‘Veni, vidi, vici.’ Such was Julius Ceasar’s laconic report following his defeat of Pharnaces II of Pontus after a short campaign in 47 BC. ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ How different the words that Karl Barth places in the mouth of the Apostle Paul at his conversion. ‘In the depths, the height on which I stood; lost, the security in which I lived; darkness, my once-clear vision.’ As Luke records the event, after a great light and a commanding voice from heaven have struck him down,
Then Saul arose from the ground, and when his eyes were opened he saw no one. But they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and he neither ate nor drank.
That is not how Caesar would have entered Damascus but this is not Caesar’s story. It is the Christian Church’s paradigmatic conversion story.
The story as told in Acts 9 marks the turning point in the mission of the Church. Saul will arrive in Damascus expecting to receive a mandate, a mandate that incidentally, while it comes directly from God, he does not hear from God himself: his mandate comes from a member of the Church in Damascus and will consequently never be open to any more doubt than the reality of his conversion. The mandate is public: he will bear my name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. Probably even Saul would not have believed it if only he had received it. Thus in this chapter of Acts we are on the threshold of the mission to the Gentiles and have read the account of the most important event, as far as Luke is concerned, subsequent to the extraordinary affair at Pentecost. Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria – all these have begun to hear the good news; now for the ends of the earth.
But as the light begins to filter across the Gentile lands and into the darkened minds of its rulers the Church has to reckon with the reality that its mission begins in another kind of blindness, another three days of darkness and death. Before this Apostle will ever give sight to the blind in the name of Jesus, in that same name he must himself first be blinded by the light pouring out on the world. Thus a pattern for his leadership is established. At the moment his mandate is given, so also the voice to Ananias promises: I will show him how many things he must suffer for my name’s sake. And the point of the blindness then, in hindsight if we may put it so, is not that that was itself the beginning of the suffering, but that it was the beginning of that confusing humility and loss of certainty that must necessarily attend a gospel anchored in both cross and resurrection, in both faith and hope, in both joy and sorrow. Saul must come to Jesus like a child led by the hand and knowing nothing. Gone the height on which he once stood, lost the security in which once lived, darkened the dark vision that had driven him forward in zealous murder. Suffering, disconcertingly, would no longer be an infallible sign of failure or divine disfavor.
Who was this man and what had he lost? It is said, commonly enough, that he was a man of three worlds.
Paul had grown up in the Hellenistic city of Tarsus, a centre of learning that compared without embarrassment to Athens and Alexandria, boasting a library of over 200,000 volumes, including a science collection impressive by any standards. It was a grand city of palaces, marketplaces, and fountains and may reasonably be taken to stand for all that was best in the cultural world of antiquity, for the language, philosophy, and arts of the Greeks.
But that was not the whole of it. I appeal to Caesar (Acts 25.11), he would one day famously say to a Roman governor, for Paul was also a Roman citizen. The man who was about to lay the charge that would soon begin to undermine the Roman Empire was familiar with its imperial armies, trade routes and roads, its ubiquitous marketplaces and prisons, and its oppressive system of political religion. He was a Roman citizen and a cultured one. The influence of these two worlds played a role in making Paul the greatest missionary the world has ever seen. It has been said of him that he never saw a boat riding at anchor but he wanted to board her for the lands beyond.
More fundamental than either of these, however, was the world of second temple Judaism, its scrolls, rabbis, and rituals, its Pharisaic conviction and arduous practice, of which even as a Christian he was proud, and its Sadducean accomodationism, of which he wanted no part except insofar as his mission to seek and destroy Jewish Christians required its approval. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, a son of the Torah committed, his upbringing in those other two worlds notwithstanding, to the defense of Jewish identity in the face of the encroaching world of paganism.
At his conversion, however, all the unquestioning pieties of these three worlds are lost to him. Paul, once so moralistic, zealous, and adamant is led by the hand to a future he can neither see nor predict. But, if pharisaic certainty is no longer an option, the simpler certainties of the culturally accommodating Sadducees were now even more distant realities than they had been before, for it was not as if a fundamentalist had just become a liberal. And the piety of empire with its monopoly of violence (however much such justice as was possible in that world depended upon it)? – whatever he had once thought about that would need revising. For its part, the piety of culture fared no better. Science, reason, individualism, art, freedom, all of them highly valued in the world of Hellenism, were now to be measured against the cross and resurrection of Christ. In every possible way Paul now confronted the possibility that a comprehensive scandal and unavoidable stumbling block was the way of salvation.
