We have just returned from a 4-day Blue Cruise along the Southwest Coast of Turkey setting sail from Bodrum. One could say it was easy and laid back, even that not much happened other than floating around on the beautiful blue Mediterranean and tramping about in some pretty cool ruins of an old Roman fortress, in fact a whole long stretch of fortified coastline. It was physically the most restful excursion I’ve had in a long, long time.
Spiritually, it was another thing altogether. With no distractions, I had hours for the inner stuff to bubble up – issues too personal for a blog, vocational questions, and heavy-duty spiritual stuff. It was, to tell you the truth, pretty hard – nothing I’d have chosen to do if I had seen it coming and nothing I’d have stuck with if I had a way to escape. But it was a very small boat.
The main thing I can say about it is that I spent four days wrestling with Paul the way Jacob wrestled with God’s messenger at Bethel and I suspect I shall come away with a limp as Jacob did. Before setting out on this two-week journey in the footsteps of the sometimes appealing, sometimes appalling apostle, I read up on him a bit. I had done that before of course, but this time I went deeper and was amazed to discover how little I knew. My Paul was pretty much the one discovered or created by Martin Luther in the 16th Century – all about being saved (forgiven and accepted by God) based on faith (believing the right stuff) and not by works. As I prepared for this class, I learned from N. T. Wright that rival interpretations of Paul have been prevalent in New Testament scholarship for pretty near a hundred years now – but I had somehow missed it.
The whole thing started with Albert Schweitzer’s game changer book, The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930) and then was taken further by E. P. Sanders with Paul and Palestinian Judaism (1977). What we have in this new perspective is what Schweitzer called Christ-Mysticism. I got that idea from Wright before flying to Turkey. But I didn’t honestly know what it meant. I did a good bit more reading, but not on this core point. Then we travelled all over Turkey visiting the places where Paul preached, wrote, lived, and did some of his time in prison. At the end of the tour, one of our classmates gave me one of her books, Paul by the Cambridge scholar, Morna Hooker. That’s what I read on the boat.
Hooker does her own carful analysis of the Epistles, but her conclusion is dead on the mark with Schweitzer if I understand them rightly. Substitutionary atonement is definitely a misreading. Christ suffered “for us” and “for our sins” alright, but it isn’t a substitution. It is a joining with us so that we can be with him. He dies to join us in the wages of sin so that his resurrection can lift us with him. As St. Irenaeus put it in the 2nd Century (1400 years before Calvin would give us the substitutionary atonement idea of an algebra equation of sin and punishment) – Irenaeus said of Jesus: He became as we are that we might become as he is.
It actually turns out that many of the texts translated as “faith in Christ” are better translated as the “faith of Christ.” That does not mean that we do not need to have faith in Christ. We do and there are texts from Paul that say as much; but the point here is that it is Christ’s faith that saves us. But for us to appropriate that salvation we have to be – drum roll here for Schweitzer’s key phrase – but it was Paul’s key phrase first – in Christ.
I do love the sound of that. And it is extremely appealing to an Enneagram 3 gone spiritual. My first published theological paper was on “theosis” or “Christification” in the writings of 19th Century Episcopal theologian, William Porcher DuBose. I love the idea of spirituality with room for progress. I love the idea of being like Christ. But at the ripe old age of 65, it doesn’t ring the same. I have not “become as he is.” I find myself as fallible as ever, in some ways worse. That doesn’t necessarily mean I am consigned to hell. It is Jesus’ righteousness attributed to me that sets me right with God, but his righteousness is also supposed to be transforming me. I am supposed to be in Christ.
So how does that work? I know to a moral certainty that if Paul had been blessed with word processing and with my wife for an editor this would be a lot clearer. But as it is, I have to figure out how to find my way into Christ. The key passage is Galatians 2: 20 (this is my paraphrase but I think it may be closer than a lot of the current translations to Paul’s voice):
I have been crucified with Christ and yet I live –
No, it is no longer I that live but rather Christ
who lives in me. And the life which I now live in the flesh
I live by trusting in the Son of God who loved me and gave
himself for me.
Being “in Christ” starts by being “crucified with Christ.” In Buddhism, they call it ego-death – the death of the “I”. In 1869 Charles Spurgeon called this the death of the Old Adam in us so that the New Adam might live in his place. Paul talked about various hardships he endured as “shar(ing) in the suffering of Christ. “ But pretty clearly Paul does not think self-mortification for the sake of spiritual advancement is the right way. He would have had no use for self-flagellation and climbing stone steps on your knees. Instead of scrubbing away the “I,” that just makes it stronger. It puffs up the spiritual pride. St. Augustine was a great ascetic. He denied himself all manner of life’s pleasures, only to find his Self-centeredness still perfectly in tact. He famously said, “I have become a great problem to myself.” He said that after the mortifications and so-called self-denials.
I tried to get rid of my ego to when I was younger. I sat on pillows for long hours meditating. I did prostrations. I chanted mantras. I found the more advanced I became in spiritual practice the prouder I was.
Paul has another way – the way of Jesus “who loved me and gave himself for me.” Do you see it? Christ loved us and gave himself for us out of that love. We don’t overcome the “I” by our own efforts. We love – loving Jesus would be the best possible way to go – but the main thing is to love someone or something enough to lose ourselves in that loving.
All of Paul’s letters are instructions in the art of love. 1st Corinthians Ch. 13 is the classic description but we can see it just as well in Philippians 2. It’s all over the New Testament, the setting aside of self out of love for each other. To love like that is to be “in Christ.”
I wonder if some people may even stumble into Christ without knowing it. I may be wrong about this. But consider this poem by the non-Christian Turkish writer Nazim Hikmet who spent 13 years in prison and 13 years in exile for his political beliefs:
It is no crime to be Romeo or Juliet;
it’s not a crime even to die for love.
What counts is whether you can be a Romeo or Juliet –
I mean, it’s all a question of your heart . . . .
You fall head over heels in love with the world,
But it doesn’t know you’re alive.
You don’t want to leave the world,
but it will leave you –
I mean just because you love apples,
do apples have to love you back?
I mean, if Juliet stopped loving Romeo
-- of if she’d never loved him --
would he be any less a Romeo?
It’s no crime to be Romeo or Juliet;
it’s not a crime even to die for love.