Feast upon the Word Blog

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The Life of Holiness, Romans 1:18-23

Posted by joespencer on April 9, 2013

My comments so far in the course of this reading project have aimed at isolating passages in which Jim’s overarching intentions with the letter to the Romans are embodied. In a certain way, this is to cut against the grain of Jim’s text: although he does, I think, have certain overarching intentions, his approach to the text is purposefully in excess of any overarching intention—too comprehensive to be limited to a theme, too willing to go wherever Paul wanders to dwell for long on central themes, too methodologically focused to worry about outlining an argument. Perhaps I’ve been willing—and will continue to be willing—to work against some of Jim’s purposes because I was converted long, long ago to the approach he’s modeling in the book; hoping to learn more from Jim, I consequently find myself focusing on the subtly emergent theme that gives the whole book its title. Whatever my motivations, I’ll continue in that mold in my discussion here of Jim’s analysis of Romans 1:18-23. How do these pages contribute to Jim’s investigation of the life of holiness?

As it turns out, there’s a sense in which it’s especially difficult in this part of Jim’s text (as it will be, I’m guessing in advance, in what we’ll read next week) to follow the thread of his larger and generally implicit study of the life of holiness. Why? Because beginning with verse 18 of Romans 1, Paul begins to focus on the life of unholiness. Most scholarly readers of Romans point out that 1:18–3:20 contain Paul’s assessment of sinfulness and unredemption, a theme that is suddenly (and suggestively) left behind with the nyn de, the “but now” of 3:21, which introduces an explicit echo of 1:17 and it’s talk of God’s righteousness being manifested. (Compare the two passages: 1:17 – “the righteousness of God [is] revealed”; 3:21 – “the righteousness of God … is manifested.”) The intervening discussion in 1:18–3:20, to which Jim gives attention mostly through his study of 1:18-32 (he’ll give us only a summary of chapters 2-4 before he turns decidedly to Romans 5-8), provides an analysis not of how God’s righteousness is revealed or manifested, but of how God’s wrath makes its appearance.

As Jim notes (p. 139), the traditional reading takes Romans 1:18-32 to be an assessment of Gentile unholiness and Romans 2:1-29 to be an assessment of Jewish unholiness. Since Jim gives his detailed attention only to the first of these two assessments, we’ll have a chance here only to look at one sort of unholiness. There’s a certain way that this is quite appropriate. Although, because of certain tendencies among Latter-day Saints to a kind of exclusivism, there are ways in which what Paul outlines as specifically Jewish unholiness are applicable to us readers of Jim’s book, it’s probably more likely that we’re prone to what Paul outlines as specifically Gentile unholiness. And it’s this sort of unholiness that, at any rate, Paul seems to see as more directly opposed (through the parallel Jim notes between 1:17 and 1:18; see p. 141) to the sort of righteousness and holiness that the gospel would reveal.

To get to work, then: What might we learn about unholiness here?

First come Jim’s very helpful discussions of “truth” and “knowledge,” as Paul would have understood these terms. Where “for us, reality (what is) is objective rather than personal, and it is ultimately static, ‘a datum at rest in itself,’” Jim explains, “for the ancients, the most real thing is that which makes all other things possible” (p. 143). This difference is crucial. Today we think of truth as whatever isn’t subjective, as whatever is actually independent of us. This is in part because we, as the heirs of Rene Descartes, begin from a skeptical position about the world: How do I know that what’s outside me is real, is really there? Paul, however, as an ancient, began from a completely different position. Not doubting what was “outside” of herself, the ancient person took to be most real what ultimately lay behind all things. When Paul speaks of the truth, which is suppressed by unrighteousness, he had in mind God, as what gave all things to be what and how they are.

It follows, as Jim makes clear, that, for an ancient, the truth—what is most real—is at least implicitly known by everyone who inhabits the world. Perhaps one couldn’t say much about the truth just by inhabiting the world, but one certainly, as it were, dealt with the truth. And that’s all that was necessary, because the ancients understood knowledge differently than us as well: “Thus, where we would think a person knows something if he can tell us various facts about it, they would have thought he knew it if he were familiar with it, if he had experience of it, whether it was a fact, an idea, a thing, or a person” (p. 145). For the ancient, then, living itself was enough to give one a kind of knowledge of truth—not just of truth in general, but of the truth, the ultimate reality that lies behind everything we experience.

It’s in light of these clarifications that one can make sense of Paul’s claim in these verses that everyone just knows the truth about the world, that it can be, as it were, read right off of things. As Jim explains: “Given this understanding of truth and our relation to it, Paul can appeal to the creation of the world as the standard of truth: God created a harmonious world; people live in that world and are necessarily in harmony with it to some degree, and every person can become more harmonious and act rightly by developing the harmony in which they already live” (p. 150). That’s the picture Paul’s working with. And that’s the picture that helps us to see what unholiness, unrighteousness, must be. It’s not simply a matter, as we might guess, of doing bad things; it’s a matter of working against what we ourselves know, of rebelling against the truth we’ve become acquainted with simply by living.

