The wisdom of the old churchmen is shown by this most unusual feast, the Feast of the Conversion of the holy Paul. It is the only conversion thus enshrined as a feast of the universal church, though many of the saints had conversions of importance. But Paul’s conversion has a clarity of insight to it which makes it distinctive. And in one moment – one sentence, really – is summed up all of the real insights of Paul’s apostolate.
There are three accounts in Acts and several references to the experience in the letters, which disagree on minor details and agree in the main. This is from Acts 9:
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
The first words of the vision are the crucial and theological part: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul of course never met Jesus, and never did anything to him, good or bad. An intelligent, rational, individualistic response to this statement would be something like, “That’s a lie. I never met you before in my life.” And given the fact that Jesus is appearing here as a god with supernatural powers, the whole idea of persecuting such a being – the Maker of the Universe – is risible. All Saul ever did was persecute human beings. And yet he has a vision of certainty that he is in fact persecuting his God.
Conversion – metanoia, alteration of mind – is precisely about this realization. It can take decades in an individual life, or longer in an institutional life, to grasp the meaning of this metanoia once it has occurred. Theoglogically it has resulted in the idea of the “body of Christ” – symbolically in bread, actually in human flesh – of which all Christians (and perhaps all without restriction) are members. And as part of Christ they are part of God. This is the foundation of all Christian morality. It has traditionally been an esoteric possession and its depths not realized by all – St. Augustine in his De Doctrina Christiana by implication denies that Christians are part of the body of Christ and hence of God, when he says that they exist only to be used so that we can enjoy God later – the uti/frui distinction infamous in Catholic morality (almost all those who know this passage in De Doctrina know that there is something horribly unchristian about it, and scandalous in one of the great Doctors of the Church).
That Augustine is wrong is shown clearly enough by recourse to the Gospels, where Jesus clearly predicates his moral reasoning on this premise.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’”
As with much incarnation theology, there is something vaguely atheistic about it: if God is man – if what we do for others is what we do for God – why should human beings care about God? Isn’t man enough? Maybe our word “God” is a cipher for a deeply felt reverential conception of ourselves? Perhaps that’s the idea behind “God became man”? The development of Christian theology – e.g. Augustine – toward an increasingly transcendent God, and away from the early Pauline accent on immanence, further invited this line of thinking, by making theology itself increasingly transcendent (i.e. irrelevant). And hence it is no surprise that the Christian nations have spawned a tradition of ethical atheism, men like Christopher Hitchens who do not subscribe to Christian theology but support a morality derived from its humanitarian-egalitarian ethos. Whether Hitchens’ position is coherent and ethics can be unhinged from metaphysics is one of those questions I would like to investigate more. Right now I suppose it’s enough for me that Hitchens thinks it is coherent. He seems smart enough to figure that out for himself.
But for now let us focus on the meaning of the Paul’s metanoia: it was the beginning of the breakdown of the idea that men are to be used for our own religious purposes – “uti,” in Augustinian terms. Saul was perfectly willing to sacrifice others’ lives so that he could go to heaven – they were merely fuel for the fire God lights in hell to warm heaven. His new vision would be that the distinction between God and man would not work anymore, that the attitude we took towards God we would have to take toward His creation, that all was to be enjoyed – all “frui.”
Some earlier writing on Paul and conversion can be found here.