Five Pauls

Preached at St. Paul Unitarian-Universalist Church in Palmer, Mass. on 12/28/14

It might surprise you that this is not the first St. Paul’s Unitarian-Universalist church I’ve spoken at. If you got on the Mass Turnpike, aka Interstate 90 and took into New York State where it turns into the Thruway and went some 170 miles in total, you would come to a town called Little Falls, New York. There in that town of about 5,000 people, there is a church called St. Paul’s Universalist. It too is a UU church with its beginnings in Univeralism that when merged maintained the St. Paul’s name.

And a quick FYI, Chicago's first UU church was St. Paul's Universalist which is now part of the University of Chicago.

Now, for some UU’s, the notion of a UU church with St. Paul in its title sounds paradoxical, an oxymoron. For UU, a liberal denomination which renowned UU minister and author Forrest Church deemed “more than Christian” – keeping the namesake of the man deemed responsible for making the church into his own conservative image, so it is believed, instead of Jesus’ may seem questionable. Maybe you've heard this kind of sentiment before, I am not sure.

For my time with you today, I want to look at this a bit. I want to first look at St. Paul as well as some other Christian Pauls that tweak this view that St. Paul and UU are a contradiction.

First let’s look at St. Paul. I think this view comes from a flawed understanding of Paul, an understanding that I surely had in the wake of my departure from the Evangelical world. However, my journey has led me to see Paul anew. 

In reality, Paul would have seemed a religious liberal in his day. Looking at the context of the early church, we see this.

In the early days of the church, there developed a rift between early Jewish-Christians and the growing number of non-Jewish Christians. The Jewish-Christians, based in Jerusalem, were those who wanted to maintain its Jewishness, the Torah-following and adhering to Mitzvot, the kosher laws and mandates. The non-Jewish Christians, based in Antioch, were those who did not want to convert to Judaism and namely get circumcised to become a part of the burgeoning Christ-following tradition. Paul was the leader of this latter movement. He wanted to expand the Jesus-tradition and include non-Jews without the criteria of circumcision and strict adherence to Mitzvot. He was seeking to expand things not replace, however.

The traditional view is that Paul was universally stating that Jews and non-Jews alike should leave the law behind and simply accept Jesus’ grace which is greater than the law. But a closer reading, one that more and more scholars of Paul are proffering [see Pauline scholars John C. Gager, Lloyd Gaston, Krister Stendahl, Stanley Stower], shows that Paul was actually calling for a more pluralistic view. 

For Paul, a practicing Jew, the Jewish people were still God’s chosen people. In the Epistle to Rome he makes this clear, “has God rejected his people [Israel], by no means!” God did not renege on Israel being the chosen people with the arrival of Jesus. With Jesus, according to Paul, there was simply a different path to becoming part of the community of God. Whereas Jews had the Law given directly by God, non-Jews were given the path of Jesus, a Jew who paved the way for non-Jews to be included. 

When you add a third path into the community of God, Jewish followers of Jesus, you have a full-fledged pluralistic community. There were non-Jesus-following Jews, Jesus-following Jews, and Jesus-following Gentile harmonized in God’s community. What was shared was belief in One God and an ethical approach to life that followed the spirit of the God’s law if not the letter of the law. For Jews, following the Law as Paul did was an acceptable, salvific path – Paul did not mandate all Jews accept Jesus as Messiah, just that they not forbid others who do. For Jewish followers of Jesus, as Paul was, Paul suggested the Law continue to be followed. For non-Jewish followers of Jesus, Jesus was the bridge to be a part of the community of God and a close following of the law was not necessary. Yet Paul did assert that ethical living, specifically ethical eating, be a part of non-Jewish persons’ life in community with Jews.  The common denominator, as I stated, was belief in One God and the living of an ethical life.

So Paul was calling for a more expansive, inclusive view of the community of God than the one he saw all around him, not a narrower, more exclusive one.

This is to say, St. Paul UU, you can be proud of your namesake.
There are other famous Pauls in the liberal religiondom that can be a source of pride too. Let’s look at 4.

The next Paul for religious liberals also comes from early Christianity. His name is Paul of Samosata and he lived from 200 to 275 AD. He is a famous heretic. Not infamous, but famous for religious liberals. And not heretic as in wrong, but heretic as in pointing to a new way.

Paul of Samosata argued a version of the Trinity that is now little known, but then was popular and spreading. It is known as Monarchianism – of One Rule. God is One whose Logos, like the breath in a body, pervades the heavens and the earth. So we have God and Logos, God and the movement and activity of God, these are equivalent to Father and Holy Spirit.

What about the Son? Well, Jesus Christ is the third member of the Trinity but in a completely different way. This brings us to another fancy word – Adoptionism. Paul of Samosata believed that Jesus was born a male human being in the way human beings are conceived and born. Jesus simply matured and developed into divinity. He realized Buddhahood, in Buddhist terms. The climax of this maturation and development occurs in the dessert when Jesus is tempted by Satan. In a story with big parallels in Buddhism, Jesus, going to the desert for prayer and meditation, is tempted by Satan and resists these temptations. Jesus passes the test, in other words. The story ends with the Holy Dove of God anointing Jesus. This anointing amounts to Jesus being adopted as the divine Son of God, the third part of the Trinity. So Jesus realized a kind of enlightenment and becomes divine though not born that way.  

Paul of Samosata was brilliant as a theologian and philosopher. He had quite a following as a teacher and was a significant threat to the orthodoxy. He was deemed heretical and ex-communicated in 269. However, in many ways, he is a proto-UU, a UU prototype. He might be deemed a St. Paul in our context.

