Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
May 26, 2008
Year of St. Paul underlines Jesus as Lord
On June 29, the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the Catholic Church will begin the Year of Paul, a year devoted to reflection on the teaching and message of St. Paul.
On the face of it, this may seem more like an esoteric exercise than one likely to inspire the earth-shattering, world-changing conversion that Saul himself experienced on the road to Damascus. That view ignores at least three things.
First, there is the fact that Paul himself made his own cohorts in the first century distinctly uncomfortable. He wasn't run out of town, stoned, imprisoned and eventually martyred because he advocated a domesticated, happy Christianity of saccharine and lace. There is an edge to Paul's teaching, an edge that has not disappeared through the millennia.
Second, there is the fact that the Year of Paul is a project of Papa Ratzinger, a pope who has made it his life's work to stir up dust. There is little reason to believe that 2008-09 is the actual 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Saul. Moreover, the Church has managed to get by without celebrating the 2,000th birthday of say, St. Peter and St. John the Baptist. The pope, we will surely see, has chosen to celebrate the second millennium of St. Paul for reasons not designed to confirm us in our current prejudices.
Third, there is the matter of new scholarly thinking on the writings of St. Paul over the last 30 years. For a long time, Protestant theology tended to see Paul as a disciple of Martin Luther, shoe-horning Paul's writings into the box created by the Reformation.
Now there has been a decided change, at least in the English-speaking world. Instead of interpreting Paul through the lens of a supposed contrast between Christian grace and Jewish legalism, a sizeable number of scholars see Paul's basic argument as asserting that Jesus is Lord, the fulfillment of God's covenant with Israel. "Paul's Gospel" does not start a new religion so much as it offers the promise of a new humanity, a humanity in which all are offered the opportunity to be part of the covenant people.
In this view, Paul is most stridently opposed, not to an alleged Jewish legalism, but to paganism, a paganism that keeps slipping its tenterhooks into the new Christian communities he addresses in his letters.
N.T. Wright, the Church of England's bishop of Durham, is one of the leading exponents of this so-called new perspective on Paul. In his book, What Saint Paul Really Said, Wright maintains that Paul teaches that paganism offers us a "fractured and downgraded humanity." Humanity renewed in Christ, meanwhile, is the fulfillment of the vocation of Israel. The problem with Judaism without Jesus is that it is "a compromise with paganism."
Why should we care about paganism today? Because it is still alive. It lives in our contemporary way of life with its abuses of money, sex and power.
With regard to the first of these idols, Wright says, "We live in a society where debt, which used to be regarded as somewhat sordid and shameful, is glitzy and glamorous, with advertisements telling us that when you own a MasterCard 'You've got the whole world in your hands,' or alternatively that Visa 'makes the world go round.'
"Both of them makes claims for Mammon which, at the theoretical level, conflict directly with the claims of Jesus, and which, in practice, are very obviously lies; and yet millions believe them and live by them."
Paul's Gospel, in short, cannot be seen as a private system of piety.
If Jesus is the Lord of all, he cannot be cut out of public life and social morality. At the end of the summer, I will publish a series of articles in the WCR to address St. Paul's writings and their meaning for us today. Pope Benedict will no doubt offer his own reflections.
- Glen Argan
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