With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Mystical Messiah II

But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1Corinthians 15: 46-49)[1]

I. The Fundamentals of Paul’s Mystical Thought

A. “Christ in Us”

The mystical utterances that speak of Christ somehow living once more in the believer can be traced back to the core mystical concept in Paul designated by the phrase “Christ in us.” This phrase occurs in a number of contexts with slight variations in form, such as in Rom 8:9-10: “And if Christ be in you, the body indeed is dead, because of sin…” Parallels include Eph 3:16: “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith,” and 2 Cor 13:5: “Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you…” With this phrase, we see a concept of Jesus somehow dwelling within believers in varying degrees. Indeed, it is a concept of Christ’s life actually enduring in the very life of the believer, the supreme example being Gal 2:19: “with Christ I am nailed to the cross. And I live, now not I; but Christ liveth in me…” Here one can see the connection with a real participation in Christ’s crucifixion. Further, Alfred Wikenhauser identifies the “inward man” (ό εσω ανθρωπος) of 2 Cor 4:16 with “Christ in us” of Gal 2:20 and Col 3:4, as well as with the “new man” of Col 3:19 and Eph 4:23. Somehow Christ’s very life becomes present in the living of the believer (Phil 1:21: “for to me, to live is Christ”). According to Wikenhauser, Paul believes that “along with Christ a new vital power enters into men, and, unless it is impeded, this power gives Christians the form of Christ.”[2] The birth of the “new man” marks the presence of Christ within the believer, insofar as he bears a new life that springs from Christ and indeed is identical with Christ’s life. Yet how is this indwelling even conceivable? In what sense for Paul can a person (Jesus) “dwell within” another man?

According to Wikenhauser, the indwelling of Christ is equivalent to the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:9; Gal 4:6), which is also identified with the Spirit of God in men (1 Cor 2:16). Thus to call Christ one’s vital principle, the source of this new life, is truly to designate Christ’s Spirit as one’s vital and animating principle. Spirit is, as it were, the mode that Christ’ life has when we say that it is “in” someone.

This identification with the phrase “Spirit of God” is of the utmost importance for Paul’s mystical vision. Paul seems to employ it in a few different contexts which suggest different referents. For instance, it can denote the impersonal and all-pervading power of God in things (2 Cor 6:16; cf. 3 Kgs 18:46 and Ez 3:22). Other passages suggest it is a distinct Personal entity (consistent with the Gospel vision) which orthodox Christianity came to formulate explicitly and dogmatically. Though Paul uses the concepts of the indwelling of the Spirit and the indwelling of Christ seemingly interchangeably, there are a number of passages which highlight the distinction between the two, as certain predicates and actions can only apply to Christ. For instance, the Father achieved redemption through the Son; Christ died on the Cross, not the Spirit; man is conformed to the image of the Son, not the image of the Spirit, etc.[3] Yet according to Wikenhauser the term can also refer to the Spiritual Christ: referring to the supernatural state that Christ possesses in His glory. Paul does not ascribe to any Platonic dualism of body and soul; Christ as a glorified body simply is a living spiritual being in a state of existence beyond spatio-temporal bounds. Evidence for this reference to Christ’s supernatural state can be found in 2 Cor 3:17: “The Lord is a Spirit;”[4] as well as 1 Cor 15:45: “the last Adam [was made] into a quickening spirit,” referring to His freedom from the state of corruptible flesh, space, time, age, and death.[5] As Wikenhauser notes:

Paul can use the expressions which he does, because he regarded Christ Triumphant as a spiritual being free from the limitations of time and place which bound Christ during his life on earth.[6]

Thus, for Christ to be “at the right hand of the Father” and “in all believers” are not incompatible states, because His embodied state is of the form of an entirely new creation; a new infusion of divine breath into flesh. His is a body whose relation to spatio-temporal bounds has been radically redefined. So the glorified Christ, as a spiritual entity, can be “present” in a way the earthly, pre-Resurrection Jesus cannot; i.e. in many places and enduring across time.

Because Christ is conceived of as a spiritual being, His indwelling can be considered as analogous to the indwelling of other spiritual beings in Paul’s historical-religious context. One paradigm with which to compare it is the “indwelling” of demonic possession: a demon is said to be “in” someone because it is not an entity governed by the same constraints of space and time, and is thus able to localize itself to a person’s body and enact an influence over the entire physical, psychological, and spiritual being of the man. The demon is as a ungodly wind breathed into the flesh, moving its members like branches in the breeze. Paul conceived of Christ’s indwelling in much the same way, as a living and operative reality within man that is nonetheless distinct from him (Rom 8:16: “the Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit…”) yet enacts a profound influence over his ethical life. Thus, being a Christian can be thought of in terms of being morally possessed by the Spirit of Christ.

