This piece about Sunday’s epistle from Romans 7 reflects my thinking and reading from a few years back. But I thought it was worth another outing. Some of the references seem a bit dated. I haven’t heard much from Woody Allen recently and as for Alain de Botton he was something of a celebrity a few years back but seems to have dropped below the radar. When he was in the media spotlight I thought he was good value. Anyway with a few amendments here it is.
This is a passage, which has attracted a great deal of comment. Here is St Paul engaged in what seems to be a kind of internal struggle-I do not do what I want but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right but I cannot do it. Here Paul sounds like Woody Allen. Not so far fetched really. They’re both Jewish, both interested in religion, both of them seem to have problems with sex and both of them seem to be tortured souls in the modern manner.
Most modern theologians who have studied Woody Allen are agreed that his films are spiritual autobiographies-the film journals of a tortured soul. But was Paul a tortured soul? Modern people are inclined to think so because it makes him seem modern. But is it true?
Some have thought so. They have seen his conversion, so called, as the resolution of his tortured condition-like Wesley having his heart strangely warmed. This is to read Paul through modern blinkers, which is to some degree inevitable. If however we stop thinking of Paul in this way and attend to what he actually wrote it opens up to us a new perspective on Paul in which he seems a lot less like Woody Allen than we’ve been used to thinking. It also makes him stranger.
The key to this perspective is to reject the idea that Paul was converted. Rather Christ called him and in becoming a follower of Christ he had taken the faith of Israel into new uncharted territory. Nothing in his past was entirely rejected. So far as his commitment to the law is concerned he describes himself quite cheerfully as utterly blameless. The Jewish law and more specifically the Ten Commandments prohibit various kinds of behaviour-all, with one exception, avoidable. Murder for instance is avoidable-Paul never murdered anyone –you have probably never murdered anyone. So why this gloomy neurotic tone of voice in which he describes sin as a kind of addiction.
Hardly anyone today thinks that in this passage Paul is talking about his own guilty psychology. He did not experience the law as an intolerable burden and find its demands impossible to live up to. We know this because he says so elsewhere.
So what is Paul on about when he says: Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. What exactly is he thankful for? He is a good person, indeed a righteous person. He kept the law. Others can keep it as well. It is holy, just and good. It certainly isn’t redundant. By no means says Paul in another point in the epistle.
Paul’s point isn’t psychological or moral, it’s religious. He doesn’t seek to be a good person, he was that already, nor was he seeking to be a well-adjusted person in the modern manner. What he had discovered through faith in Christ was deliverance from sin-life in the spirit-the X factor-the big plus over what his ancestral faith had offered him and he’d achieved. The whole of the following chapter, Romans 8, is a hymn to joy – a celebration of what life in Christ brings.
But as I’ve already hinted there is one commandment which does not deal with outward actions-that is the commandment against covetousness. This is an inclination of the mind and in the world as we know it it’s impossible to avoid. Truly sins does dwell within us and just as Paul knew it so we too feel its power. This must be what Paul has in mind in this passage.
At its root is the desire we have to possess what our role models desire or to be the person our role model is. This is not because we actually want any of the things they have but because we do not want to think meanly of ourselves alongside others. These feelings lead to resentment, fear and anger. Ultimately it can lead to violence as it led Cain to murder Abel because his sacrifice was not accepted whereas Abel’s was.
Another way of saying this is to say we suffer from status anxiety. Some years ago the philosopher Alain de Botton wrote quite an amusing and insightful book entitled Status Anxiety. There was also a TV documentary, which you may remember. In this the Belgian Socrates takes us to various sites of status anxiety-offices where you status is measured by the size and thickness of your carpet and the position of your parking place. People can be profoundly upset by any challenge to these things.
What is the cure for this? Alain de Botton takes us to view a social gathering of a strange counter-cultural tribe. He turns to the camera and whispers. “These people are Christians”. Its as if we’ve just been brought face to face with a tribe recently discovered living a pre-modern existence in the heart of the Amazonian rain forest.
It’s a garden party and the Christians are obviously having a jolly time. Some seem rather posh others look as if they sell the Big Issue or live out of plastic bags. But they all share a deep unity because they are brothers and sister in Christ. All social distinctions have been relativised because they are part of the body of the Lord.
What this illustration says to me and what Paul is preaching to us is this.
The whole satanic system of rivalry, covetousness, envy, jealousy and resentment can be broken. It’s not so much about faulty psychology as about captivity to an alien power. Jesus by his death on the cross, a death he freely accepted, has broken the power of sin once and for all. We are free. That is why the people at the garden party are having a wonderful time. They may be living in the world but they are no longer enslaved by the world’s values. That is why they are happy and joyful and they’re hearts are at peace. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Status anxiety-social insecurity-the various forms of snobbery, which oppress us in the name of sin all, purged away.
Well isn’t that wonderful. So why are we looking so solemn?