"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paradigm Inversion and Ecumenical Humility

The Conversion of St. Paul
Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640)

Today is the eighth and final day of the week of prayer for Christian unity. Today is also the feast day of the Conversion of St. Paul. This event is more significant this year because this is "the Pauline Year", during which the Church marks St. Paul's 2,000th birthday. The conversion of St. Paul provides an example for us as we seek the full visible reunion of all Christians.

Paul, then known as Saul, was a learned rabbi, educated under the renowned Gamaliel, and unparalleled in his devotion and zeal for God. He had been "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord". (Acts 9:1) He persecuted the Christians, entering house after house, binding men and women, beating them (Acts 22:19), putting them in prisons, and casting his vote against them when they were being put to death, including the stoning of St. Stephen. (Acts 7:58, 8:3) He also tried to force Christians to blaspheme, "being furiously enraged at them". (Acts 26:11) He describes his pre-conversion self as "a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor". (1 Tim 1:13)

As a result of this persecution led by Saul, many Christians fled to other cities, including Damascus. Saul determined to hunt them down and stamp them out. While on the road to Damascus, he was met suddenly by Jesus Christ, who confronted him quite literally like a bolt of lightning. Saul fell to the ground, and a voice from heaven said to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" Saul recognized, of course, that the speaker was divine. But the situation was not entirely unlike Nathan's "You are the man" (2 Samuel 12:7), and Queen Esther's similar fingering of Haman in the presence of King Ahasuerus (Esther 7:1-6). The expectations were completely reversed. What Christ was saying about Saul persecuting Him did not fit Saul's paradigm, in the least. Saul persecuting God? That's impossible. Saul was a "Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil 3:5), advancing in Judaism beyond many of his contemporaries, (Gal 1:14), his zeal for God indicated by the very thing he was doing (Phil 3:6), traveling to Damascus to stamp out these followers of Jesus.

That is why Saul replied, in confusion, "Who are you, Lord?" Jesus then replied, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting." (Acts 9:4-5) Saul discovered to his horror that he had been terribly wrong. Not only had he been persecuting the followers of the true Messiah, he had been persecuting the divine Messiah Himself, by persecuting the Messiah's Body, the Church, as he says in Galatians 1:13, "I used to persecute the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it." Saul had completely failed to discern the identity of the Church. Yet, he was shown mercy "because he acted ignorantly in unbelief." (1 Tim 1:13)

Saul had been blind. Now Jesus reveals Himself to Saul, and blinds his physical eyes. Jesus shows Saul physically what his theological condition had been like: "though his eyes were open, he could see nothing". (Acts 9:8) Saul had been leading a group of men to persecute Christ's Church; now these men lead the blind Saul like a child. Five minutes before this encounter, the notion that he was theologically blind, and fighting against God, would have been unimaginable to Saul, preposterous!

Christ tells Saul, His persecutor, that He is sending him to the Gentiles to open their eyes "so that they may turn from darkness to light". (Acts 26:18) A paradigm shift of this magnitude does not take place instantly. Saul was in intellectual, spiritual and emotional shock. He had to absorb what had happened, come to terms with the evil that he had done to Christ and His Church, and accept the astounding mercy God had shown to him in revealing Himself to him and healing his spiritual blindness. Saul couldn't eat or drink for three days. (Acts 9:9) During those three days, he prayed, seeking direction. (Acts 9:11) When Ananias came and laid hands on him, and the scales fell from his eyes, he regained His sight, and got up and was baptized. He too was now a Christian, a follower of Christ.

St. Paul's conversion, more than any other in Scripture, teaches us intellectual humility, because he shows that it is possible to be entirely convinced that others are wrong about divine matters, and then come to realize that you yourself have been wrong, even fighting against God. He also shows us an example of a divinely provoked paradigm inversion. The very thing he had thought was heresy turned out to be the truth. He had been trying to get people to deny or curse this 'heresy'; it turned out that he had unknowingly been trying to make them blaspheme God. He had been found to be, as Gamaliel his old teacher had warned, vainly "fighting against God". (Acts 5:39) A paradigm inversion is not just an addition or adjustment to an existing paradigm; it is an entirely different way of seeing. What was previously seen as blasphemous, heretical or cause for division, for example, is now perceived as a beautiful and mysterious blessing.

I was recently in two separate conversations involving Catholics and Protestants. In one, the Protestant said, "my approach to ecumenism with Rome is to call all Roman Catholics to faith and repentance". In the other, a self-styled Catholic apologist jumped into a long-running conversation and almost immediately accused the participating Protestants of "rebelling against God" and "concocting another Gospel". Neither of these seem like intellectual humility to me. I'm not suggesting that we should not hold our beliefs passionately, or that certainty is always unjustified. On the contrary, we may be called to face death for our beliefs; many have. But the example of St. Paul's conversion reminds us all that we are not beyond error. And in the face of actual theological disagreement, the law of non-contradiction entails that at least one of us is *wrong*. That too ought to keep us humble in any ecumenical dialogue.

Tonight, Pope Benedict gave a homily at the celebration of vespers for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. This ceremony was held at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, which is built over the tomb of St. Paul. Pope Benedict said the following:

St. Paul's conversion offers us a model that shows us the way to full unity. Unity in fact requires a conversion: from division to communion, from broken unity to healed and full unity. This conversion is the gift of the Risen Christ, as it was for St. Paul. We heard this from the Apostle himself in the reading proclaimed just a moment ago: "By the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15:10).

The same Lord, who called Saul on the road to Damascus, addresses Himself to the members of the Church -- which is one and holy -- and calling each by name asks: Why have you divided Me? Why have you wounded the unity of My Body?

Conversion implies two dimensions. In the first step we recognize our faults in the light of Christ, and this recognition becomes sorrow and repentance, desire for a new beginning. In the second step we recognize that this new road cannot come from us. It consists in letting ourselves be conquered by Christ. As St. Paul says: "I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been conquered by Christ Jesus" (Philippians 3:12).

Are we closer to being united since the close of last year's week of prayer for Christian unity? The answer is not easy to determine. It is easier to see the ecumenical progress when we look back over the past 101 years, since the initiation of this annual week of prayer for Christian unity. Think about what you can do to help bring us all closer to unity by this day next year. Pray daily for the reconstitution of the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers. Talk with other Christians about what still divides us, always in a spirit of charity and sincerity. Don't conduct your ecumenical discussions in a question-begging way; try to seek out together the root causes historically behind the divergences. If you discover a truth that helps resolve a disagreement or dissolve a misunderstanding that perpetuates division, share this truth with everyone you can. Taking into your heart the passion for unity revealed in the heart of Christ Jesus in John 17 is a form of devotion, a participation in the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Since love pursues unity, a devotion to the unity He loves nurtures the love that effects such unity. Apathy and hatred toward others cannot coexist with a continually nurtured desire for genuine and complete unity with them in the Body of Christ. Let us keep pursuing this unity, as brothers and sisters in Christ, for the sake of our Lord's Sacred Heart.

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