Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Paul Among the Moral Philosophers

Occasionally, as a Bible college student, I get to read and think about the Bible. ("Is he serious? Is he joking? I can't tell." Neither can I, friend. Neither can I.) In our ethics class last week I said that "law" has nothing to do with Christianity. I probably shouldn't have said that, mainly because it's almost definitely not true. But one of the reasons I did say it was because of these letters that Paul gave us that say stuff like "against such things there is no law." Life in the spirit is, in some sense, lawless, even though it is a life that fulfils the law.

Another passage that seems to back up my wild statement is 1 Corinthians chapter 6. There, Paul quotes the Corinthians (who may have been quoting a saying of his own) when he writes that "All things are lawful for me." This was the Corinthian justification for their dalliance with prostitutes. In light of this, we might expect Paul to say "Actually, no, not all things are lawful for you, and sleeping with prostitutes is one of those things." He doesn't. Twice he repeats the phrase "All things are lawful to me", and twice he (implicitly) reaffirms its truth. Paul, the man who has become all things to all people, will not budge on his insistence that, to paraphrase Zizek, if Christ has been raised from the dead then everything is permitted.

If we want to think of Paul as a sort of moral philosopher, we therefore cannot think of him as a proto-Kantian who set out to formulate maxims that could become universal laws. Can we think of him as a utilitarian? Perhaps, though in such a severely qualified way that it will render the description almost meaningless. Paul's first response to "All things are lawful to me" is "But not all things are helpful." His second response is "But I will not be dominated by anything." These words "helpful" and "dominated" are given content in the proceeding verses - content which centres around Christ and membership in his body.

For Paul, sleeping with a prostitute is not helpful because it is out of step with the particular telos of life in Christ. Being a member of Christ's body means being conformed to a concrete shape, a peculiar form. To become a member of a prostitute's body is to be de-formed. This is related to Paul's desire not to be dominated, for Paul's understanding is that what dominates us is what shapes us. When Paul says that he will not be dominated by anything, he almost misspeaks, however. Yet if he does misspeak, he puts things right only a few verses later when he says that "You are not your own; you were bought with a price." The key ethical question for Paul, then, is, who is creating us? Who is forming us? Which is another way of asking, who is our master? Who is the one we are imitating?

I was wrong in that ethics class. Law has everything to do with Christianity...provided it is understood that Christ is the telos of the law. If Paul was indeed a moral philosopher, his reasoning began and ended with the person of Christ and the call to be a member of His body. Ethics for Paul named the imitation of Christ, manifested in the life of the church by the power of the spirit and to the glory of God.

One consequence of this is that we don't tell people how to live like Christians, which usually takes the form of rules and laws. We show them with the hope that they will imitate us as we imitate Christ.

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