The Life of Holiness, Romans 1:8-15 (pp. 89-110)
Posted by Robert C. on March 28, 2013
Having covered the first seven verses in about 70 pages, Jim covers the next 7 verses in a mere 20 pages (give or take). This change in speed is a bit jolting, and I think it’s a nice effect: having grown accustomed to a very ponderous and leisurely pace, really savoring the flavors of the first 7 verses, it feels like we’re approach these next 7 verses fast-food style. I’m not sure if Jim planned this effect, but I’m guessing he’ll be pleased with it, especially the way it effects a yearning for slow and careful reading.
In fact, I think that, in many ways, this is the greatest value of Jim’s book: not so much its content, which is of course wonderful, but its provocation—to read slowly, thoughtfully, and care-fully. This provocation is effected in various ways, not only by the 70 pages devoted to only 7 verses, but by the many years that Jim has devoted to writing this book. In our modern world, with its whirling pace and scant regard for old-fashioned concepts like “holiness,” this is a timely message. And this suggests one (demythologized) way to understand the value of scripture itself: having individuals, families and communities engaging in canonical texts, representing some of the best literature of the ages, is a uniquely effective way to preserve and pass on the best of humanity to subsequent generations. (NB: I’ve done a bit of reading recently on theories trying to explain the intellectual success of the Ashkenazi Jews, and I am, of course, quite sympathetic to the theories that tie this success to the Talmudic tradition.)
On to the content.
Paul writes that the faith of the saints in Rome is “spoken of throughout the world.” Jim emphasizes how this makes clear that Romans was written “to those who are already obedient . . . but who, nonetheless, stand in need of repentance” (p. 92). This nicely captures an important reason that Romans is such a powerful book. It is one thing to have a momentary desire to be obedient to the Gospel. It is quite another to live a life in fidelity to that desire. This challenge manifests itself in numerous ways, and it is a challenge that if not met, reflects very poorly on whatever person or institution claims adherence to the Gospel.
I have a friendly ongoing debate with a fellow ward member: he likes to argue that obedience without a pure or righteous desire is nevertheless important and valuable; in contrast, I like to focus on the problem of not having pure or righteous desires, focusing on how we need to purity these desires. We spar, in other words, on the question of whether righteous action without righteous desire is really righteous. It’s been a fun and insightful sparring, and it’s made me appreciate various nuances of the tension between desire and action.
In last week’s discussion, we talked about a closely related issue, how love and obedience and intertwined. If we love a person or a principle, we try to align our actions and thoughts with this desire. Because we are imperfect, we often stumble in our efforts to do so. In many ways, our desires are tested or proved in how we respond to this inevitable stumbling.
Fostering righteous desires, within ourselves and our communities, is a difficult task, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Paul writes that he serves God spiritually by preaching the Gospel. In reflecting on the idea of service, Jim writes that “service is a form of worship” (p. 94). Having grown up in the Church, this is a very familiar idea, but this week’s reading has given me new insight and renewed appreciation for it. I’m not quite sure why. Perhaps it’s because the term “worship” is somewhat mysterious: what does it really mean to worship something or someone?
My 7-year-old son has gotten very interested in Minecraft, a computer game that has become very popular among his friends. It’s interesting from my perspective as a father to see how addictive this game is for him, and how this addiction works, and how this addiction interacts with our own parental efforts to curb his addiction. In the end, I think it’s a matter of desire and competition for his attention and interest. I’ve only just started to have discussions with him hoping to help him be more self aware about the addictive nature of his desire to play video games. In contrasting this desire with his less addictive desire to be nice to his younger sisters, I’ve found a food analogy that resonates with him (which is probably why food analogies are on my brain, and got included above): being nice to his sisters is a spiritual vegetable, whereas video games are like candy or junk food.
