Paul, And The Problem Of Other Christianities
“The ideology of Pauline studies privileges Paul’s voice over others,” laments one scholar, whose work I happened upon while researching the background for Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. “What undergirds this ideology is a desire for univocity, a search for a single meaning, a universal truth that lies somewhere in the letters of Paul.”
He goes on: “It is hard to find a Pauline scholar or reader, whether ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ in outlook who does not go to hear a transcendent divine truth spoken in and through his or her interpretation of Paul.”
Since at least the reign of Justinian, much of the world has, at least in theory, looked to the writings of Saint Paul in order to hear the voice of God in them.
“The problem with this ideology, among others, is that it makes it all too easy to marginalize, categorize, and label as Other those with whom we disagree,” he suggests. “If there is a transcendent truth locatable within Paul’s writings, then diversity and difference become deviance. To fall outside the ambit of Paul’s rhetoric, however it is consructed by scholars and lay readers alike, is to place oneself outside the fold, the norm, and the conversation. By privileging univocity and uniformity and locating that uniformity in the construction – or reconstruction – of Paul’s theology or rhetoric, difference becomes a problem.”
Looking for the voice of God in the writings of Paul means looking for the meaning of existence in Paul’s ideology. In other words, trusting Paul, over against other candidates, to tell us the truth about the world. We are, then, accepting Paul’s narrative, rather than his opponents, Paul’s discourse, rather than that of the people he opposes.
Historically speaking, Christians have understood theology that is consistent with Paul’s writings to be generally within the bounds of acceptability and theology that grates against Paul’s writings to be false – even heretical.
One problem with this, as this particular author would frame it, is that by privileging Paul’s vision for Christianity over that of his opponents in Corinth, for example, we are affirming, in essence, that there is such a thing as universal, Transcendent truth that is true for all people, everywhere, at all times. Throughout history, the idea that there is such a thing as ‘non partisan’ truth, by which everyone is equally constrained regardless of whether they assent to it, has given those who are in power license to coerce those who do not share their beliefs into falling into line and accepting the truth claims held by the majority – the Inquisition, for example, or the Witch Trials, or the Mccarthyist nightmare of the mid-twentieth century. The notion that there is such a thing is universal, Transcendent truth has quite literally killed people.
“Rather than looking to Paul as the norm, the yardstick against which to measure thought and theology,” he continues, “I have tried to cast him as one among many, a move that privileges diversity. ”
In doing this, the author quoted above is not alone. It stems, in large part, from the assumption, in vogue since the days of Walter Bauer, that Christianity in its earliest forms had no ‘creed’ or structure to speak of. On this retelling of Christian history, the version of Christianity that we now practice as normative finally won out when the machinery of the state was employed towards suppressing those with whom the so-called ‘orthodox’ bishops disagreed.
Bauer’s thesis wasn’t particularly strong in the early 20th century, and there isn’t much left of it. But the sentiment remains, and serves as a springboard for theologians like the one quoted above.
In order to remedy the widespread problem of ‘Pauline privilege’ in New Testament studies, then, the author’s “work does not look for Paul’s interpretation.” Instead, he has “tried to make space for ‘some’ Corinthian ghosts to have their possibilities.”
In less jargon-heavy language, he has sought to bring Paul down off the pedestal, so to speak, and instead try to reconstruct the voices of his opponents. Paul was not, as he and others in this particular post-Bauerian tradition assert (but never demonstrate), a valiant ‘defender of the faith.’ He was, quite simply, an idiosyncratic figure with a particular understanding of what Christianity should become. His vision for Christianity was no more intrinsically valid than anyone else’s, and certainly no more intrinsically true than that of his opponents in Corinth. Thus, when he rails against his so-called ‘heretical’ opponents, he is not doing so as one endowed with Transcendent authority or vocation, nor as one who speaks for God, but simply as a power broker, vilifying his powerless opponents in order to advance his own agenda.
The author, then, has sought to ‘put Paul in his place,’ as simply one voice among others in a conversation among ‘equals – where no one voice has any ‘Transcendent’ value over the others – out of a “commitment to plurality, a desire for difference, and the hope that a form of sociality might emerge that does not worship Transcendent univocity and rigidly police and enforce its borders.”
As such, he is commited to “looking beyond, around, and outside Paul for ways of thinking, believing, acting, and doing that might have been and that might still be.”
In doing so “we make space for other theological voices to be heard, or other visions of life to make their case to us, or other ways of organizing society and forming the self to present themselves to us.”
His hope, of course, is that piecing together the voices of the ‘alternative Christianities’ whom Paul ‘othered’ might “become a kind of pedagogy, a training in looking for and affirming difference.”
He concludes: “If we grow comfortable with seeing and hearing and finding pluralites, if we learn to desire difference, if we make our readings exercises in dialogue and debate without assuming that we must arrive at a singular truth, perhaps we can learn to look in the faces of those we fear and hate – and, perhaps worst of all, simply ignore – and instead see in them the face of God.”
