Thursday, June 02, 2005

 

Wayfaring Strangers, Part 17



(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

Paul and Thomas Aquinas

I said in my last Wayfaring Strangers post that I wasn't sure what I was going to read next. In fact, I took a week or so off from scriptural and theological study, and I think I needed that break. I may have burned out if I'd kept going without breaking for a few days.

The last book of the Bible I read was 1 Corinthians, which I didn't enjoy at all and didn't get anything out of. It wasn't at all like Romans, Philippians, or Ephesians, all of which put Paul (the author) in a positive light. Those books were warm, instructive, theological, and inspirational. 1 Corinthians, on the other hand, reveals to me a Paul who was angry, arrogant, condescending, and full of himself. I basically got nothing out of it, except that Paul was capable of ranting and raving out of anger. I'll come back to it again another time, when I'm in the right frame of mind to search the book for value and meaning. I'm not at that point with 1 Corinthians now.

I think it's good, though, to try to see Paul more completely. He was a great theologian, and is responsible more than anyone else (except Christ) for the spread of Christianity. Still, he was not the Savior himself, and he reveals his flawed humanity very clearly in his tone and style in 1 Corinthians. It's amusing to me to read that book and think about the Biblical revisionists who charge that Paul basically "invented" Christianity. I could almost see the appeal of the idea when I read Romans, Philippians, and Ephesians. I read 1 Corinthians, though, and the idea falls apart. At his worst, Paul was so counter to Christ, so angry and self-centered and down-right crazy, that it's hard to imagine anyone willingly following a religion that flowed only from him. It's just a silly idea. I'm sure that the early Christians looked to Paul for instruction, and looked beyond him, to Christ himself, when Paul fell short.

So, for now, I've put the Bible down and I've found my way back to theology, in the form of St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas Aquinas was one of the earliest and most influential apologists in the Catholic church. He lived and wrote in the 13th century, and his Summa Theologica laid an early foundation for Catholic doctrine. Aquinas was a serious and dedicated student of philosophy, especially Aristotle, and his influence on my favorite theologians is immediately apparent. Nonetheless, his writing is very dense, very demanding, and I'm having a hard time reading and understanding it. Aquinas offers five proofs of the existence of God that I can almost (but not quite) get my brain around, and I'm struggling to understand a lot of what I've read. I picked up an 800 page volume of his selected writings, and it's safe to say that I won't be flying through it in a week. Any one page of his work is so demanding that all I can do is read a bit, sit there and ponder what I've read, and then go back and re-read it five or ten times.

It's a nice change from Paul, though... especially from 1 Corinthians. Don't get me wrong, it's obvious to me what I've done here: 1 Corinthians rubbed me the wrong way and made me uncomfortable, so I retreated to my area of comfort: logical, clinical, unemotional theology. I see that I've done that, and I realize that I need to examine my motives and drives in having done it... but at the moment, I just don't have the capacity to "wrestle with the angel," if you will.

So, for now, it's St. Thomas Aquinas and the Summa Theologica. I'll write more when I think I've come to my version of enlightenment on what I've read.

Comments:
1 Corinthians is a difficult epistle. It always gives me fits. It sounds so harsh, so full of law, when the Gospel itself is loving and free from the Law.

What I do to make my way through it is remember that there were several specific situations occuring in Corinth at the time that Paul was addressing directly. The church leadership and the body was out of control there, and he impossed strict rules to keep them in line and refocus them on Christ. A lot of what is in 1 Corinthians is situation-specific.
 
Jerry, yeah, I gather that... and it helps me make more sense of it. It's Paul's tone that bugs me so much. Early in the epistle he says that because of the disputes over baptism in Corinth, he's glad he only baptized two specific guys. Then he turns right around and basically says "Oh, yeah, I may have baptized this other guy, too." Then he says he can't really remember who he baptized! It's like he's literally ranting in his anger. I understand that Corinth was in turmoil... but 1 Corinthians seems to show Paul in turmoil, too. You're right, for all the reasons you listed, it's a hard read. I hope to get more out of it at some point when I know better how to approach it.
 
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