As a fairly new father, and a teacher by profession, experiences like these are especially meaningful to me as I see the world more and more from the perspective of a teacher rather than a student, and as I ponder the scriptures from this new perspective. Paul’s expressions that reveal insight into his own character and desires, and his role as both a slave and as an apostle, are analogous. In this sense, the way in which Paul enacts a mode of cultivating desires, in responding to God’s call (and love), and the way that Paul attempts to cultivate desire in the saints he is writing to, is perhaps inseparable from the actual content of Paul’s message. Paul is giving the Romans (and us) his best-served vegetable dish for the soul.
Jim’s discussion of Paul’s phrase “by the will of God” is very nice. On my reading, this discussion of the relation between God’s will and the church community builds on the Jim’s discussion of verse 9 on the (possible) harmony of body(/flesh) and spirit. To feel kinship with Latter-day Saint strangers is a curious thing, and reflecting on this jointly felt commitment to God’s goodness, that we’ve all already committed ourselves to, indeed creates a kind of bond. Reflecting on this curious bond is instructive for better understanding our various relationships: to our own bodies, desires, communities, strangers, and God. Our recognition of each other as disciples serves as a reminder of our own discipleship.
This is also the power of scripture: by recognizing the essence of discipleship, sainthood, and apostleship, as articulated in scripture (incl. Paul’s epistle), we in-so-doing cultivate desires to act according to vision of goodness that comprises the essence of these very callings.
So, regardless of what other differences we might have as a diverse body of saints, we are unified by the singular goodness that Christ’s word (as brought to us by Paul) calls us to.
After a nice discussion of the term “spiritual,” Jim writes about the term “gift” in verse 11 that Paul’s “message itself is a spiritual gift to the Roman saints” (p. 98). Jim also says with regard to verse 11, “This letter is a way of supporting and establishing, or strengthening, the members in Rome” (p. 99). Jim also mentions the specificity connoted by the Greek term for “established” (p. 99).
Taking these thoughts together, and in light of what I’ve emphasized above, we have a rich account of how Paul is faithfully fulfilling his calling as an apostle by the very act of writing this letter to the Romans. By reading and contemplating Paul’s words, as delivered to us via Jim’s interpretation/translation, we are in turn participating in this same calling/work/service.
Jim’s discussion of verse 12 further develops these themes further: “In the community of the church, faith in God founds and creates faith in one another, and faith in one another strengthens our faith in God” (v. 101). Because the idea and phrase “strengthen our faith” is used so frequently in the modern Church, I like thinking about strengthening faith in terms of the cultivation of desire idea that I discussed above. To become strong in the faith isn’t about propositional statements that we intellectually assent to. Rather, it is a matter of cultivating desires to enact the goodness that God calls us to—and being faithful to these desires.
What strikes me most about Jim’s discussion of verses 13 through 15 is the communal themes. “Brethren” is a somewhat surprising word choice because Paul hasn’t met the saints in Rome. But, if we are unified by our jointly shared commitment to Christ, then we share a spiritual kind of intimacy that this term emphasizes.
If I am recalling correctly, when I sat in on some of Jim’s classes he expressed a preference for being addressed “Brother Faulconer.” That made an impression on me for a variety of reasons. First of all, I don’t think “pious” is a word that comes to mind when most of us think of Jim. His spirituality isn’t ceremonious or in any way affected. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard Jim pray, but I imagine his speaking tone during prayer to be rather plain, without the kind of extra-reverent tone that is, in my experience, common among the Saints. Although someone might criticize Jim on this score, I find it exemplary and endearing because I see him thinking that all of our relations are essentially inflected by the spiritual brotherhood and sisterhood that he shares with all his Mormon (or, as the case might be, Christian) interlocutors. (Another reason Jim’s “Brother Faulconer” preference left an impression on me is because I was, at the time, at that somewhat awkward stage of being a young professor at BYU who was trying to adjust to the idea of thinking about professors as equal colleagues rather than as being in a position of sufficient superiority that should be reflected in my form of address. Somehow, I ended up deciding to just call Jim Jim instead of Brother Faulconer, and he doesn’t seem to mind….)
