Monday, August 3, 2015

Reading Romans: Paul the Universalist?

While following along with the Westar Institute’s challenge to read all seven undisputed letters of Paul went along quite well for most of July, I admit to some serious procrastination when it came time to read Romans.  In the spirit of completing what I started, though, I will offer some comments here.

First, a word on Philippians. Brilliant. Bright.  A ray of sunshine, frankly, and the most poetic of Paul’s writings.  He seems finally to glimpse the possibility of unity centered on the joy and love of Christ.  His ego is still a bit in the way, but it’s starting to recede, and good on him for it.

Now on to Romans: his most intellectual, and therefore most convoluted, attempt to work out the significance of the revelation of Christ, both for the Jewish community, and for the Gentiles.  There are some harsh words on human sexuality in here, but it helps to read before and after the ‘hot’ verses.  Paul is concerned about sin, not for its own sake, but because in his mind it is a sign of idolatry.  Those whose lives are given over to sins of all sorts are expressing in their outward conditions (which Paul calls ‘the body’) the state of their inward spirit.  This letter, then, is Paul’s attempt to account for the presence of sin among people who have received either the revelation of the Law, or the revelation of Christ.

Paul rightly understands that the consequence of Adam’s sin is the universal condition of suffering and death.  I say rightly because what Paul is pointing to here is, in fact, the human condition – all sin, all suffer, all die.  And Paul rightly claims that Jesus Christ is the witness and example that sin, suffering and death are not God’s last word for humanity – that forgiveness and restoration (he calls it ‘salvation,’ [soteria: rescue, safety]) are.  His words at the end of chapter 8 ring out: neither life not death, nor angels nor principalities, nor anything already in existence nor anything still to come, nor any power, nor the heights nor the depths, nor any created thing whatever will be able to come between us and the love of God, known to us in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 8:38-9, NJB)  God intends all humanity to live in a state of perfect freedom, and the path to that goal is life ‘in Christ.’

He then goes on to make the convert’s universal error – if coming to this understanding has made it all crystal clear to me, then this must be the understanding (i.e., belief in and acceptance of Jesus Christ as personal savior) that will work for everyone else as well.  And so he tries to create a new 'universal' community, one that transcends the former divisions of Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, but creates his own division in doing so: his ‘us’ and ‘them’ is ‘believers’ and ‘idolaters’.  This may, perhaps, be a response to two concerns: 1, as noted above, Paul is well aware that sin persists, both within and beyond both Jewish and Christian communities.  And 2, God’s perfect freedom to both forgive and condemn appears to need defending, as the references to Moses and Isaiah in chapter 10 would suggest.  If God’s love is completely universal, not dependent upon human actions or statements of belief or any other criterion, then God’s supreme freedom to judge among human persons is compromised.  It is a conundrum which plagues theologians in the form of theodicy:  if God is all-good, how can evil exist?  But it does.  And moral evil, as indication of the rejection of God’s grace, is where Paul draws the line.  

I'm going to go out an a limb, though, as the title of this post indicates.  I’d like to think of Paul here as a proto-universalist.  Perhaps I’m being optimistic, but here’s my evidence: Paul felt himself compelled to preach the crucified Christ as God’s message of forgiving love to the entire non-Jewish world – precisely the people least likely to understand what he was talking about.  The barrier between Jew and Gentile was the first to come down.  After that come the dividing walls, at least in theory if not yet in practice, between slaves and freemen, and between males and females.  If in Adam all die, even so in Christ all will be made alive.  It’s there, just below the surface of the text, and Paul himself may not even have realized it.  But we must see it, and embrace it, if Christianity is to live up to its own promises.

We live in a time no less divided than Paul's, and his failure to imagine a truly universal path to God has resulted in 21st century people who can call themselves Christians and yet divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ‘friends’ and ‘enemies,’ and along much the same lines: male and female, rich and poor, black and white.  It is time, in the name of the crucified Christ, to move beyond Paul's limited vision, to embrace the fulness of God's promise of peace and freedom and redemption, and put all such divisions to an end.  Will you, in the name of Christ, join me?