The Journey of Conversion (Richard Rohr)

Surely the biblical writer who most helps us discover the Christ Mystery is the Apostle Paul. Letters by Paul or influenced by him form one third of the New Testament. Paul is a foundational teacher for what became Christianity. [1] Yet he hardly ever quotes Jesus. Paul never met Jesus. He did, however, encounter the risen Christ.

This is not as strange as it may seem at first. After all, the Jesus that you and I participate in, are graced and redeemed by, is the risen Christ who is no longer confined by space and time. God raised up Jesus and revealed him as the “Anointed One” or the Messiah (Acts 2:36). I believe it was not until the Resurrection that Jesus’ human mind fully realized he was the Christ. It seems to have been an evolving awareness, as “he grew in wisdom, age, and grace” (Luke 2:52) and lived in faith just as we do.

The entire biblical revelation involves gradually developing a very different consciousness, a recreated self, and eventually a full “identity transplant” or identity realization, as we see in both Jesus and Paul. The sacred text invites us, little by little, into a very different sense of who we are: We are not our own. Your life is not about you; you are about Life! We gradually find ourselves part of the Great Vine, eventually realizing that we have never truly been separate from that Source (John 15:1-5). Once we are consciously connected to the True Vine, our life will bear much fruit for the world.

Paul seems to understand this well because it happened rather dramatically to him. He writes, “I live no longer, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Like Paul, the spiritual journey leads us to know that Someone Else is living in us and through us. We are part of a much Bigger Mystery. We are recipients, conduits, and gradually become fully willing participants in the Christ Mystery (which is not to be equated with simply joining the Christian religion).

No biblical writer had yet named what theologians now call “Trinity,” but Paul has a deep intuitive conviction about the Trinitarian flow—Love—passing through him. He comes to know that he is hardly “initiating” anything, but instead it is all happening to him. This is the same transition we all must make. Like the divine conception in Mary, we will eventually realize it is being done to and within us much more than us doing anything. All God needs is our “yes,” it seems, which tends to emerge progressively as we grow in inner freedom.

This understanding gives us an utterly different sense of self; this person is truly a “sounding through” (per-sonare) much more than an autonomous being. This identity transplant is true conversion. It is not about joining a new group or church; it is coming to know a new and essential self that is interconnected with everyone and everything else. Just as in Paul’s conversion, it takes quite a while for the scales to fall from our eyes (see Acts 9:18), with plenty of help from friends like Ananias (Acts 9:17) and others, lots of failures (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), and long quiet retreats in “Arabia” (see Galatians 1:17). His is the classic pattern of real but gradual transformation.

Christ Since the Beginning: The First Bible (Richard Rohr)

Sacred writings are bound in two volumes—that of creation and that of Holy Scripture. —Thomas Aquinas (1224–1274) [1]

Ever since God created the world, God’s everlasting power and deity—however invisible—have been there for the mind to see in the things God has made. —Romans 1:20

I think what Paul means here is that whatever we need to know about God can be found in nature. Nature itself is the primary Bible. The world is the locus of the sacred and provides all the metaphors that the soul needs for its growth.

If you scale chronological history down to the span of one year, with the Big Bang on January 1, then our species, Homo sapiens, doesn’t appear until 11:59 p.m. on December 31. That means the written Bible and Christianity appeared in the last nanosecond of December 31. I can’t believe that God had nothing to say until the last moment of December 31. Rather, as both Paul and Thomas Aquinas say, God has been revealing God’s love, goodness, and beauty since the very beginning through the natural world of creation. “God looked at everything God had made, and found it very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Acknowledging the intrinsic value and beauty of creation, elements, plants, and animals is a major paradigm shift for most Western and cultural Christians. In fact, we have often dismissed it as animism or paganism. We limited God’s love and salvation to our own human species, and, even then, we did not have enough love to go around for all of humanity! God ended up looking quite miserly and inept, to be honest.

Listen instead to the Book of Wisdom (13:1, 5):

How dull are all people who, from the things-that-are, have not been able to discover God-Who-Is, or by studying the good works have failed to recognize the Artist. . . . Through the grandeur and beauty of the creatures we may, by analogy, contemplate their Author.

