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[Chalice] St. Paul Among [Chalice]
Contemporary Philosophers and Unitarians

Presented February 1, 2009, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

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This weekend our friend Father Bill Burton, a traveling Biblical scholar and Franciscan friar, came into town to do a study retreat on St. Paul. I decided to attend as much of it as I could, not only because I always enjoy Bill's entertaining Biblical lectures but because I have needed for a while to return to St. Paul and reread the letters, something I have not done for a long time. I need to do this primarily because in the last few years there has been a great interest among contemporary philosophers in, of all people, St. Paul.

How do you feel about St. Paul? When was the last time you read any of his letters? Jesus might still have great appeal to many Unitarians today, but Paul seems to have largely disappeared from our radar screen. Why would contemporary philosophers be interested in Paul? Why would Unitarians today be interested in Paul?

Unitarianism in our own country as we know is a product of the 19th century, and the 19th century generally either dismisses Paul or has a downright hatred for him. Thomas Jefferson, that great Unitarian father of our country, is a perfect example of this extreme distaste for Paul. Jefferson actually took the New Testament and reduced it by cutting away all the parts of it he didn't believe in. This meant, of course, all the parts that referred to Jesus as more than a very great and wise human being. This meant that all of Paul, all of his letters, ended up on the cutting room floor and were all out of the Jefferson Bible. William Channing, one of the great Unitarian ministers of the first half of the 19th century, exhibited a typical Unitarian admiration for the teachings and the person of Jesus while strongly objecting to the idea of Jesus as the Son of God who dies for our sins, a horrid idea he associates of course with St. Paul. This notion that the Son has to die to pay the debt of our sins to the Father replaces Jesus's loving Father God with the vengeful God of Paul, a God whom we should not love if we could and we ought not love if we did. A bit later of course comes a young and fiery Ralph Waldo Emerson, whom Steve spoke about a bit last week. Emerson in the 1838 Divinity School Address referred famously to Paul's notion of Jesus as the incarnation of God, as the God-Man, as the Miracle that is actually Monster. The whole idea of the one time only incarnation of God in Jesus as the God-Man becomes Monster with a capital M. Emerson says instead of the old Pauline theology we need a new conception of religious miracles, one that sees religious miracles as not opposed to but as one with the constant miracles of life, like the beauty of a fresh snow falling, or a great sunset over the river, or little Sebastian and all the other little babies looking up at you and reaching out. Emerson doesn't turn his back on Jesus, who always for Emerson remains a divine teacher, a true teacher of divinity, but he certainly has disregard if not contempt for Paul, the apostle and preacher who led us all to disastrously misunderstand spiritual miracles and to replace the constant and everyday miracles of life with the one time only event of the God-Man, the miracle that is really Monster.

No one in the 19th century or since is harder on Paul than the great atheistic philosopher, Friederich Nietzsche. It might surprise you to know that Nietzsche has all kinds of good and positive things to say about Jesus. The philosopher who called himself the Anti-Christ actually admired Jesus quite a bit. It's not Jesus Nietzsche hated, it's Paul! Jesus, says Nietzsche, preached a nobility of soul and showed the way for all of us to be wise and strong and self willed. But Paul, on the other hand completely, preached Jesus crucified, the dead Son of God who dies for your miserable soul. To Nietzsche, Paul completely twisted and distorted Jesus's elevated and dignified teaching, turning it into a low and vicious story of how the angry Father God requires humans to be lowly servile slaves, the exact opposite of Jesus' elevated teachings. To Nietzsche, Paul twisted and distorted every beautiful thing about Jesus' teaching and turned it into the ultimate religion of hatred, envy and jealousy. As Nietzsche said, "the only Christian died on the cross." The religion calling itself Christianity, the religion of Jesus as the God-Man, was for Nietzsche, largely an invention of Paul's sick and hateful soul.

In Nietzsche at the close of the 19th century you get a heightened and radical version of what a lot of intellectuals from the 19th century (Unitarians included) and probably a lot of Unitarians today believe about Jesus and Paul. Jesus good, Paul bad. Jesus a philosopher who talks about the ethical life, the golden rule, turning your other cheek, about the loving Fatherhood of God whereas Paul is the nasty, sin obsessed person who turns Jesus teaching about the loving Fatherhood of God into a myth about the Son of God and incarnation and the need for a God-Man.

This notion of Jesus as good ethical teacher and Paul as inventor of the Christian myth of the incarnation runs throughout 19th century Unitarianism, and it is probably very common among Unitarians today. But it is far too simplistic; it fails to understand Jesus as a real person, and it is terribly unfair to Paul. If we start with Jesus, this view makes Jesus out to be a Greek philosopher spouting universal ethical wisdom, which is great if Jesus were Heraclitus and Empedocles and not the first century Jewish rabbi that Jesus actually was. Jesus speaks not as a philosopher but as a Jew; his teaching is very much tied into who he actually is and who he is speaking to or about. His parables, like Dives and Lazarus or the Good Samaritan as well as his actions, such as healing lepers, actually reaching out and touching those whom the Jewish community in his time would have considered ritually unclean -- like the blind and deaf, tax collectors, women of ill repute, the poor -- can best be understood against the background of his own time and culture and not against the blank background of timeless ethical truth. And to say that Jesus talked about the Fatherhood of God and then Paul came around and changed it all and talked instead about Jesus as the Son of God who was crucified is a radical oversimplification of early Church history. Paul really cannot rightly be seen as the inventor of Christianity. Often when Paul gets very highly Christological and talks poetically about Jesus as God's son in his letters he is not inventing but is actually reciting familiar formulae and expressions already current in the earliest Christian communities. The famous passage in Philippians where Paul writes that Jesus, "though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God as a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave . . ." is just one example of Paul reciting rather than inventing or creating the Christ-centered theology of early Christian communities. The formula Jesus Christ Son of God Savior, ICTHUS in Greek, meaning fish, was a common metonym in the earliest Christian communities before Paul first took up his pen, probably in the year 48. So the very common 19th century view that is still common today that Paul came along and distorted the philosophy of Jesus, that because of Paul the preacher became the preached, is far too simplistic and is historically inaccurate.

