As an effort to mark the Pauline Year (June 28, 2008-June 29, 2009), I've penned thoughts on 'Pauline Faith, Hope, and Love' (developed from 'Preaching Paul,' The Furrow, December 2008), and 'Phenomennology and Pauline Eschatology' (see sidebar 'Paul the Apostle'). The following is adapted from a piece on 'Paul's Missionary Motivation' in The Japan Mission Journal, March 2009.
1. Paul's mission took him to the West, as far as Rome and Spain. He is a mighty pillar of Western civilization, but has been unknown in the East. Can we bring his powerful voice to bear on the cultures of Asia? Not as a source of slogans such as one hears from religious megaphones on the streets of Asian cities, but as a liberating and enabling voice, that reveals the Gospel as truly universal, and as capable of being inculturated and made meaningful in every local context.
Missionary zeal need not be the blind zeal of the propagandist. When a propagandistic faith runs out of steam, we may tune in to a deeper level of zeal, an enlightened zeal, that makes mission a humanly and intellectually valid and even exciting activity. Zeal is a quality that will never be in short supply as long as people really believe in the mission they have undertaken. ‘I believed, and therefore I spoke’ (2 Cor. 4:13; Ps. 116:10) is a Pauline motto. If we are tongue-tied, unable to speak of Christ, the problem may not be one of communication methods, but of faith. Let us look deep into our hearts and ask: ‘What do I really believe? What do I really want to say?’ When the answers to those questions are found, there is no barrier to throwing oneself heart and soul into the communication of the message, as Paul did.
This, of course, demands courage. What someone really wants to say, the deep truth that God has implanted in his or her heart, is rarely exactly what the guardians of the status quo want to hear. That is why so many trim their message with discreet qualifications and prudent silences, to the extent that the entire Catholic clerical and theological world has of late been sicklied o'er with the pale cast of cowardice, hypocrisy, and an eerie paralysis. This might be what Paul means by ‘cunning’ (panourgia), ‘the hidden things of shame’ (ta krupta tês aiskhinês) and ‘falsifying the word of God,’ in contrast to which ‘by the manifestation of the truth we recommend ourselves to the conscience (suneidêsin) of all people before God’ (2 Cor. 4:2).
Paul is able to stand boldly before people and before God, without shame, because he knows what he believes and has no inhibition about shouting it out. ‘I am not ashamed of the Gospel’ (Rom. 1:16), meaning that he doesn’t have to dilute, trim and qualify it by nervously consulting all sorts of extraneous considerations. ‘We are fully manifest to God, and I hope to be fully manifest to your consciences also’ (2 Cor. 5:11).
Educated in Tarsus, where the Greek and Semitic worlds intersect, he mastered in youth the rhetorical arts of Greece and learned to fuse them in an electrifying way with the cut-and-thrust of rabbinic argumentation, taught by Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). But his eloquence has its deepest source in the courage his faith gives him, and the parrhêsia, bold freedom of speech, which it enables. Like an ardent lover, he does not need to consult a handbook of rhetoric before giving voice to what fills his heart to overflowing.
Paul’s rhetoric is not a juggernaut, a dogged policy of ‘staying on message’ while ignoring the cultural context and the actual circumstances of the hearers’ lives. It aims to persuade by dialogal engagement, not by propaganda. ‘Mission as dialogue’ does not mean suspending the Gospel out of shame, out of fear that it will be badly received; but it does mean presenting the Gospel to the actual adult conscience (suneidêsis) of the hearers, as shaped by their life experience and religious and cultural background. Luke portrays Paul addressing the Greek world in this spirit: ‘Athenians, I see you as most religious in every way’ (Acts 17:22). To speak of Christ to the Japanese one should link up with the pre-existent Japanese religiosity, not only as embodied in Shinto and Buddhism, but as pervading the Japanese language and ethos.
The ‘truth’ that Paul recommends to the hearers’ conscience is not a set of propositions to be proven by arguments, but his entire experience of Christ – as the one who has brought forgiveness of sin, whose Cross is an unfailing refuge, whose love encircles us (sunekhei hêmas, 2 Cor. 5:14), who strengthens us, who opens up the horizons of the resurrection.
I take the translation of 2 Cor 5:14 from Cardinal Martini, who gave a memorable brief homily at the Paulus Heim attached to Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture on the feast of St Ignatius Loyola more than twenty years ago. He continued: 'As I stood on the acropolis in Elea, I thought of Parmenides, and of the sea of Being embracing all beings; today I think of the sea of Christ's love embracing the islands of Japan.'
