Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit Review

Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit
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Troels Engberg-Pedersen is professor of the New Testament at the University of Copenhagen. He is a very learned and wide-ranging scholar, having published books about Aristotle and about ancient stoic philosophy. I was impressed with his book PAUL AND THE STOICS (2000), so I decided to read his new book about Paul the Apostle's thought and his thought-world, as I will refer to it. Engberg-Pedersen has studied ancient stoic thought far more extensively than I have, and I have learned a lot from both of his books about Paul.
It is well worth the price of this pricey book to read Engberg-Pedersen's detailed and impressive delineation of the key term pneuma (spirit) in Paul's writings. As the subtitle of his new book indicates, Engberg-Pedersen opens up Paul's thought enormously by discussing the material spirit (pneuma), which is to say a materialist way to understand Paul's writings about the spirit (pneuma), as distinct from the immaterialist or nonmaterialist way of understanding those writings. But Engberg-Pedersen's materialist way of understanding the pneuma in Paul's writings does not necessarily threaten to overturn the traditional immaterialist or nonmaterialist way of understanding those writings that Christian theology has favored. Instead, Engberg-Pedersen opens the way of thinking about the material spirit, as he puts it, which is to say a way of thinking about the spiritual life of atheistic materialists today.
For understandable reasons, Engberg-Pedersen situates Paul's thought-world in the contexts of competing ancient thought-worlds: Plato (and Aristotle to a lesser extent), Middle Platonism during the Hellenistic period, ancient Greek and Roman stoic thought, and ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought.
However, even though Engberg-Pedersen repeatedly refers to the conceptual construct and personification that Paul refers to as "Satan," Engberg-Pedersen does not explicitly discuss Zoroastrianism. During the period of time when the ancient Jewish homeland was under the rule of the Persian empire, before Alexander the Great conquered the Jewish homeland, ancient Jews came into contact with Zoroastrianism. During the later period when the ancient Jewish homeland was under Greek rule, ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought emerged. As a result, it is reasonable to conclude that Zoroastrianism contributed to the emergence of ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought, including the conceptual construct of "Satan" as the adversary of God. (In the book of Job, the adversary figure referred to as "Satan," which etymologically means "adversary," is not the adversary of God, but the adversary of humans such as Job.)
That Paul the Apostle was an apocalyptic preacher is beyond debate. He was. Indeed, in accord with ancient Jewish apocalyptic thought, he had so convinced himself that the end of the world as we know it was about to occur that he expected to live to see it occur in his lifetime. But as we know, it has not yet occurred. Nevertheless, let us pause here and consider how we might feel if we thought that the end of the world as we know it was going to occur in the near future and that we would live to see it and experience it. Exciting thoughts, eh? Let's also say that this upcoming event would include a great dividing of people into the good guys who would be saved and thereafter live in heaven on earth or earth in heaven, and bad guys who would be consigned to eternal pain and suffering in hell. Exciting thoughts, eh? For people who have convinced themselves that the present world is evil, this apocalyptic vision of the impending future might be welcome.
As a result of his thoughts about the impending end of the world as we know it, Paul traveled around the Mediterranean world preaching that this momentous event was about to occur and urging people to get ready for it. Evidently, his excitement was catching, at least among certain people. But exactly how should people get ready for it? According to Paul, people should get ready for it by putting their faith in the conceptual construct and personification that he referred to as "Christ Jesus," where the Greek-derived term "Christ" refers to the Hebrew-derived term "Messiah." For Paul, the historical Jesus was Jesus the Messiah (Jesus the Christ, or "Christ Jesus" for short).
Here I would like to interject Gabriel Marcel's useful distinction between belief-in and belief-that. Belief-in refers to our experiences of belief in a person, which we can expand to include belief in the personifications known as "God" and as "Christ Jesus." By contrast, belief-that refers to our experiences that certain stated propositional statements are true, so that belief-that means belief-that a certain proposition is a true statement. An example of a proposition would be the statement that the historical Jesus was the Messiah (a.k.a. the Christ). For Paul, this propositional statement is truncated down to the combination of words "Christ Jesus" that mean that Jesus is the Messiah. But for Paul, his claim about "Christ Jesus" is not a debatable claim; he does not want to invite debate about this claim. Instead, he wants evoke in people belief-in "Christ Jesus," who in Paul's presentation is presumed to be a living person. So if we want to catch his excitement and enter into his excitement and share in his excitement, then we have to share his belief-in this vividly imagined "Christ Jesus." In short, Paul wants people to use their imaginations to imagine the personification "Christ Jesus" as a living person whose living presence one can feel in one's psyche, as Paul himself claims to have felt such a presence in his psyche.
Two comments are in order here. (1) In his treatise known as the RHETORIC, Aristotle identifies three different appeals that the speaker in civic debate uses to help make his arguments for a particular course of action persuasive: (A) logos (reason), (B) pathos (emotion), and (C) ethos. Paul as a speaker used pathos in the form of fear about the impending end of the world as we know it and ethos. To use ethos as an appeal, the speaker projected his identity as a good guy and thereby invited the people in the audience to identify with him as a good guy. Thus through the process of projection and identification, Paul could communicate his sense of excitement about "Christ Jesus" in a way that people in his audience who were disposed to his message could catch on to what he was saying and thereby catch his excitement and make it their own. No doubt Christian proclamation has relied on this kind of use of ethos over the centuries. For further discussion of ethos, the interested reader might want to read William M. A. Grimaldi's "The Auditors' Role in Aristotelian Rhetoric" in ORAL AND WRITTEN COMMUNICATION: HISTORICAL APPROACHES, edited by Richard Leo Enos (Sage Publications, 1990, pages 65-81).
(2) I would say that Paul was inviting people to use what C. G. Jung refers to as active imagination to imagine the personification that Paul refers to as "Christ Jesus." In the Christian tradition of prayer, a form of prayer based on passages of scripture was developed that involves the use of the imagination in meditation and contemplation. Arguably the most famous compilation of exercises designed to help a person engage in the use of imagination in meditation and contemplation is known as the SPIRITUAL EXERCISES of Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556). By using our imaginations in meditation and contemplation about certain passages in scripture, we today can replicate for ourselves in our experience the kind of imaginative experience that Paul was urging his listeners to undertake with respect to the personification of "Christ Jesus." When we undertake this kind of imaginative work with reference to the personification of "Christ Jesus," we may be able to experience in our psyches what Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette refer to as the archetypes of masculine maturity at the archetypal level of the human psyche. For example, when Paul imagines the Parousia (the Second Coming), he imagines "Christ Jesus" coming as the warrior-king, which has given rise to the Christian tradition of referring to "Christ the King." In the SPIRITUAL EXERCISES of Ignatius of Loyola, the second week is devoted to contemplating the kingdom of God and Christ the King. All the king imagery can be connected with the archetype of the king within the archetypal level of the human psyche. See Moore and Gillette's THE KING WITHIN: ACCESSING THE KING [ARCHETYPE] IN THE MALE PSYCHE (1992; revised and expanded edition, Exploration Press, 2007). By accessing the energies of the archetypal level of the human psyche, Paul and people who listened to him and people today can learn how to move from experiencing their ordinary psyches to experiencing the enhanced energies that can flow into us from the archetypal level of the human psyche. In the terminology used by Engberg-Pedersen, we can move from being people with ordinary psyches to becoming people whose psyches are enhanced by pneuma (spirit), one of the key terms that Engberg-Pedersen investigates.
Let's review. On the one hand, Paul was preaching that the end of the world as we know it was about to occur, which would probably strike terror into the hearts of the people who bought his line of thought. In Aristotle's POETICS, he tells us that people watching a tragedy performed in Athens would experience pity and terror (or fear). From his discussion of watching a tragedy performed, we can conclude that people in the ancient world who listened to Paul and bought his line of argument about the impending end of the world as we know it probably did experience terror (or fear) about that prospect occurring in the near future, as Paul himself said it would. On the other hand, Paul invited them to save themselves from being on the wrong side when this...Read more›