And like Paul, the Christian has always faced the same hard humility of faith. ‘I am afraid there is no god’, say the purveyors of the piety of culture, who are not afraid at all. ‘And I am afraid there might be’, the believer replies, and means what she says. ‘I am certain god is on our side’, says the piety of empire. ‘But, though choices must be made, I cannot see that your certainty is evidence in your favour’, says the believer. ‘I am confident that god has authorized these rituals’, says the religious practitioner. ‘Yes’, responds the believer, ‘but that ritual includes the chaotic waters of baptism, which are a rupture, a death, and a dispossession before they are new birth.’ God is present in and works through weakness, failure, and human confusion. This is the way of the cross.
God’s mercy seems from a human perspective very often to be a lawless mercy and anarchic grace that steps around all order, rank, conditions, imperatives, limits, self-dependence, or merit. It undermines all human claims: the practices, piety, and zeal of religion; the inherited customs, unexamined wisdom, and critical thought of human culture; the governance and expedient cruelty of human politics. It undermines all other claims in the name of a claim that comes from nowhere. Revelation comes in history and comes as event, an event neither repeatable according to the needs of scientific investigation, nor deducible from first principles, nor predictable on the basis of religion, nor as and when convenient to the principalities and powers. This revelation comes as a contingent fact and must necessarily be theoretically underdetermined, dependent on no philosophical warrants or scientific experimentation, one more contingent mystery that has been set on its way in the world and waits for no man’s permission. It claims to be this and as such upsets all accepted categories, knowledge, and relations and is an end of all pieties, certainties, and dogmas and leads to blindness and disorientation – the humility of faith.
Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like men without eyes. At midday we stumble as if it were twilight; among the strong, we are like the dead(Isaiah 59:10).
But at once another reality asserts itself. It is a matter of empire after all, for the tyrant’s final power, the power over life and death, has been taken away and that is political. Further, the claim will go forward in the world as testimony, a matter requiring a community and its culture. And in Paul’s case it will be underwritten by precisely the intense religious experience that has led to his blindness, and his case will not, in the history of the Church, turn out to be singular. And still further, this faith must go on to re-appropriate religion, culture, and politics in a broader sense. If this be true, if the resurrection happened, then what adjustments must we make in our scientific and metaphysical assumptions, and, if all the dead shall rise, including those who died unjustly without hope or mercy, how then must humans be treated. If every thought we ever had is put in question by the resurrection of the crucified, that is so that we may take every thought captive to obey the Messiah (2 Cor.10.5).
Still, this is not a triumphant claim. Every thought must be taken captive for the Messiah, but he is forever the Messiah who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. This conditions the whole of Paul’s ministry. For Paul, the new life will always be something promised but not yet possessed, always yet to be fully realized; he will always be straining forward to what lies ahead. The massive certainties of faith – grounded not in his subjective faith but on the objective faith and faithfulness of Jesus – will spell the end in principle to religion as the way to salvation, they will be yoked to love, not to the pragmatic cruelty of imperial power, and they will be led into the future by radical hope for a social transformation far beyond anything possible to the resources of human culture alone. Paul’s conversion marks him for life and he can never forget that it began with the active intervention, beyond himself, of a God and later a community who had no reason to love or trust him and it issued in a three day blindness and fast, a descent into the hell of his own murderous intentions and misdirected zeal. A total and effective ‘no’ is said to this man, he has no future, says Barth. A powerful Lord has driven him from the field, blinded him and left him bereft of purpose and direction. As evidence that Paul never forgot this experience, we need only turn to the final chapters of his second letter to the Corinthians, a distressingly raw meditation on the daily struggle, the life-in-death, of a church leader facing inexorable failure, weakness, and embarrassment, wasting away, a fool in boasting, weak, exhausted, anxious – this brief list of his words and phrases is enough to indicate the depth of his sorrow. These words of John Wesley speak to something of the same experience:
And yet this is the mystery, I do not love God. I never did…. Therefore I never believed in the Christian sense of the word. I am only an honest heathen… and yet to be so employed of God! and so hedged in that I can neither get forward nor backward! … I am borne along, I know not how…. I want all the world to come to – I know not what.
Christ, we may say in summary, is a menace to all self-satisfaction, self-dependence, and self-assertion, and the self-hatred that lay behind them all. That new level of existence made possible by the resurrection is a reality we cannot experience unless we understand that, as Rowan Williams has said, we cannot know our healing without deepening our hurt. In this sense, Paul’s conversion is indeed paradigmatic – it leads from blindness to freedom by way baptism and the daily quest for a prize that forever lies ahead of us on other side of death. Certain of nothing, the believer is open to the possibility that the universe may be a graver threat than the pieties of either religion, culture, or empire typically assume and yet may also be a wellspring of joy that offers, according to Paul, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine (Eph. 3.20).
Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And … he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.
‘I come, I cannot see, conquer me’ – on the one hand, the pious certainties of a secular age and, on the other, the necessary humility of faith in a crucified and risen Lord.