So we do need to read Paul again, this time with a better understanding both of the historical Jesus as a probably very heretical first century Jewish rabbi who said and did audacious and -- from the perspective of first century Pharisaic Judaism -- outrageous things, and of the earliest Christian communities who so very early on -- even before Paul -- preached this Jesus as the Son of God and as the Messiah.

But what about contemporary philosophers such as Alain Badiou? Why have they been reading and writing about Paul of all people all a sudden? To a certain extent the resurgence of interest in Paul is a result of a certain nostalgia for the concept of truth. You might say it all began with a fellow named Slavoj Zizek. Zizek is not only the ultimate name for scrabble but is the most famous philosopher to emerge from post-communist societies. He's Slovenian, and of course Slovenia is a tiny country that used to be part of Communist Yugoslavia. Zizek doesn't mourn the collapse of communism but sometimes does point out some good things about the communist times. He says communist societies were not truthful societies, were in fact societies where people had to put up appearances, pretend, lie all the time, but they were societies that had a truth. Communism at least had a version of Truth, the Truth of the rebellion of the workers, of equality, etc. After the collapse of communism says Zizek all we have now is capitalism, products, things to buy and sell. But what kind of a truth is that? To try to get as much stuff as you can? That might be a goal, maybe even a purpose but it is not a Truth. Whoever dies with the most toys wins may be a cultural adage, but it is not a Truth, not like "workers of the world, unite" is a Truth, even when it isn't true!

Zizek's nostalgia for truth has led some contemporary philosophers to discuss that most old-fashioned of philosophical notions, Truth. The French philosopher Alain Badoiu has described Truth not as a proposition people agree to but as an Event that happens that comes to dominate an Age and people come to understand themselves as living within the Event of Truth. This leads Badiou, obviously enough, to Paul. Paul is a great example of the Evental nature of Truth. Paul preaches that the Event of Jesus' death and resurrection is a new and universal Truth for the entire world.

That for the entire world part, the universality of Paul's Event of Truth, is what is central to Badiou's rereading of Paul. As we have seen, Badiou starts out by saying that what we have now in our postmodern society is no universal truth but several particular, parochial truths. With Paul, Badiou says, we can understand an Event of Truth that is not particular but universal. With Paul we can think the foundational nature of universality. Paul insists that the Christ event is not a particular but is a universal truth available not only to the Jewish community, not only to those who keep kosher, are circumcised, follow the practices of ritual cleanliness. Paul insists that the Truth Event of Christ is a universal Truth Event not only for this particular community but open to each and every person in the world. Badiou is not saying we should all convert to Paul's universal truth, but he is saying Paul is an important person to know if we are to understand not only how truth Events happen but the type of Truth Event that is open to all, universal, and not just the truth of this particular community. Paul and his founding of a Universal Truth Event shows us how what some think we need to happen -- an Event of Truth that is for everyone and not just for those in this particular community -- happens.

This entire problem Badiou discusses in his book on Paul, of being stuck in many different particular truths but without a Universal Truth open to everyone raises fundamental and important questions for contemporary Unitarians and Unitarianism. Is Unitarianism today something like the chief example of our contemporary life with truth as a series of particular truths. For example, we may in March have a week as we usually do every year where we explore a certain reading within the Talmud. So that week we will be discussing the particular truth within the Jewish tradition. The following week we may have visitors speak to us who are practicing Buddhists, and that week we will be discussing the particular truth of particular Buddhist traditions. At least on the surface, our contemporary Unitarian liberal religion seems to illustrate very clearly Badiou's point that we now live in an era where all we have are various particular truths and no universal truths.

If that is the case, then we contemporary Unitarians with our various particular truths would be a great disappointment to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who preaches Truth as a universal Event open to everyone just as surely as Saint Paul. Emerson would also be greatly relived to know that it is also possible that contemporary Unitarianism may also be a new truth event proclaiming a new universal truth open to everyone. Remember that 8th principle of contemporary Unitarianism. We preach that the entire world is an interconnected web of which all humans are a part. We preach a Truth Event open to everyone that every particular society and community with all their particular and conflicting truths are still bound together and connected and mutually dependent upon one another. The image of the world as an interconnected and whole web of which all of us are just a part, is the Truth we declare to a still fractured, divided, and still constantly fighting world. This is a Universal truth we declare that is open and available to each and every person in the world even as they still live within and out of their own particular truths and traditions.

The contemporary philosophical return to Paul brings us at least this obvious question to us as contemporary Unitarians: Are we the only religious tradition that eschews once and forever the Event of Universal Truth as we move from week to week discussing and celebrating all the various particular truths from the various particular religious traditions of the world? Or do we speak to the world today in the same way that both Paul and Emerson did, as the bringers of a new Event of Universal truth that is open to everyone no matter who you are or no matter what particular tradition you belong to or particular truth you believe in. These two options give us very different versions of who we are as Unitarians and of how we speak to this interconnected but still so divided and always warring world.

©2009 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Manning, Rev. Dr. Rob. 2009. St. Paul Among Contemporary Philosophers and Unitarians, /talks/20090201.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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