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Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul challenges the traditional reading of Paul. Troels Engberg-Pedersen argues that the usual, mainly cognitive and metaphorical, ways of understanding central Pauline concepts, such as 'being in Christ', 'having God's pneuma (spirit), Christ's pneuma, and Christ himself in one', must be supplemented by a literal understanding that directly reflects Paul's cosmology. Engberg-Pedersen shows that Paul's cosmology, not least his understanding of the pneuma, was a materialist, bodily one: the pneuma was a physical element that would at the resurrection act directly on the ordinary human bodies of believers and transform them into 'pneumatic bodies'. This literal understanding of the future events is then traced back to the Pauline present as Engberg-Pedersen considers how Paul conceived in bodily terms of a range of central themes like his own conversion, his mission, the believers' reception of the pneuma in baptism, and the way the apostle took the pneuma to inform his own and their ways of life from the beginning to the projected end. In developing this picture of Paul's world view, an explicitly philosophically oriented form of interpretation ('philosophical exegesis') is employed, in which the interpreter applies categories of interpretation that make sense philosophically, whether in an ancient or a modern context. For this enterprise Engberg-Pedersen draws in particular on ancient Stoic materialist and monistic physics and cosmology - as opposed to the Platonic, immaterialist and dualistic categories that underlie traditional readings of Paul - and on modern ideas on 'religious experience', 'self', 'body' and 'practice' derived from Foucault and Bourdieu. In this way Paul is shown to have spelled out philosophically his Jewish, 'apocalyptic' world view, which remains a central feature of his thought. The book states the cosmological case for the author's earlier 'ethical' reading of Paul in his prize-winning book, Paul and the Stoics (2000).

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