/ 18 April 2022

St Paul: A heavy cross to bear

Archbishop Desmond Tutu
Universalist: Desmond Tutu offered a different Christianity to that of St Paul. The archbishop was full of laughter, a reconciler and a warrior against homophobia and racism. Photo: Sunday Times/Getty Images


St Paul called them “visions and revelations granted to me by the Lord”. Applying one modern psychiatrist’s test — “if you speak to God it’s religion, if God speaks to you it’s psychosis” — we would see them as a temporary loss of contact with reality.

His shattering “encounter” with Jesus on the Damascus road looks like a hallucinatory crisis, perhaps linked to temporal lobe epilepsy and induced by heat, light, fatigue and inner strife about his persecutory mission.

The visionary sights and sounds, bright light and temporary blindness he records all point to a focal seizure.

Later, in a trance, Jesus tells him to leave Jerusalem. In Corinth, Jesus again addresses him in a vision. Paul also speaks of a journey to the “Third Heaven”, where he hears “words so secret that human lips may not repeat them”.

His authorship of certain epistles has been challenged, but there can be no doubt about Paul’s troubled psyche — his tumultuous, conflict-torn inner life, unpredictable vagaries and hypermanic drive. His agonised cry, “I do not even acknowledge my own actions as mine, for what I do … I detest”, underlines his psychological turmoil. He complains of a skolops (thorn in the flesh) sent by Satan, interpreted by some as sexual temptation. Paul’s exaggerated revulsion for “the base pursuits of the flesh” is well-attested. 

Sexual repression may account for his hyper-religiosity and fiendish work ethic.

From a persecutor “breathing murderous threats” against Christians he abruptly turned Christ’s emissary to the Gentiles in Asia Minor and Greece, covering thousands of kilometres on foot and being “flogged, imprisoned, mobbed, overworked, sleepless, starving” in the service of his new idée fixe.

Though he writes stirringly about love (“I may speak in tongues of men or of angels …”), it does not seem part of his emotional repertoire. With the Gentile churches his tone is often harsh and peremptory (“You stupid Galatians! You must have been bewitched”).

He demands the excommunication of those who flout his instructions, ordering a man guilty of incest to be “rooted out” and consigned to Satan “for the destruction of the body”.

Either indifferent to, or ignorant of Jesus’s ministry — his letters hardly mention it — Paul clearly has a chip on his shoulder about not having known Jesus or being among his original apostles.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche considered him a tormented crank, repellent to both himself and others.

As a Pharisee and “Hebrew born and bred”, Paul’s most influential volte-face was his rejection of the

law of Moses, prompting Jewish criticism of him as an apostate.

Born of his idea that “the new Creation” ushered in by the Crucifixion had replaced God’s covenant with the Jews, he was typically extreme, calling the Mosaic law one of “sin and death” and his former adherence to it “sheer loss”.

His rejection of Judaism, particularly circumcision, helped entrench its Christian offshoot as a Gentile movement. This was hastened by the disastrous Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66 CE and the eclipse of the Jewish church in Jerusalem.

Given his contemptuous dismissal of their beliefs, it is hardly surprising that Diaspora Jews tried to drive him from every city he visited.

His reaction has tolled down the centuries as the major ground for anti-Semitic persecution — deicide. “The Jews … killed the Lord Jesus and the prophets and drove us out,” he tells the Thessalonians. “[They] are heedless of God’s will and enemies of their fellow-men …”

Elsewhere, he speaks of “Jewish myths and commandments of merely human origin”. In a sideswipe at Peter and other Jerusalem church leaders, he warns against “those dogs and their malpractices. Beware of those who insist on mutilation — ‘circumcision’ I will not call it.”

The paradox is that Paul was as captive as any Jew of his age to the ethics, cosmology and prophetic traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Like Jesus, he accepted without question the idea of “typology” — that its prophecies prefigure current events.

In 1 Corinthians he invokes no fewer than five Old Testament texts to support his understanding of the Resurrection.

To read Paul is to feel the otherness of his mental world. He believed in a tiered cosmos — hence the Third Heaven, to which he was “snatched up”. Between God and the human world mediate an invisible hierarchy of angels (“thrones, sovereignties, authorities and powers”) and demons (“elemental spirits of the universe”).