How does one rebel in this fashion? Paul’s answer, as Jim makes clear, is this: “Not to be holy as the Lord God is holy is to be an idolater” (p. 159). Paul’s own words are that they, the unrighteous or unholy, “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). Jim makes this point very briefly (his discussion of verse 23 takes up less than a page!), and that surprised me—perhaps particularly because it was Jim who first directed me to some of the richest discussions of idolatry on offer in contemporary thought (those, to name names, of Jean-Luc Marion). Why not say more about this business of idolatry? Certainly Jim thinks it’s still a real problem for the Saints, the most common manifestation of unholiness. So why not get into the details?

Here, though, I recognize that I’m asking Jim to focus on what interests me the most. I’m myself particularly struck by this talk of idolatry, and I’ve found myself convinced in my own work on Romans 1 that the key to what Paul’s doing is to be found in what he has to say about idolatry. I don’t have the space in a post like this to spell out all the details of my own reading, but I’ll summarize it, I suppose. Paul’s Greek seems to me to lay emphasis on the way that in idolatry we attempt to economize God, stripping the creation of the glory lent it by its Creator by transforming it into so many commodities that can be exchanged on the market. The ultimate motivation for idolatry lies in the desire to suppress what lies behind the world (namely, God) in order to establish a closed circuit, a space within which wealth can circulate without (divine) hindrance. In idolatry, human beings displace God (as verse 18 has it, for the unrighteous, God ceases to be nearby and a source of righteousness and becomes instead distant, “from heaven,” and a source of “wrath”), hoping to maintain a space, however temporary, within which we can enjoy the earth’s riches without having to recognize their status as gift.

The life of unholiness, as I read Romans 1, is thus the life of attempting to enjoy the wealth of the creation while denying—in act, if generally not in word—that its source is in God. Unholiness is first and foremost an economic affair, an insistence on ownership of rather than stewardship over the creation, a refusal to let God meddle in “merely” temporal business. Unholiness is assumed by building a wall that would keep God at an infinite distance as long as possible, even if His return is ultimately inevitable. It’s from this that the earth must be delivered (as Paul will say in Romans 8), under this that the earth groans (as Paul will also say in Romans 8). And it’s apparently only as the life of holiness, the life of righteousness, dawns that the earth can find herself delivered of the burden of idolatrous humanity. Or so it seems to me.

The unrighteous give God to manifest Himself only as a distant and wrathful deity. That’s apparently how they want to see Him. But what shape does God’s actual wrath take? Jim explains this point very nicely: “Notice that we do not see the Father punishing the sinners described [here], at least not in our ordinary sense of the word punish. Rather, as we will see, Paul says that the Father gives them up to their sins (see Romans 1:24). Their sin is their punishment” (p. 141). What’s the punishment for idolatry? The inherent instability of the market, the empty experience of the commodity, the self-obsession of ownership, the constant demands of the cult of economics, the complete lack of fellowship and community—all this is the “punishment” God metes out to those who choose it over the life of holiness. In the end, we unfortunately seem to get what we want.

Of course, this is a point that, as Jim says, will be spelled out in more detail in next week’s reading. For the moment, we’re given just to see the basics of life if we reject its coupling with God’s holiness. And it should be reason enough to start repenting.

5 Responses to “The Life of Holiness, Romans 1:18-23”

  1. Alan Goff said

    I am reading through Slavoj Zizek’s Violence and he makes the point more elaborately than you can here in limited space Joe. The systemic violence of the economy involves extremely high levels of abstraction about what wealth is and who benefits. We understand perfectly well when someone uses violence on the street with a gun to rob someone (what Zizek calls subjective violence). Hedge funds and the corporate and governmental structures that support them commit that violence at such an abstract level that perhaps just six people in the world understand what they mean and how they function (and that the wealth tallied up in these hedge funds amounts to millions times more money than is issued by all the governments in the world). On a highly abstract level Bill Gates, George Soros, or Andrew Carnegie extract fabulous amounts of wealth from people and then turn philanthropist to turn some of it back to the poor. “Charity is the humanitarian mask hiding the face of economic exploitation,” says Zizek. People build up idols of complex financial instruments to provide for their own security, but those idols are themselves inherently insecure. Hedge funds and credit default swaps are supposed to insulate the speculators from instability while they cause the very problem they are trying to solve, or as Joe says, “The inherent instability of the market, the empty experience of the commodity, the self-obsession of ownership, the constant demands of the cult of economics, the complete lack of fellowship and community—all this is the ‘punishment’ God metes out to those who choose it over the life of holiness.” So perhaps our understanding of the idolatrous structure of the economy fits better what Paul was talking about than the economy of the Roman Empire. I think we will return to this concept next week as you predict.

