|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.