Well-intentioned authors who take this tack, it seems to me, are a bit like the fabled ouroboros – the serpent who eats its own tail.
In another work, another author clarifies the implications of this particular hermeneutic. In her essay, she attempts to “unmask” the “violent undertones” of Paul’s rhetoric. The epistles to the Corinthians must be read ‘against the grain’ of the texts, she says, because Paul’s approach is abusive.
He is like a battering-ram, vilifying the Corinthian Christians because their expression of the Christian faith is outside of his “norm.” We must abandon the assumption that Paul’s iteration of the faith was ever the “correct” iteration – such sentiments are simply artifacts from a bygone age, when the ‘collected power’ of certain interest groups (“Pauline orthodoxy,” of course) was wielded to violently crush all dissent.
We know, now, that there is no over-arching truth under which all convictions can be measured. There are only ‘local truths,’ normative only in those communities that have opted to embody them, together. So long, then, as there is such a thing as “normativity,” there will inevitably be an ‘oppressed party’ who does not fit the norm.
In this light, she suggests, like the previous author, that Paul was not the fearless defender of “orthodoxy” that we have long imagined him to be, but simply a charismatic and domineering figure whose vision ultimately won out in the zero-sum power struggle that played out among the pluriform and disorganized Jesus movement of the first century CE. That Paul’s ideology ultimately won out against his opponents, then, was not a ‘victory for the faith’ – it was simply ‘social injustice.’ He didn’t ‘overcome the heretics.’ He just ‘marginalized’ the groups who felt differently than him.
Shocking as such conclusions may be, they are inevitable in any hermeneutic that begins with the “lived experience” of a group and works outward from there. Because if the “lived experience” of any given group (such as Paul’s Corinthian opponents) is the measure of things, then there isn’t actually any such thing as ‘social justice.’ There is only a kind of Nietzschean dialectic whereby any given group may acquire power and become oppressors or remain powerless and become oppressed.
So by the logic of the two authors quoted above, it would also have been oppressive if Paul’s Corinthian opponents had won out against Paul. There is a hypothetical world in which Paul’s voice was marginalized and the ideology of his Corinthian opponents came to be normative in the Christian church. In that possible world, perhaps similar authors with similar dispositions would be writing books that seek to destabilize the ‘Corinthian privilege’ in modern Christianity.
But probably not. Books like Classicist Sarah Ruden’s Paul Among the People or (at least peripherally) N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, or nearly anything by Wayne Meeks or Rodney Stark (or, for that matter, Paul Was Not a Christian by Pamela Eisenbaum), go some ways toward illustrating the extent that Western progressivism owes it’s very existence – quite literally “lives and moves and has its being” – in moral categories bestowed upon us largely by Paul.
It is only a minor exaggeration to say that the above authors have Paul to thank for the notion that marginalization should be avoided wherever possible, and that communal norms, though important, do not de facto bear within themselves the weight of the gods. To put it another way, if it makes us uncomfortable that Paul so vociferously comes to blows with those who would impose a substantively different vision for the Christian faith upon the early churches, it is because the moral and intellectual vision that Paul and his cohorts bestowed upon us have conditioned us to value ‘diversity’ in ways that his ideological opponents did not. In all likelihood, had Paul’s vision for Christianity not won out, nobody today would be complaining about the ‘marginalization’ of others. Not because we wouldn’t have a marginalization problem, but because we would never have been taught to care.
But diversity, pluriformity, the very notion that dissidents should not be crushed underfoot – these categories, quite frankly, are meaningless unless they are universally, transcendentally true for all people, everywhere, for all time, regardless of whether anyone acknowledges their truth value. If there are only ‘local truths,’ which are only normative for those communities that ‘opt into’ them, in a sense, then there is not actually any moral obligation for powerful interest groups to forego trampling powerless interest groups. There is nothing liberative about trading uniformitarianism for a formless and void relativism.
So the ideology that undergirds the two authors quoted above is bad for justice. If, however, we attempt to begin with Paul’s strange egalitarian impulse – as seen, for example, in his handling of the tense Jewish-Gentile relations in the churches of Rome, or the class-related issues pertaining to who could-and-could-not don ‘head coverings’ in the socially stratified churches of Asia Minor – then we will, or should be, compelled to become advocates for those upon whom society has tread, not simply as reactionaries or guilt-ridden members of the dominant culture, but as redeemed people compelled by God to faithfully carry out the ‘Cultural Mandate’ by rooting out injustice where possible, even at great cost.
[For those who are curious: The first author mentioned is Cavan Concannon, from the book ‘When You Were Gentiles,‘ and the second author is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, from her essay ‘Paul and the Politics of Interpretation.’]