A Pauline Integration of Christianity into Cultural and Juridical Structures
Juan Manuel De Prada
The commemoration of this Pauline Year should serve us as an incentive to reflect on one of St. Paul's most distinctive and brilliant features, the impulse of universalism that was shortly to become a constitutive element of faith in Jesus Christ.
It was a universalism that, in addition to bringing fulfilment to the mission that Jesus had entrusted to his disciples, was to define the innovative approach of Christianity as a religion that incorporated pagan wisdom in its cultural patrimony.
This cultural assimilation transformed Christianity from the outset, making it a religion different from any other. Whereas other religions establish their identity by denying the cultural heritage that preceded them, the Christian faith, thanks to St. Paul's genius, understood in its new universal vocation, required it to be introduced into the cultural, administrative and juridical structures of its age. This was not in order to syncretize with them but to transform them radically from within.
And St. Paul's brilliant illumination, which without a doubt came from the Holy Spirit, must serve as a vigorous inspiration to us Catholics today, who are all too often tempted to take a defensive position against a hostile world.
St. Paul, born into a Jewish family at Tarsus in Cilicia, was also a Roman citizen. This condition or juridical status helped him understand that Christianity's vocation to universality would only be fully achieved if it were successfully integrated into the structures of the Empire that ruled the world.
It had to be integrated if people were to benefit from its vast cultural heritage and the Empire's corruption was to be washed clean from within. Christianity would not have managed to be what it actually is if it had not made Rome's languages it own; or if it had not adopted its laws, to humanize them later, founding a new law, penetrated by the striking idea of personal redemption brought by the Gospel.
Christians could have been content to stay on the margins of the Roman world, like people without a country secretly celebrating their rites. By advancing further into the mouth of the wolf, armed with the torches of their faith alone, they risked death in its jaws. Yet in the end they kindled a blaze that would outlast the monuments of Rome.
Of what strong alloy was that man made who overturned the course of history for ever? We know that Jewish and Hellenistic elements were amalgamated in St. Paul's cultural background. He had an inexhaustible knowledge of the Greek language, nourished by the Septuagint version of the Scriptures.
However, at the same time he was distinguished by a far from superficial knowledge of the Greek myths, as well as familiarity with the Greek philosophers and poets. It suffices to read his discourse on the Areopagus of Athens to be aware of his sound classical culture and also, of course, of the modus operandi of his evangelizing mission.
St. Paul began his discourse with reflections, in which Gentiles and Christians could converge, based on citations from the philosophers. He ended it, however, with the announcement of the Last Judgment, a stumbling block for his audience — which, as far as we know, included several Epicurean and Stoic philosophers — and which was ready to accept the immortality of the soul but not the resurrection of the flesh.
That group of philosophers probably disbanded with the idea that Paul was mentally unsound. Nevertheless, in ruminating on the words they had heard, perhaps they realized that the principles on which St. Paul had based his discourse could be understood through reason.
And these principles, understandable to a pagan — which surfaced in the discourse on the Areopagus — are the same ideas that St. Paul incorporates in his Letters: the possibility of knowing God through his Creation, the presence of a natural law engraved on man's heart, submission to God's will as a fruit of our divine sonship.
These are the principles on which St. Paul was later to build his prodigious Christological edifice. Let us put ourselves in the shoes of those pagan philosophers who heard St. Paul.
How could they fail to feel challenged by a preaching that combined in such a mysteriously captivating way principles that reason could accept with theses that demanded the contribution of a new faith?
How could they fail to be challenged by this Mystery which rendered what they were hearing congruent with what mere intelligence did not permit them to penetrate? And, in seeking a deeper knowledge of that Mystery, how could they fail to open themselves to the unheard-of horizons of freedom and hope that Christ brought?
This, then, is how it happened. And the Pauline genius teaches us that it can continue to happen today. To a Roman patrician such as Philemon, it must have seemed no stranger to grant his slave Onesimus freedom, accepting him as a "beloved brother" in the Lord, than it must seem to a person of our time, for example, to abhor abortion.
If the Pauline genius influenced a Roman patrician to renounce his rights of ownership over another man, albeit recognized by law, why can we not help the people of our epoch recover the concept of the sacredness of human life, although the laws of our time seem to have forgotten it?
To do this, we must use words that are intelligible to our contemporaries — just as in his time Paul with his genius succeeded — in order to move a culture that has drifted away from God from within, without alienating it.
We, in this neo-pagan society, must return to preaching that God was not made man to ascend a throne, but rather to share in human limitations, to feel the same sufferings as men and women, to accompany them on their earthly pilgrimage. Moreover, in making himself man, God ensured that human life, every human life, would be sacred.
St. Paul succeeded in making himself understood by the people of his time and thus transformed into reality the indispensable mission that we Christians have in the world. It is described sublimely in the Epistle to Diognetus: "The Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. Such is the Christian's lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself".
Holding a defensive position against the world is equivalent to abandoning the place that God has assigned to us. The Pauline genius teaches us that we may continue to be the soul of the world without relinquishing our principles and without denying our essence.
Weekly Edition in English
19 November 2008, page 9
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