A Man Called Paul

Paul tillich garden

Another Paul, Paul Tillich, whose burial site I recently visited New Harmony, Indiana, said ‘you cannot understand theology without understanding symbols’. (Existential Aspects of Modern Art) He went on to say that he learned more in the works of great modern artists who ‘broke through to the realm out of which symbols are born’ than from theology books.

St. Paul also speaks about each person as God’s work of art. (Ephesians 2:10). He too goes on to say ‘created so that we might have life in abundance.’ Unfortunately, this has been mistranslated in some bible translations as God having created us ‘for good works’. There is a big difference between those two interpretations! And I don’t want to fall into the debate about faith vs. works. But the later interpretation takes the Creator’s creative spirit out of the human person and puts the human person to work, as if that is what we have been created for. I have nothing against ‘good works’ but perhaps it is high time we put the cart before the horse. Paul understood about symbols as a way of speaking about God. Later in Ephesians he centers us as that work of art – the hidden self – the person hidden in Christ – which we are to bring to the fullness of humanity, which is the fullness of the realization of the sacred in us. For Paul that is abundant life.

As an artist and biblical scholar that is why I embarked first of all writing about the story of Joseph in Genesis. Firstly, it is a creation story. In Joseph, the creation of the human person is complete. And in Joseph we begin to see what it means to be human. To be created both human and sacred. The story of Joseph is rich in symbolism. These symbols come from that realm that artists have access to. The hidden self. The psyche. In the story there is a coat and a pit, camels and caravans, kings and kingdoms, sheaves of wheat, stars, sun and moon, temptresses, strangers and a woman named Tamar. I find in each of these a wealth of revelation. And before I can say anything about the Christ life, I felt I needed to explore the rich legacy of Israel in its storytelling traditions, in order to unlock the meaning of the gospels.

The German Jesuit Karl Rahner said that the theologian of the future will be a mystic, or they will be no theologian at all. Mystics are those, like artists, who see into the heart of things. Who looks at life symbolically and find the deepest spirit in the depths of the world, persons and God. Like the prophets of old they seek to bring their visions, like St. Paul, to others in symbolic language, so that we too might enter in, and see ourselves as sacred works of art.

Perhaps it is time for the child once more, the child in all of us, the Christ-child within, to lead the way. To return to that second naiveté Paul Ricoeur (Coeur is heart in French) talks about, so that we too might see and know ourselves as God’s work of art, mystic, artist and storyteller.


God’s Work of Art

Ephesians in its brevity encapsulates the best of Paul’s message. It is a message of peace, grace and as always encouragement in the Christ life. Paul’s passages in Ephesians are the phrases I want to keep in my head and heart, mindful that as we move to the new day of Easter, we might also think of moving to the new day when the positive message of the gospels and of St. Paul find renewal in our churches, academies and our lives. As we make our way to the renewal of Spring, I want to look at Paul with fresh eyes and be mindful of the changes and challenges inherent in his valuation of the people of God then and today.

Unfortunately, when Christianity became Roman, it also adapted (corrupted) the message of (especially) St. Paul to its own need to rule, dominate, setting the Church on a course that was legalistic, devalued the ‘flesh’ and women. Apparently the early church ‘fathers’ overlooked and/or discarded the message of Ephesians and Philippian. This is what Paul does not want for his converts. Not to live by rules and decrees. But to live in Christ.

Although, by now it should be evident that the totality of Paul’s message needs to be read in a new light, a more critical light, read and understood in its totality so we too can experience true resurrection, liberation from anachronistic readings that promote not the actual gospels themselves but a status quo we are still at pains to free ourselves.  So that we might once again not think of ourselves as sinners, but see ourselves as sacred and meant and know God the Father in the Christ Jesus who asks only one thing: to put our faith in him. To live our lives according to the Christ we have received. To have a new life in Christ through the great love with which he loves us.

We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to have life in abundance from the beginning as he meant us to live. (Ephesians 2:9-10)

To have life in abundance. When people query God’s will, this is what he wills for us. Life. Life in abundance. Our well-being, the grace and gift of God. Partakers in Christ of the God-life that we are meant to be. A sacred people. We are original and uniquely created, with the hand of God shaping us from within and without. He breathes his life in us and sustains us in the Spirit of Christ. We are meant to live a good life, in the God who turns everything to the good. In the beginning he saw that what he had made was good. We continue to be good. And when we fall short of the God-life within us we can be assured that we are still loved, the mystery of the Christ life is abundantly within us and available to us.

We are God’s work of art. Our abundance, the infinite treasure of Christ.