For the last three of our Pauls, we jump ahead some 1700 years to our era.

I attended Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of the ghosts that walk the hallways and the classrooms of Union is that of Paul Tillich, born 1886 and died 1965. He is a giant of theology who gave us a whole new way of looking at God. God according to Tillich is not the Big Man Upstairs pulling the strings of the world as if a supreme puppeteer. God is Being Itself, or the Ground of Being, or the Power of Being, or even as the Abyss which is paradoxically the source of all that is. Tillich calls this the God above God. The best way to understand this is to think of polytheism. In polytheism, we have many gods. These gods are supreme beings who control various aspects of earthly life – the sun god, the rain god, the ocean god, etc. Tillich says that our conception of God as the Supreme Being in heaven is merely one that does all the work of the polytheistic gods. God as a Supreme Being is akin to a supercomputer doing the work of all the gods before it. However, Tillich says this is a faulty understanding of God, one that leads to simplistic views of God and of the atheist argument against and rejection of those simplistic views. No, God is beyond the human conceptions of being and non-being, heaven and earth, God as subject and we as object. God is not conditioned by this world of polar opposites – good vs. evil, black vs. white, being vs. non-being, heaven and earth, supernatural vs. natural, male vs. female. God is simply the power behind what is, the fuel and energy that moves all that exists. God is Being-itself. “God is not a supernatural entity among other entities. Instead, God is the ground upon which all beings exist.”

What’s more, Paul Tillich was one of the first Christian theologians to dialogue with Buddhism. His view of God actually offered a Buddhist-friendly way to understand ultimate reality. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh, the deeply influential teacher of Buddhism to the West, loves to quote Tillich. Here is an example from Hanh’s book Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers: 

“Paul Tillich said that 'God is the ground of being.' The ground of being is the noumenal aspect of reality. God is not a being in the phenomenal world. He or She is the ground of all being. It would not be difficult for Christians and Buddhists to agree on this.”

Thich Nhat Hanh also gives us a wonderful metaphor for Tillich’s understanding of God. God is akin to the ocean’s water. God is the foundation of the ocean’s existence as the ocean – water. Yes, there are waves in the ocean, water has waves. The waves change, come and go, the water in its way of being does not. There is a foundation to our being. There is also our being built on that foundation, our being as earthly beings encountering a life of change, impermanence, and flux. The waves come and go, ebb and flow, but the source of the waves is water, the groundless ground of our being is God. God is the Water to our earthly existence filled with wave after wave. Beautiful to think about.

The next Paul is one that is not as well known. He is sort of the John the Baptist of a movement that changed the Christian church, Liberation Theology. His name is Paul Gauthier. Gauthier was a French Catholic theologian who lived from 1914 to 2002. His 1965 book Christ, the church and the poor was a powerful look at the reality of institutionalized poverty and power structures that maintained it. It was also one of the first books in our era that pointed to the poor as not just a problem to be solved but as a guide for the church. Because God as seen in the biblical text always sides with the poor and the oppressed, we the church are to side with the poor. Paul Gauthier took absolutely seriously the claim of Jesus – blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. He saw Jesus’ words as the benchmark for the church.

Gustav Gutierrez, the co-parent of Liberation Theology, James Cone of Union being the other, was incredibly influenced by Paul Gauthier’s work, seeing it as the first stones in constructing his theology.

The last Paul we will mention is someone who takes St. Paul’s desire to expand the community of God, Paul of Samosota’s focus on a dynamic Trinity, Paul Tillich’s dynamic theism and interest in Buddhism, and Paul Gauthier’ liberation theology and combines them in his own work. I am talking about Paul Knitter. His book Without the Buddha, I Could Not be a Christian points to this combination.

Not to get too theological here, but Knitter suggests that Buddhism gives us a new way to talk about God. It helps us see the relationship under girding the family of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. What connects the three parts of the trinity is their relationship to one another, a relationship of interconnection and interrelatedness. Thich Nhat Hanh calls it inter-being, we existing together in an inescapable network of mutuality, as Dr. King put it. It is this inter-being, this network mutuality behind the Trinity that is the absolute to be seen and practiced.

Buddhism calls it shunyata, or dynamic emptiness. By applying this Buddhist understanding, we are able to see God anew. And by seeing the relational core within God’s self, in the relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we also see the crucial importance of relating to others, namely to the poor and the oppressed.

So St. Paul, Paul of Samosata, Paul Tillich, Paul Gauthier, and Paul Knitter – what do they offer UU?

Well, I am going to say something possibly anathema to some UUs, but I firmly believe it: Our look at this diverse group of Pauls shows us that we underestimate the innate diversity of the Jesus tradition. Beginning with St. Paul, and the burgeoning new look at the diversity within his letters and the early church, to Paul Knitter and his Buddhist-Christian way of faith, we see that within the liberal Christian universe there is an expansive, pluralistic, and open home-base that I dare say UU left too soon. By leaving too soon, a departure that by the 1920s was cemented within Unitarianism and which won the day with the 1961 merger, we removed ourselves from the rich theological work of engaging with Tillich, Gauthier, or Knitter, or with the new look at St. Paul, or with the kind of Christianity Paul of Samosata offered. It is possible to be both a church in the lineage of Jesus and open to and inclusive of diverse spiritual understanding, either Jesus-based or no.

I’d also dare to say: as you keeping St. Paul in your name suggests, it is good to have the kite of our religious freedom tied to the foundation of tradition so that we don’t fly away. Even birds know where home is, and innately go back home even amid the freedom of their skies.

So I end with a question. What would happen if a reconciliation with our Christian past happened? I don’t know the answer. But it’s worth a conversation.


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