It is important to note that in His glorified state, Christ is identified with the power/Spirit of God, but not in a pantheistic way in which He is absorbed and his personality is jettisoned. Rather, it is crucial for Paul that the Christ who dwells in men retains his essential peculiarity. It is his unique vision (likely drawn from the resources of Jewish Apocalypticism) in which the spiritual Jesus does not leave His bodily existence behind, but His flesh, His wounds, and all the particularity of His earthly existence are translated into the spiritual state and integrated with it. The shift to the spiritual state somehow upholds the peculiar features and experiences that defined Jesus within space and time, within a historical and cosmic narrative. It is like a story now becoming legendary and timeless but retaining all of its contextual idiosyncrasies. As Wikenhauser points out:

Christ who is present in Paul is not merely a power or some kind of principle, He is the historical person with His individual character and His own experiences. When Paul says that Christ is in him, he means that this individual person is present in him.[7]

It is as if the historically bound events of Christ’s life were now inscribed into a state beyond time and space. This enduring peculiarity of Christ’s earthly experience in the glorification of His flesh accounts for the way in which Paul’s union is experienced in terms of a “re-living” of the events of Christ’s earthly life. Further, this identification allows for a conception of what we might call the Mystical Messiah: the peculiar narrative of Christ as Messiah can be relocated and re-presented in the lives of others in virtue of Christ’s spiritual state and His ability to, as it were, relocate Himself into the lives of others.

B. Being “In Christ”

The far more common mystical phrase in Paul’s writings is “in Christ,” which occurs 164 times in his Epistles! This notion is intimately linked with “Christ in us,” just as for Balthasar Christ’s re-living presence in believers was mirrored by the participation of those believers in Christ. For Paul, it is only because Christ Triumphant is a spiritual being that he can conceive of men “participating” in the reality of Jesus. Thus, as before, the notion is used in conjunction with the phrase “in the Spirit” (Rom 8:9).

In Pauline theology, to be “in Christ” always refers to the principle of one’s life and action, and is contrasted with the phrases “in the flesh,” “in sin,” “in the Law,” etc. (Rom 7:5; Rom 8:8; Col 2:20; Rom 2:12; Rom 3:19; Rom 6:2). Consistent with Paul’s understanding of spiritual indwelling, the word “in” in each of the above notions can be replaced with the phrase “under the influence of.”[8] When Paul says the Christian is “in Christ,” he means that now the Christian lives on a new plane of existence ushered in by the presence that the Spirit of Christ attains in him. Christ’s spiritual indwelling means that Christ’s Spirit (which is God’s Spirit), or rather His life-principle, becomes the life and breath of the Christian, and the animating force of his actions and being. If we see how the notion of spirit in the Old Testament is often tied to “breath,” and thus life-force, it is easy to see that if Christ’s Spirit becomes our inner breath, we are quite literally new creations. This divides life across two contrasted periods: 1) the level in which the principle of one’s life is “sin,” “flesh,” “the world,” “death,” etc., a condition which for the Christian is in the past; and 2) the level in which the principle of one’s life is Christ’s vital power (also described as being “in the Spirit”). Thus being “in Christ” can be described as a new state of existence in which one’s entire being is under the influence and power of the Spirit of Christ which really and truly dwells in him as a non-physical entity: a personal force principally expressed through motivation in the ethical realm.

We now know broadly the logic behind Paul’s mystical rhetoric. But we don’t as yet know where these concepts come from or the context in which they were born. And this context could provide certain constraints or new horizons: how we can and cannot employ these terms in a constructive theological project. So we must now turn to the context within the context: the conceptual milieu in which Paul found himself.

[1] Props to Didymus IV for bringing the 1 Cor 15 passage (ad the Blake painting) to my attention: http://paultocorinth.blogspot.com/2007/09/but-it-is-not-spiritual-that-is-first.html

[2] Alfred Wikenhauser, Pauline Mysticism: Christ in the Mystical Teaching of St. Paul (New York: Herder and Herder, 1960), p.44

[3] Taking into account passages of distinction, Wikenhauser holds that the unity of Christ and the distinct Person called the Holy Spirit occurs in their coincidence of activity: it is only through the work of the Holy Spirit that the spiritual Christ becomes present in believers. Cf. Ibid., p.84; see also George Maloney, S.J., The Mystery of Christ in You: The Mystical Vision of Saint Paul (New York: Alba House, 1998), p.64-65

[4] Traditionally, in the Old Testament, the spirit is the mode through which God dwells in and acts through men.

[5] See also the following 1 Cor 15:46-49

[6] Wikenhauser, p.89

[7] Ibid., p.74

[8] Ibid., p.52


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