So says N.T. Wright in the opening chapter of his Paul and his Recent Interpreters (Fortress, 2015): “though we have been accustomed to thinking of Paul as a ‘religious’ figure, that is a function of the way our culture has seen things in the last two hundred years,” but this is “not a necessarily ‘correct’ way to approach him” (10). Having just wrapped up my Ph.D. in Pauline studies, I’ve been eager to dig into this book and work through Wright’s assessment of the field. As an aside, the home stretch of writing and defending the dissertation is the reason for the lack of regular posts here at the blog.
Back to Wright’s point. His concerns emerge from the reality that the word “religion” means something very different now than it did in Paul’s world. In our day, religion is often seen as a private affair set off in its own compartment away from one’s public or professional life. In the ancient world, religion intersected with every aspect of life. You couldn’t set it off to the side while you go about other business. That’s how we often treat religion today. Paul’s religious thought engaged every aspect of life with the claims of Jesus, the resurrected Messiah and Lord. He did have something to say about what we might call “religion”, but he also had something to say about philosophy, ethics, cosmology, economics, and government, among other things. Wright prefers to call Paul a “public figure,” and he is happy to remind us that Paul “was not inviting people into a private ‘religious’ world” (10, italics original).
This is one instance where we modern folk have something to learn from the ancients in general and Paul in particular. Our culture is deeply fragmented. We have tried to sort religion and politics and ethics and activism into separate bins, only to be taken aback when someone takes public action and grounds it in their religious conviction. We need to learn the lesson that religion is part of an integrated whole. Worship encompasses all of life. If we follow those who label Paul a “religious” figure and attempt to mute his voice in our secular society, we do so to our detriment. If, however, we allow him to speak at his full volume and engage our culture with the message of the gospel, we may just find a fresh and compelling vision of God’s world and our place in it.