The truth Paul talks of is of a kind that can convince only if one puts one’s life, one’s body behind one’s words. In his farewell to the beloved community at Ephesus, Paul points to the witness of his life at their service and to his forthcoming death: ‘I take no account of my own life, seeking only to accomplish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to bear witness to the Gospel of the grace of God’ (Acts 20:24). This is a Lukan composition, but Paul says the same thing many times in the seven letters that are assuredly from his pen. The secondary Pauline texts, Colossians, Ephesians and the Pastorals also strike this note.
Do we lack missionary zeal because we fear to commit ourselves to the Gospel like Paul, in a daily dying with Christ, so as to bear witness with our lives? But people will make all sorts of sacrifices for something in which they really believe. If we find a version of the Christian gospel that makes perfect sense to ourselves and that we are sure can make sense to our hearers as well, then our zeal to communicate it will know no bounds.
In the Japanese context there is a double set of hindrances to such faith and such communication. On the side of the missionary, the Gospel comes in heavy Western garments, saddled with all the trimmings of millennia of European preoccupations, which often no longer make sense even to Europeans themselves. On the side of the Japanese, a thicket of preconceptions prevents the gospel voice from being heard as other than the tinny propaganda of a foreign sect.
Language is a large part of the problem. Latin and Germanic thought loses much of its resonance when transferred to Japanese, just as Japanese writing falls flat in English translation. Dreary translatese prevails in the Japanese Church and pleas for some inculturation from the Bishops have fallen on deaf ears in the Vatican. The more persistent efforts at inculturation in Vietnam and the Congo seem to have overcome Vatican resistance to some extent. Paul's Greek is a glorious transfusion of Jewish vision into the Hellenic milieu; the effect is startling, but never unnatural. Purely from a literary point of view, one could, I think, rank him as the best Greek writers of the centuries before and after Christ. The accomplished rhetor, St Augustine, points up his literary qualities in his De Doctrina Christiana, with specific reference to the dramatic evocation of apostolic existence in 2 Corinthians.
Some seek to address the intercultural malaise or mismatch between Japan and Christianity academically, in patient, low-key exchange of ideas. Tackling Japan as learners, they may become bridge-builders, with a greater or lesser sphere of influence. Their model of Christian presence is the study-group, the slow percolation of Christian ideas in Japanese minds and Japanese ideas in Christian minds. Others find a more elemental gospel language, reaching out to Japanese society through works of mercy, showing Christ in action as the friend of the poor and the suffering. A coherent and enlightened mission policy of the whole Church, integrating these diverse approaches, can bolster the confidence of each and the mutual appreciation of all, just as the agreed mission policy of the early Church, which Paul fought so hard for, preserved a harmony between the different styles of Christian witness, a harmony reflected in that great and diverse monument of the first Christian missions, the New Testament. Within the general work of the Church, each finds his or her own niche, and follows an individual call to voice his or her own truth. Paul, despite his concern for the unity of the churches he founded, encourages this diversity of charisms and responsibilities.
2. Paul's message of justification by faith, in Galatians and Romans, is a theme that brings us close to our Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican friends. In mission territory the Christian denominations should manifest the spirit of joyful collaboration, rather than splitting apart in icy splinters. The letters of Paul, so central to our shared history, would provide a basis for such warm and mutually accepting dialogue and cooperation.
Recent scholarship has place the theme of justification by faith in a wider context, in which Paul’s quest for righteousness is seen as continuing the age-old effort of Israel to live in fidelity to the Covenant. See the illuminating essay by James P. Ware, "Law, Christ, and Covenant: Paul's Theology of the Law in Romans 3:19-20," Journal of Theological Studies 62 (2011):513-40. (He argues that when Paul "denies the capacity of human beings to carry out the law, he is not, as Sanders thought, referring to the law within the gracious framework of the covenant," p. 539.) Paul's open-ended reflections open terrain for ongoing discussion between Jews and Christians as much as between Protestants and Catholics. Those who say that Christians should not become involved in interreligious dialogue since it compromises the certitude of faith forget that the New Testament itself is a site of interreligious controversy, marked by contradictions not only between different authors (Matthew, James, Luke-Acts, Hebrews, Revelation, John) but within these authors or their schools.