Evil is no mere quality of human action: it is an objective, all-encompassing metaphysical reality, which Paul comes close to portraying, like the dualistic Manicheans, as God’s dark antagonist: “Our fight is … against cosmic powers, against the authorities and potentates of this dark world, against the superhuman forces of evil in the heavens.”

Sin is “original”, a hereditary taint transmitted to all humankind by the first sinner of Genesis, Adam. “Animal bodies” cannot enter heaven — only imperishable “spiritual bodies”, transformed after the dead rise on the Last Day.

Then, in what modern Evangelicals call “the Rapture”, the living will rise to meet Jesus in the clouds.

Paul’s Christology is equally alien to the modern mind. His vacillations on Christ’s relationship with God — whether an “image”, a subordinate (“he did not think to snatch at equality with God”), a son, or one divinity — became a potent source of contention and heresy, forcing the Council of Nicaea to declare them “consubstantial” in 352 CE.

The notion that “Christ died for our sins” comes from him. What does this phrase, blunted by endless repetition, actually mean? How could one death purge collective guilt? Why are sin and death still all around us?

His “brilliant but confused mind”, as the historian Michael Grant terms it, offers various possibilities, all from the realm of magical thinking.

One suggestion is that the crucifixion was the work of demons, whom it disarmed. “On that cross he discarded the cosmic powers and authorities like a garment,” Paul writes, “he made a public spectacle of them and led them like captives in a procession.”

Another is that of the propitiation of God through the blood sacrifice of his son, an idea castigated by the thinker Ernst Bloch as evoking Moloch, the ancient Canaanite/Israelite deity to whom children were offered in sacrificial rites.

Also worn threadbare by repetition is the trope that Christ “redeemed” humankind — purchased their freedom from bondage to sin. To whom was the blood price paid? Paul does not say, but St Anselm suggests God; St Augustine, the Devil.

Answering the objection that the Crucifixion has changed nothing, Paul offers the pipe dream of the Second Coming, which he thought was imminent.

His epistles predated the Gospels, and Grant is probably right to argue that without the Pauline “spiritual earthquake”, Christianity might have died. The larger question, though, is whether the world is a better and happier place for his teachings.

Paul was a homophobe and political diehard who argued that all governments are owed implicit obedience; women, created from and for men, should submit to their husbands and keep silent at meetings; and slaves should obey their masters “in fear and trembling”, as a religious duty.

Arch-conservatives such as St Augustine and John Calvin have seized on his ideas of our fallen nature, predestination and justification by faith, which feed Paul’s conception of the state as “the Restrainer”.

He entrenched such teachings through repeated, bullying insistence on doctrinal conformity — “We are prepared to punish all rebellion” (2 Cor 10:6); “If anyone preaches a gospel at variance to the one you have received, let him be outcast! (Gal 1:9)”.

On this foundation rose a monolithic, authoritarian-hierarchical church that stifled inquiry and debate, banned books, burnt heretics and entrenched religious obscurantism over scientific thinking.

Nietzsche observed that the essence of “the black art of obscurantism is … to darken our idea of existence”. Paul is the model of the joyless and sexless ascetic, whose epistles warn against “flippant talk … you should rather be thanking God”.

There is, thankfully, a contrasting strain in Christianity, exemplified by such figures as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, executed for resisting Nazism; the nuns Alice Domon and Léonie Duquet, “disappeared” during Argentina’s “dirty war”; and South Africa’s Desmond Tutu and his fight against apartheid.

Full of fun and mischief, Tutu personified the Buddhist idea of sacred laughter. A comforter and reconciler, he wept after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s first victim testimony. Contemplative by nature, he donned the warrior’s breastplate.

While conceding that his own view “was not the teaching of the church”, he was a universalist who rejected the Augustinian doctrine of eternal damnation.

He wanted no part of a homophobic heaven — his daughter Mpho is lesbian — or a God exclusively for Christians. He supported assisted suicide for those dying horrible deaths.

For St Paul unconditional love and kindness, or agape, was rhetorical flourish, a barren abstraction. He was, in his own words, a “sounding gong or a clanging cymbal”.

Where possible, Desmond Tutu bent the rules to ease afflicted humankind. Agape was the first and last principle of his theology.

Drew Forrest is a former deputy and political editor of the M&G