Sister Ilia Delio writes in true Franciscan style:

The world is created as a means of God’s self-revelation so that, like a mirror or footprint, it might lead us to love and praise the Creator. We are created to read the book of creation so that we may know the Author of Life. This book of creation is an expression of who God is and is meant to lead humans to what it signifies, namely, the eternal Trinity of dynamic, self-diffusive love. [2]

All you have to do today is go outside and gaze at one leaf, long and lovingly, until you know, really know, that this leaf is a participation in the eternal being of God. It’s enough to create ecstasy. The seeming value or dignity of an object doesn’t matter; it is the dignity of your relationship to the thing that matters. For a true contemplative, a gratuitously falling leaf will awaken awe and wonder just as much as a golden tabernacle in a cathedral.

Paul’s Inspired Teachings on Marriage

Students of the New Testament frequently raise the question as to whether or not Paul was ever married. From the viewpoint of modern Latter-day Saints who understand that marriage and family are central to God’s plan of happiness, it seems logical to conclude that one who was called as a special witness of Christ (see Romans 1:1; 1 Corinthians 1:1; 9:1; Galatians 1:1) would have lived in accordance with all of the gospel law and hence would have been married at some point. But from the New Testament record itself is there evidence that would support that conclusion? Yes. Let me suggest four compelling evidences.

First, Paul came from a Judaic background (see Acts 21:39; Romans 11:1) wherein marriage was viewed, traditionally, as a religious duty of utmost importance. According to an early delineation of the 613 precepts contained in the law of Moses, marriage was listed as the first. Customarily, Jewish men and women married between the ages of sixteen and eighteen, although some were as young as fourteen. It is likely that Paul would have wanted to comply with the traditional religious expectation of marriage. [2]

Second, Paul was a Pharisee (see Acts 23:6; Philippians 3:5), one of the strictest bodies of Judaism (see Acts 26:5), and prided himself in being a devout adherent to all of Jewish law. Tutored “at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers,” Paul became, by his own admission, “zealous toward God” (Acts 22:3). In fact, Paul described himself as even “more exceedingly zealous” in fulfilling the requirements of the law than were his peers (Galatians 1:14). It seems plausible that Paul’s zealous determination to strictly obey the totality of the law would have extended to marriage. If Paul “lived unmarried as a Jerusalem Pharisee,” noted Frederic Farrar, “his case was entirely exceptional.” [3]

What’s So Good About Original Sin?

I would like to entertain the notion that a secularized conception of original sin is plausible, and that believing it might have good effects.

.. In trying to make the world an excellent place for human beings to live by developing and applying ingenious technologies, for example, we may wind up rendering it uninhabitable. Or in trying to keep ourselves safe and secure by stockpiling defensive weaponry, we may annihilate life on earth. There’s really no need for God’s punishment when you’re making your own hellfire.

.. As Paul told the Romans .. , “I do not know what it is that I accomplish” and “what I wish, this I do not do; instead, what I hate, this I do.”

.. There is some level of self-scrutiny too merciless for most of us, some inner corridor too dark. We are mystified, or purport to be, by mass shooters, for example. What could possibly motivate a person to want to kill — everyone? What could turn them so against their own species? I suggest that to answer a question like that we must look within ourselves — at our own violent fantasies, the ways we hate or negate the world, our moments of imagined annihilation of people we fancy to be our enemies, our feeling at times that we are being arbitrarily persecuted or misunderstood.

.. This insight is not the exclusive province of Christian theology. Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “I have within me the capacity for every crime.”

.. We may regard a shooter — or a racist, a sexual predator, an addict or someone who commits suicide (as de Cleyre herself tried to do at least once) — as alien. This reinforces, to ourselves and others, our sense of our own sanity and goodness;

.. The doctrine of original sin — in religious or secular versions — is an expression of humility, an expression of a resolution to face our own imperfections.

.. There is much to affirm in our damaged selves and in our damaged lives, even a sort of dignity and beauty we share in our imperfect awareness of our own imperfection, and our halting attempts to face it, and ourselves.