It is in this same sense that we are indebted/obliged toward one another (v. 14). And it is in this same sense that Paul’s preaching of repentance is to be taken in good faith, as an act of loving rebuke—inasmuch as there is rebuke inherent in his letter—rather than any flavor of a holier-than-thou rebuke (v. 15). I remember Jim saying that to disagree is a sign of love and respect. (Jim tells a story of a well-respected British professor at BYU—whose name currently escapes me—who other colleagues were often timid disagreeing with, and who complimented Jim on not being afraid to disagree with him….)
Jim’s discussion of the term “fruit” (v. 13, pp. 103-105) is also very interesting. On my reading, Jim uses the term basically as an excuse to foreshadow his understanding of the relation between faith and works that will be worked out at more length later: if we allow God, and God’s word, to work in us, we will be good, and good works will naturally follow. This is very different from thinking we can produce good works by “concentrating on the fruit we produce,” or “comparing our fruit to that of others,” or “gritting our teach, cinching our belts, and making a firm decision to produce better fruit.” Jim’s writing here is a great critique of attitudes that are very common among us, and attitudes that we are all prone to at various times.
I’m curious how to link up this idea of Jim’s, that I’ll call a “production-oriented” account of fruitful works, with the idea of being mutual debtors in the Church. I apologize for trying to think for about this in such explicitly philosophical terms, but this linkage might be conceived in Levinasian terms as follows: by focusing on others in a truly ethical and responsive way—that is willing to mourn with them, listen to them, and serve them—we become distracted from any agenda we might come up with that governs our actions in an effort to produce good works.
I’m currently reading a fascinating book on Aristotelian ethics (The Retrieval of Ethics by Talbot Brewer) that links these two ideas in a slightly different way, and in a way that seems more directly relevant to Paul’s writing in these two verses. The subtle difference, as I see it, is in how Levinas understands the ethical obligation to respond to another person, without really giving an account of why we feel obligated to respond others. (OK, this probably isn’t very fair to Levinas, since I’m very rusty on his philosophy, but please bear with me.) On Brewer’s reading of Aristotle, in contrast, we have a particular obligation to respond to friends who embody a form of goodness that we are deeply drawn to. There is, then, an inarticulable, non-finite good that we glimpses in our friends, and this glimpse draws us to them, and motivates us to trust them to learn about life and the various forms of goodness that we desire. Applying Brewer’s reading of Aristotle to the community of saints, we can say that the reason we are indebted to each other is because others have also covenanted to follow Christ, and this binds us to them in the same way that we are naturally inclined to think of our obligations to our temporal siblings who we have practiced seeing goodness in over the years living under the same roof and/or interacting with the same parents.
Brewer critiques a production-oriented understanding of ethics by leveraging his reading of Aristotle in a similar way. Because we do not have a clear grasp of what is good about different sorts of relationships or activities, we cannot simply think about such things in terms of producing right action. Rather, a better conception is to think about a constant desire to have a better and better understanding of what is good in these relationships and activities—and perhaps not just what is good, but what potential there is for good.
So, the composer keeps composing, and the singer keeps singing, and the lover keeps loving (and the reader keeps reading), constantly striving to enact these practices more perfectly. This dialectical striving for excellence is increasingly enjoyable, just as there is a virtuous circle enacted in any good friendship—more experiences, whether good or bad, generate a more rewarding friendship, if both friends are faithful to the essence of the friendship. And, as we commit ourselves to this kind of mutually rewarding friendship, we feel an obligation to help and serve them as excellently as possible. Because we are covenantally committed to our fellow saints, this is a nice account of how this commitment works.
Well, I’ve been spitballing these last few paragraphs, and I don’t have time to improve them. But my hope is to have helped in some small way in thinking about the relation of these two points that Jim draws from Paul regarding (1) a proper, non-production-based attitude toward good works and (2) the nature of our obligations to fellow saints. What links the two, in short, is our mutual love and commitment to the Gospel of Christ—and, in our particular case, our study of how Jim’s book delivers Paul’s book about this Gospel to us….
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