Arguing about Paul
Over on the Book of Face, I happened on an article about St. Paul, who happens to be a fave of mine. In the course of the discussion, somebody made a characteristically postmodern remark about him. I say “characteristically postmodern” because it exhibits the curious inability folk in our time have for being able to be multicultural about cultures of the past and is filled with the boundless contempt and intolerance such folk have for any worldview they cannot patronize with their White Savior complex. The past, as has been famously said, is another country and postmoderns cannot, as a rule, cope with it. So they forever judge it by contemporary standards and refuse to cut any slack to denizens of the past for failing to have benefitted from insights and mores that it would take millennia for human beings to deduce. Why did ancients not just use microwaves and blenders like we do? Why could they not just see that the world was round? How come they kept slaves? Practiced Bronze Age warfare? Believed in divination? Weren’t democratic? Thought certain people were naturally inferior/ superior? They must have just been stoopid! Fortunately, we are just better people now and have nothing to learn from them. So a reader writes of St. Paul:
While on the subject of Paul, could someone ever address the obvious misogyny in most of his so-called ‘teachings’?
Actually, I can think of only a handful of times Paul speaks about women specifically in his letters and a number of these are remarks that, given their first century context, are surprisingly egalitarian, particularly when he hails women as fellow laborers in the gospel and declares that in Christ Jesus there is neither male nor female. I’m not sure what “so-called” teachings mean. He was, after all, an apostle.
really, have you forgotten the lines where he says women are meant to be submissive to their husbands, and where he says being married is a burden for a man who wants to live the godly life.. he was a fanatic, and a fundamentalist; and he merely shifted his focus from one set of teachings to another. As this article states, he did not ‘convert’ to Christianity. He was not an apostle – the title apostle was honorary, bestowed upon him; which in itself, means nothing.
In fact, he says “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). His entire discussion of marriage is predicated on mutual humility in imitation of Christ. In first century Greco-Roman culture, women and wives had almost no rights. What Paul does is place the burden on husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church (i.e. live as servants and die for them). The submission he calls wives to was basically the norm already expected in that culture. In other words, he asks nothing more of them than the norm, while demanding a radical revolution of husbands.
As to his preference for celibacy and his recommendation that others follow suit if possible, he is simply echoing the other great celibate of the New Testament, Jesus Christ, who likewise commended those who chose to be “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven”. He does not make it a law or a requirement. He simply says that it is less of a headache to remain single if you want to maintain an apostolic lifestyle. His view of marriage, as he makes clear in 1 Cor 6 is that it is not a sin to marry (indeed he rejects condemnation of marriage in his letter to Timothy) but notes that celibacy leaves people free to focus on ministry.
In short, Paul’s view is that marriage is good, but celibacy is better, a view conditioned by his work as an apostle and by the teaching of Jesus. Had he been a fanatic, he would have insisted on celibacy and condemned marriage as the true fanatics, the gnostics, often did. To be sure, Paul certainly has a will of iron about his duty to Christ. Meeting the risen Christ does that to a person. But “fanatic”? That tells us more about your hostility to Paul than about him.
Likewise, I have no idea what the meaningless epithet “fundamentalist” means in his case. What sticks out in Paul is not commitment to a rigid set of little rules and shibboleths, but a flexible multicultural approach that encompassed a wide range of cultural differences between different expressions of Judaism and different Gentile cultural, philosophical and religious norms.
Nor can I parse your disparagement of his apostleship. Of course it is a title, one given him by Christ, the other apostles, and the entire Church. But it’s not one he invented for himself. “Apostle” means “sent one”. Its root is where we get the term “Post office”. Paul was sent by the Church in Antioch in Acts 13, along with Barnabas, who laid hands on them both in the sacrament of ordination and sent them in the name of Jesus. It is nonsense to complain that he accepted the mission given him in the name of Jesus by his Church.
Paul accepts Jesus’ teaching about marriage (Matthew 19). He rather carefully distinguishes his own opinions from the apostolic tradition about Jesus’ teaching, insisting that “Not I, but the Lord” says X, while “I, not the Lord” say Y. This is characteristic, not of a fanatic or a fundamentalist (who tend to treat their own ipsi dixits as identical with the Will of God), but of a shepherd. Paul has his own notions of what might be a good idea. But he is cautious not to impose them as law, but only to recommend them as good ideas.
Does Paul hold distinctly premodern ideas? Of course, he’s premodern! What do you expect? He takes slavery for granted as a part of life. He doesn’t like it, and where possible, he recommends slaves getting their freedom. But he also tells slaves to be good slaves because he lives in a world where slavery is simply a fact of life. In the same way, he takes for granted the cultural norms that women were to be silent during worship, that woman was the first deceived by the serpent, and that women should cover their heads during worship. This is not “misogyny”, however, unless you want to drain language of meaning. “Misogyny” is hatred of women. There simply is no evidence that Paul hated women. On the contrary, Paul insists that women are as much made in the image of God as men, that men and women are fundamentally interdependent in Christ, and that it is as contrary to the gospel to regard women as inferior to men as it is to regard Gentiles as inferior to Jews.