Although studying the apostle Paul can be daunting and, at times, quite perplexing, the more that I study him, the more I am amazed by him. For many people, Paul is a divisive figure; a moralistic, homophobic and misogynistic figure. It is easy to see how Paul can be seen in this light, if I read him uncritically without being aware, or even questioning, my own assumptions. If we read Paul in a cursory manner, without understanding his 1st-century context, then we will almost certainly place our own meanings on his letters. The other observation that I have made is that we tend to read Paul’s letters in an unreflective manner. Reading Paul’s letter is an action that requires the reader to slow down and to reflect on what Paul has said for us to hear him.
Furthermore, for many of us, Paul is the ideal convert, the sinner who has seen the light and repented from the error of his ways. I do not see Paul like this anymore. One of the most important things that he has taught me is that much of thinking about God is still based on uncritical assumptions. In 1 Corinthians 1:18 -29, we see something of Paul’s perception about God. In this short passage, the word ‘God’ is mentioned 12 times, sometimes in sentences where the word is redundant, especially vv. 27-29. I often think about what psychological leaps Paul had to make to come to the conclusion that the crucified Messiah is God’s instrument for salvation to the world. The notion of God powerfully working through what is considered as ‘weak’ or ‘foolish’ is still a challenge for the church and the world.
I think that Paul’s insight still challenges Western society today. Generally speaking, our culture (and churches) highly value those who are considered to be sophisticated and competent. I remember that as a young Christian if I needed prayer for something, I would try to find someone who I considered to be able to hear from God. I based my decision on how anointed I thought they were. It took more than 20 years after coming to faith for me to realise that many of my thoughts about God were really assumptions based on what Paul calls human standards (according to the flesh, 1 Cor 1:26). My assumptions about how God speaks and works in my life and in the world, like some of the Corinthians, meant that I could not see how God would be present, or would even identify with those whom our society considers to be weak or foolish.
A major aim of teaching biblical and theological studies is not so much to teach doctrine but to encourage and challenge students to reflect on their cultural (and Christian cultural) assumptions about God, and to help them to integrate their new learning into their life and ministry. In my role as an adjunct lecturer, if I have done this, then I believe that we will form believers who can help others engage with their questions about God and the world.