Then they cast [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul… And Saul was consenting to his death. Acts 7 v54 – 8 v1
What does a person do who is trying to take seriously their traditional religion while living in a society that sits lightly, or is perhaps a little hostile, towards that religion but seems to be in many important ways successful and satisfying? One option, the easiest maybe, is to split off your religious practice from living pretty fully the life of the wider society. Another is to formally reject your traditional religion, and perhaps wonder whether anything important has been lost thereby; I don’t know to what extent our militant secularists take this second step. A third is to withdraw into the traditional religion and eschew the life of the wider society – not at all easy, that one, but there are current examples, such as Cheredi Jews and Amish Christians. A fourth is to become militantly religious and make war on those who refuse your religion’s insights; this was Saul’s first choice and the final, fatal, choice of the 9/11 and 7/7 killers. And a fifth is to do what Saul later did when he became Paul: to try to see whether the insights of both traditional religion and modern life might be brought together to make a satisfactorily consistent and richly helpful approach to, and understanding of, life.
Paul had been brought up as a member of a strict religious minority, schooled in the careful observance of its rules and rituals; but he lived in a richly varied environment, full of secular kindness and cruelty, and replete with many different philosophies and religions. In Paul’s case the religion was Judaism and the environment was the Hellenistic Roman Empire, but the same tension between religion and environment is uncomfortably familiar to many people today. Paul’s awareness of the tension became apparent in his joining in with the killing of Stephen: it wasn’t so much that he disliked what Stephen stood for; it was just that to allow Stephen to stand for it was an affront to his religion. In point of fact, Paul never did find out much about the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth that was presumably known to Stephen. But, perhaps sickened by the realisation of where his current method of dealing with the tension was leading him, Paul went off alone to think about things, as he recounts in his letter to the Galatians. The result of his thinking is the essence of the Christian religion, and its relationship to Jesus of Nazareth is, oddly, at once crucial and tenuous.
If we take the New Testament at face value, what Paul certainly knew about Jesus was that he had been crucified by the Romans at the behest of the Jewish nation’s religious leaders, and that rather than resisting that outcome had gone quietly to his death after a last supper with his friends. He also knew that those friends had formed the firm belief that they had seen him alive after his execution. All this was of course known to many other people who where not as intrigued by its implications as was Paul, maybe because they were not so acutely troubled of the religion/environment tension. For Paul after the
road experience, what little he knew about Jesus offered a way of synthesising, of making simultaneous sense of, his Jewish religious tradition and the vibrant life of his Hellenistic environment. For that he did not need to know anything more about Jesus, certainly not his actual teaching that had prompted his execution. And the result of making the synthesis was a wonderful sense of release from the tension that had so troubled him. The violent religious reactionary became an energetic and creative missionary, keen to share with others, both Jew and Gentile, his synthesis and the freedom it had brought him. Damascus
When Paul’s converts and associates, including Luke, later collected the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it turned out that there was little obvious tension between Jesus’s teachings and how Paul’s had encouraged his followers to live. That is perhaps only natural: there are significant continuities between the social teachings of contemporary and earlier Judaism and those of both Jesus and Paul. It wasn’t that bit of the Jewish legacy that troubled either of them. What troubled them both was Judaism’s particularism – the notion that Jews were essentially different from and more favoured than Gentiles – and the related idea that keeping the Jewish religious Law was of paramount importance. Jesus and Paul tackled these misconceptions in different ways, Jesus through his stories and sayings, Paul through his philosophical approach to theology. As might have been expected, the Pauline approach has aged much less well than that of Jesus; we can still profit from Jesus’s parables and sayings when Paul’s high-falutin theology leaves us puzzled and unmoved. Where they differed, and differed markedly, was in their view of Jesus’s status: for Paul’s theology to work, Jesus had to be the Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ; Jesus himself was explicitly not remotely interested in being anybody’s ‘lord’.
This may be all very interesting, but does it matter any more? Is there anything useful for our approach to life that Paul’s experience might prompt us to learn? I think there is. The religious frame of mind repeatedly attempts to treat religion like an ancient fly caught in amber: mysterious, dead, unchanging and inaccessible. You can’t do much with such a fly; it’s just ‘there’. When religion is treated in this way, it inevitably comes over time to be one pole of a growing religion/environment tension, which is where so much difficulty begins, with results that can so often be in various ways disastrous. We can put Paul’s synthesis in religious amber but that merely starts off the cycle once again. We would surely do better to take from him not the specific synthesis he developed but the courage and boldness to develop, for these times and this environment, a synthesis of our own which will give us something of the commitment and freedom that Paul enjoyed. No doubt, like Paul’s, our synthesis will abandon some cherished but outdated ideas; but perhaps it’s not so much what’s left out that matters as whether the synthesis makes useful sense as we live our lives.