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Paul and Religion: Unfinished conversations by Paul W. Gooch

24 June 2022

Henry Wansbrough finds food for thought about being ‘in’ Christ

THE long-serving professor and Principal of Victoria University, Toronto, is a true open-minded philosopher; for each concept is tried and tested from every angle before being accepted for use. Everything is questioned in these lively conversations: can non-theist Buddhists be called religious? Is religion a stance, like the stance of parenting, or the stance of an academic as opposed to a bricklayer? It is often a matter of finding the right category.

So, in Paul, faith is a matter not of believing this or that, but of putting wholehearted trust in the Lord. At the conclusion of a rich and full discussion of the meaning of being “in” Christ, it is concluded that the formula is used in a non-literal sense, as a status-term, like being in an institution, in the army, or in a university. How seriously should we take Paul? Is he writing for his own contemporaries or for us? Should we admit that Paul was in some ways not a very nice person, “touchy, even prickly”? Such an investigation can be liberating: for me, an especial gift was the observation that to call Paul a “mystic” means not that he speaks of the ineffable, but that he at last reveals what was hidden or unknown from long ago.

The conversation is not so much about the status and being of Christ himself as, overwhelmingly, about morals or behaviour: what it means to be “in Christ” rather than “in Adam”. There is a frankly rather frightening piece of speculation, using the data of the Acts of the Apostles, with due regard for its historical status, of what must have been the life-altering experience that changed Paul from being a murderous persecutor of Christ’s followers into being a follower himself; it the paradigm of many accounts of conversion-moments.

Throughout the book, there is recurrent awareness of the centrality of the concepts of grace — nominated “Paul’s signature” — mercy, and forgiveness. I would have liked this discussion only to be enriched still further by a use of the attractive overtones of “graceful” as well as “gracious”.

Perhaps most important and most attractive of all are the long discussions of love: Pauline language is full of family terms, like brothers (and sisters), beloved children, fathers, nursing mothers, even and especially in the brief letter to Philemon: “indeed, brother, refresh my heart [or my guts] in Christ” by your love for the slave Onesimus. The features of love are not specific acts, but habitual stances; Paul lays them out with all his heartfelt feeling, as well as his rhetorical skills.

The language used in this book is never technical or stuffy. There is constant awareness of living in the Covid-stressed world during which it was written, making use of such movements as “taking the knee” in protest, or President Obama’s singing of “Amazing Grace” and his comments on grace at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney in 2015, and the reappearance of the hymn at the inauguration of Joe Biden in 2021.

Pure gold are the two controversial and speculative tailpieces on same-sex relationships and on Pauline religion and the acceptance of other households of faith. This experienced author does not dictate; he merely asks questions.

Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB is a monk of Ampleforth, emeritus Master of St Benet’s Hall, Oxford, and a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission.


Paul and Religion: Unfinished conversations
Paul W. Gooch
Cambridge University Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.99

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