I have appreciated reading a couple of Rowan Williams’ books over the last year. Williams writes on a wide variety of topics. I glanced through his list of books as I was prepping this review and he has books on Christian history, theology, literature, other Christian groups (outside of his own Anglican background), poetry, spiritual practices, biographies and more.
The two previous books, and this one, were Lenten lectures that were turned into short books. I will have to pick up a longer book eventually, but these short books allow my restricted schedule to get intellectually satisfying content in a short form.
Williams has three basic chapters on Paul. The first introduces him and his setting. The second focuses on the idea of the church welcoming all. The third is about Paul’s vision of the New Creation.
In spite of the short book, Meeting God in Paul held together a bit loosely for me. Maybe it is because I have been so distracted by parenting lately. But I kept getting single thoughts instead of getting his larger point. Even if it was the book and not me (and I think it was probably me, not the book) those little thoughts kept sticking with me. And I am okay with that. Sometime what we need is just to hear the stories over and over again in a slightly different form so that they can stick well.
One of the random asides that really struck me was that Williams connected Paul’s instructions about not suing other Christians to Roman Citizenship. I think I knew this in abstract, but had not put it together before. It was only Roman Citizens that could sue someone. So if Paul is telling the Corinthians to not sue other Christians, it was because at least some of them were citizens. There would have been class and income differences that were involved in Paul’s instruction, not just a discussion of the viability of the secular legal system to be able to solve problems within the church.
This idea was encouraged with the next chapter where Williams looks at Paul as welcoming all people. Paul is also often used to encourage stability of social institutions (like slavery and patriarchy) but this ignores how subversive many of his instructions really were to a roman culture as this quote illustrates:
What is so often most interesting in Paul is not where he reproduces the received wisdom of his culture but where the unsettling newness of the gospel pushes him to a quite new depth of understanding of mutuality. This extraordinary affirmation of reciprocal belonging is a strong example of how this works. There is no point in over-emphasizing Paul’s radical feminism, given a great deal of what he says elsewhere. But: set that brief remark against the entire social background Paul is speaking out of and it can only be deeply startling.
And this is worth remembering. Paul was in a culture that was very patriarchal. So his reminders to husbands to put their wives first, or to give wives rights over their husband’s bodies or to remind slave owners that slaves were now primarily siblings in Christ, not property may seem conservative now, but were revolutionary in their original contexts.
Which ties nicely to Paul’s understanding of what God was doing in a new creation. Jesus Christ came, not just to save us from the consequences of our sin, which Paul certainly agreed was saying, but also to bring about a new Creation where Jesus Christ was reigning as God’s representative on earth. The third chapter is really a good companion with NT Wright’s How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, which I read at the same time and I will review tomorrow.
This quote I think sums up a good reminder (it is a bit long but worth reading in full):
‘Everything has its destiny in union with Jesus Christ’; or, as we might put it in plainer terms, everything makes sense because of Jesus: not just human life, but the life of the entire universe. And this is so because he is the face of God turned towards what is not God; he reveals to us a God who moves out into engagement with what he is not – in creation itself, in reconciling love, in welcome (to use once again that crucial category). That is the God in whom we believe; and because of believing in that God everything hangs together.
Why is there a world? Because God is that kind of God. Why are we able to give thanks to God? Because God is that kind of God. Why can we be confident that we have reconciliation and absolution for our failures and sins? Because God is that kind of God, the God whose form and face we see in Jesus. Everything hangs together because of this. In the fifteenth chapter of the first letter to the Corinthians, we see Paul drawing all this together in a picture of the very end of time, when Jesus sweeps up everything together into one great ensemble and presents it to God the Father; as if the Son of God has travelled around the whole span of reality, collected it all together and brought it back to his Father as a gift, a treasure.