The Crackerhead Chronicles, you will see that I have experienced a dramatic change of thinking in comparison to what I was taught in a very conservative Southern Baptist environment. Part of that involves being made acutely aware of just how much our Heavenly Father still talks to us, and He is very much there for you right now. After all, how do you think you have come to be a creationist over your own objections?

Arashmania said...

Wow, I love where all this is going! I also completely agree with Francis. Without St. Paul, Christianity, as we know it, would not have existed. It would have died out and emerged within other religions.

Yes, the Jewish Revolt helped the propagation of the Christian faith because the early Christians felt forced to sever ties with the Jewish tradition and Christianity became a separate thriving religion, completely open to Gentiles, something again that was greatly influenced by the original thoughts and ambitions of St. Paul and not the slightly modified and watered-down versions we usually find in the New Testament.

@John: I believe that St. Paul was fully convinced of his beliefs, but I agree that he changed and adapted certain messages for political effects and reasons along the way.

@fishhawk: I will not even think about entering into a debate since you are obviously much more versed in the biblical verses. But I will also like to point out that there are, as John has observed, various contradictions in the Holy Scriptures. However, some of the points that you touch upon here, Fishhawk, are complex and very interesting, and I have planned a series of posts that touches upon them in more detail. I am particularly interested in the issues of faith, free will and predestination.

Again thank you all for this lively discussion!