The major event of Paul’s dialogue with Jews is his opening up of the Gospel to the Gentiles. There is no need to play down the tensions between Paul and the synagogues that resisted him at every step, as some scholars do, to the extent of blithely declaring such embarrassing texts as 1 Thess. 2:14-16 and 2 Cor. 11:24, both of which fit smoothly into their context, to be later anti-Semitic interpolations. The latter text – ‘Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one’ – might reflect the synagogal discipline that Paul himself would have inflicted on the errant believers whom he persecuted. The mushrooming of Gentile Christianity was the event that thrilled Paul and absorbed his energies, and he deals with the resultant problems with Judaism as skillfully as he can, but without allowing them to thwart the new mission. Sometimes missionary operations are inhibited by directives from the home base, directives that may be tied to financial support or the threat of its withdrawal. Paul did not worry unduly about the authorities back in Jerusalem, for he trusted the vitality of his new churches and could see the Spirit clearly at work in them.
If Paul reopens our relationships to the other Christian churches and to Judaism, allowing us to live with questions, he can also help us to engage with non-Christian religions in a patient and discerning way. He teaches to appreciate in them ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable’ (Phil. 4:8) and not to ‘quench the Spirit’ (1 Thess. 5:19) by nervous scruple or contemptuous indifference.
Paul's struggle with the Law can be reinterpreted in function of Japanese conditions. Japan is a very law-abiding society, but many Japanese live in bondage to the Law in the bad sense, stifling their original aspirations and creativity to the need to conform to social expectations. Rules and customs become all-intrusive and the idea of a ‘freedom from the law’ that can put such rules in perspective and use them imaginatively and creatively becomes an unthinkable heresy. In such a society, Paul is like a bull in a china-shop. ‘It is for freedom that Christ has freed us; stand fast, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery’ (Gal. 5:1). These words strike a chord in all human societies, reaching far beyond the local pressures on the Galatians. Indeed, they reach beyond specifically Christian concerns and are a call for universal human liberation. Missionaries of Christ encourage people to assume their freedom boldly, empower people to resist all intrusions on their autonomy and dignity so that we have a society of equals, able to communicate in parrhêsia, in which no members are obliged to keep their heads down or sidle along the wall.
Within the Church there is a heavy burden of Law that often stands in the way of creative enactment of the Gospel. Much of Paul’s anger about the Law concerns the way it is invoked by a dysfunctional Church to stifle the charisms of its members. In such a Church, the entire community may seem to have made of law, tradition, routine a golden calf they blindly worship. Paul will always stand for the resurgence of gospel freedom against this insidious depletion.
3. Missionaries proclaiming the Resurrection in Asia today do not enjoy the privileged standpoint of the Apostle, directly commissioned by the risen Lord (1 Cor. 9:1; 15:8; Gal. 1:16-17) and holding colloquy with Him in ‘visions and revelations’ (2 Cor. 12:1). Can we find a concrete point of attachment, that allows the message of the risen Christ to resonate in Japanese life and culture? If Asians embrace the message of Christ crucified and risen, is it not because they recognize him from their own experience of oppression and resistance, suffering and consolation, being crushed and rising again?
Paul expected the imminent return of Christ in glory. We have to adjust this language to our own very different experience of time and history. Early Christian eschatology undergoes further adjustment when brought into contact with the Japanese sense of time, a much-discussed topic, going back to the medieval preoccupation with impermanence (mujō) and transiency (hakanasa), and when it links up with whatever elements of future-directed hope can be discerned in Japanese religions, new and old.
Paul's hope filled him with confident energy: ‘I can do all things in him who strengthens me’ (Phil. 4:13). The Lotus Sūtra, with its equally bright prospects of salvation, has a similar effect on its Japanese adherents, from Prince Shōtoku to Saichō to Nichiren and his many energetic followers. Can the Pauline energy of hope be renewed by contact with such homologues in the East?
Pauline hope acquires its full stature only when it can also be fleshed out as a social Gospel. At Vatican II, the Church espoused anew the eschatological horizons of the New Testament, seeking to read ‘the signs of the times’ in dialogue and cooperation with the world, as it strives forward in joyful hope toward the full coming of the Kingdom of God. Just as Paul urged his churches to be aware of their bonds with the Christian community everywhere, so the missionary connects his or her Church with the world Church, and the local aspirations of the mission country with the aspirations of humanity worldwide. Here we may discern that Paul’s ethic of up-building and of freedom has a field of application beyond the boundaries of the Christian community. As he opened the Gospel up beyond Judaism to Gentile believers, so today’s missionaries may be inspired by him to open it up, in dialogue, to people of good will everywhere, including those of other religious traditions.