It must be a weird, rare experience for a writer to derive any practical comfort from her own writing. (Usually when proofs are sent to me for correction, I panic, frantic to change everything at once; when the finished, permanent version comes, I despair.) But I'm surprisingly glad I wrote Chapter 5—"The Natural Science of Greek Philosophy and the Social Science of Judaism Become the Super-Providence of Paul"—in Abraham's Dice: Chance and Providence in the Monotheistic Traditions, edited by Karl Giberson and published this spring by Oxford University Press. The John Templeton Foundation sponsored the volume and the conference that generated it to explore the history of ideas about why and how things happen—at random or in logical patterns, predictably or mysteriously?
I don't think any of the contributing authors guessed what sickeningly colliding forces would characterize the year in which this volume appears. As I travel to talk about my current day job, New Testament translation, and meet faculty, administrators, clergy, and parishioners, I've become used to the politics-inspired eye-roll, the report of a media fast, the simple declaration of confusion or hopelessness, the reminder of the efficacy of prayer.
Alas, my husband Tom is something of a card, so that when I get home the bedroom resounds with coverage of the latest outrage and he is listening with an ironic smile. I feel obliged to wake him at 3:00 AM and murmur: "Husband, I am having lustful thoughts about Donald Trump/Hilary Clinton/Kim Jong-un/the entire Belgian police service."
But when I page through my own distillation of Paul of Tarsus' central message—that the teaching of the crucifixion and resurrection changed everything, superseding vast intellectual systems of causality (the pagan philosophical religions, the providential history that Jews saw governing their fate) without canceling the notion of human self-determination but rendering it, outside the option for faith, rather trivial—I feel some reassurance about what God has done for us so far, and what He will still do; starting with our endurance of the daily news cycle.
I touched in my chapter on the paradoxes of Paul's influence. Reading as much as I could into the tone and context of even the statements that have passed as most magisterial, I had to conclude that he was concerned first and foremost with clearing a space for the consciousness of salvation. Temperamentally, he listed virtues and vices, he admired and condemned individuals and groups; but his dogged return to equanimity, and to the ideal of "freedom" (a Greco-Roman trope), suggests that he really meant it: nothing in the world could separate the faithful from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39); nothing that happened to them down here had to matter in the long run.
Take 1 Corinthians 7—please! No, I'm sorry to be flip, but who was it who first understood that chapter to be dourly prescriptive? It reads to me more like a warning against the officiousness of formulative tinkering—innovation interventions, data-driven solutions, creative destruction, in today's parlance. An unsuitable marriage was unfortunate, Paul probably would have admitted; so might circumcision or the lack of it be in a particular situation; so was slavery; but none of these was as bad as a divorce of choice, or an adult circumcision or an attempt to undo the operation, or an attempt to escape slavery. Even virginity and celibacy, with their obvious devotional advantages, shouldn't be undertakings dictated by authority, jammed in at the top of a rigid hierarchy of witness, but rather what given individuals wanted for themselves. He didn't know—and may not have cared—what fruit would grow from his insistence on the centrality of the loving relationship between humankind and God; how—for example—one day a slave's deliberations about whether or how to endure her condition would result only from an outrage, from the flouting of law and ethics championed around the world, and not from the way things are in every society.
Conflict and distraction were plainly on Paul's mind as he gave his advice—and he gave it only because he had been asked to (1 Cor. 7:1)—but he was probably guided overall by the principle through which he addressed the choice that truly preoccupied both his followers and his enemies: should they obey the Jewish law, or was it of no consequence?
Yes and no was his answer. The law had obvious meaning and prestige. The physical form of salvation appeared in the Jewish polity and never left it; but to strive toward the law, to worry about it, to disrupt and divide a community for its sake was an insult to salvation, an argument that salvation contained conditions, was contingent and not self-sufficient.
Paul's all-important teaching was thus not to react with fear and passion, not to catastrophize—the great sin of 21st-century pundits, as well as of so many people around Paul: rival missionaries, traditionalists both Jewish and pagan, law-and-order types and proponents of social change, the contemptuous, the bewildered, those whose sufferings enraged or enervated them, those preoccupied with their own possessions and positions to the exclusion of all else.
Not that Paul himself didn't often catastrophize. I personally think that his tendency to fly off the handle was the "thorn in his flesh" (2 Cor. 12:7). To read whole letters of Paul in Greek is to experience a whip-sawing such as not even the ancient satirists and epigrammatic wags subject you to. Blessings and greetings to you all—but that development there among you is outrageous, intolerable—or detrimental, inadvisable, and couldn't you do better?—not that it's important, compared to the awareness of our salvation—and look at me, your leader, with all my own faults—look at how all of our characters, all of our experiences, resolve in one blessed destiny—but how annoying, then, that this other matter is still unresolved!
To trace the basic ideas behind Paul's letters is to confront the great paradox of the West. The space for strict prescription that charter Christianity—a development of incredible though seldom acknowledged influence far beyond religion—properly allows for is thrillingly, enticingly small. But the thoughts and acts with which human nature fills the correspondingly large space of freedom tend—naturally—to be disappointing.
Nevertheless, the inventive, imaginative, compassionate, connective, productive, adaptive happenings in that space last, and glow, and warm us, and we embrace them and call them progress. It's easy, therefore, to forget that most of what happens in the space is just us reacting to each other, and being our usual asinine selves, with our stupidity and offensiveness generally taking on extra size in proportion to whatever extra space we've managed, individually, to occupy.
The big trouble with modern Western culture is that Paul's corrective, or any reflex of it, is disappearing. Innumerable overlapping spheres of freedom grate on each other, yet our intellectual and social and political world is pressed flatter and flatter. Fewer and fewer people have any awareness of the infinite space above. This space, utterly full but—in a human sense—utterly empty, should be telling us what we really need to hear in order to behave a little better: that nothing that goes on in this election, or in these international conflicts, has to matter in the end.
Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University. She recently finished translating the Oresteia of Aeschylus for a Modern Library collection with funding from the Guggenheim Foundation. The Face of the Water: A Translator on the Beauty and Meaning of the Bible is forthcoming from Knopf.
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