  2. cherylem said

    I found this reading stimulating (and also last week’s – I try to comment there also) and not entirely satisfying. I appreciated Joe’s comments above and Alan’s additions, especially as they are applying Paul to economics and economies. I appreciated Joe’s calling out these verses as the life of unholiness. To add a few thoughts:

    1. I appreciate Jim’s understanding of the wrath of God. I have tried and tried to teach in GD that the wrath of God is the absence of God. It is not such an easy concept to get across, especially as some of our scriptural readings make God sound just like us, when we are wrathful. I do have a quibble: on page 141 in the section titled “is revealed” Jim says that the justice of God is revealed IN the gospel, but the wrath of God is revealed AGAINST all sin. Like I said, a quibble, but I think the parallel should remain that the wrath of God is revealed IN all sin also. It is while we are in sin that we feel God’s wrath – God’s distance and the effect of our own sin.

    2. Just above this section there is a paragraph that basically says, well I’ll quote: “One who judges rightly abhors the evil and sin he condemns, and for sinners, that abhorrence is rightly called wrath.. . . However, wrath describes our experience, not God’s emotion.” The saying “hate the sin but love the sinner” comes to mind, a saying I dislike intensely, unless it is turned inward, on myself. To abhor is not exactly to hate, and in the absence of God, when the sinner is feeling the distance of God and thinking it is God’s wrath, is exactly the time, I think, for those of us who are God on earth, or at least acting in God’s name, to close that distance, and to come close to the sinner. And since we are not God, and most times unable to judge rightly perfectly, perhaps that is the time to lay verbal judgement aside, and just move in close with as much of God’s love as we can hold.

    3. Paul – I think – and Jim his interpreter – speaks of everyone knowing the invisible God through experience of the visible and experienced (not the same things) universe. It occurs to me that it is not so easy to worship an invisible deity. Paul says that people worship idols instead, who are dead and unable to create anything or act in any way. But back to worshiping an invisible deity. The invisible God is dangerously easy to manipulate – I can put words in God’s mouth and thoughts in God’s mind that are not God’s, but mine. Because God is not visibly here to negate that. So this is a danger of thinking everyone can know the invisible God through experience – even via what we call the Light of Christ. The invisible God can be a dangerous God. Therefore it is probably necessary for God to become visible through Jesus Christ, and through others who speak in God’s name and who know God, because the truly Godly person will not let us mismanage God.

    4. I loved Jim’s quoting Matthew 25:40: “as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren…” and applying it’s negative: as we injure our neighbor, it is as if we have injured God. Not that Jim said that exactly but I think that is what he meant.

    5. There is a lot in these pages, and I think I sin against some order of things – written or unwritten – about long responses, so I’m going to skip over to page 145, when Jim writes about our ability to have a “lived, experiential acquaintance with good and evil . . . ” and then he writes: “Such knowledge [to see the difference between good and evil] comes by faith and is absent when we are in sin.” I wondered that if I know that I am sinning, and am disgusted by myself and sorrowful even while committing a sin, if I am still in a state of faith and truth, because I recognize my sin.

    6. Jim emphasizes that the “truth is something one cannot hold without acting on it (p. 146) and “truth is something that we cannot merely hold, but must live (p. 147).” So to recite, as in sacrament meeting, what we know is true, is not exactly understanding truth. It is understanding a LIST, but truth must not just be listed, but must be lived.

    7. Now comes some parts where I am left unsatisfied by Paul, even understanding more the context of his words in the ancient world as Jim has carefully and closely laid them out for us. I think Paul operates and has expectations from a position of privilege. He argues that “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen,” that is, we understand the invisible God from the visible world. But . . . even Paul did not understand the invisible God until he was zapped on the road to Damascus, and Paul was a pretty smart guy. This is an argument from philosophy maybe, and from faith and trust, perhaps, but it is also an argument from privilege. I don’t think the orphanage children who are not touched or handled and grow older without conscience or empathy can recognize the invisible God from the visible world, or the children who are born in the slave camps in North Korea, or the Sudanese children who are taught to kill early, or . . . cases that hit even closer to home in our own society. These are people absolutely without privilege, and to ask them to recognize the difference between good and evil – that is is harder question than the Stoics perhaps studied. And even the ancients expounded their philosophies from privilege: their philosophies did not always pertain to women or slaves or children. So I am having a hard time accepting this argument as some brilliant universal truth. I don’t think it is universal, and I think Paul was wrong if that was the case he was making. However, if he was talking about the situation in Rome during his lifetime, and especially talking about the ruling class in Rome, he was spot on. In my opinion.

    8. Jim talks about the phrase “his eternal power” as related to the “ability to act.” God’s power comes from the ability to act. This is a profound insight. And . . . it also relates to the current conversation about women and priesthood. I’ve been having a discussion with friends about this issue, and one of the things we’ve thought about is if women were ordained, they might still not be accepted as leaders or in leadership roles in the church, because only men are perceived in our culture as having the “ability to act.” But this ability to act- whether ordained or not – is definitely a woman’s issue, because lack of that ability (through not having the priesthood, or through just being female) puts up obstacles in the church that she cannot overcome (see page 153). Therefore she cannot give healing blessings, or learn appropriate leadership skills, or learn what it is like to completely be like God, because she is denied the fullness of this opportunity within Christ’s church.

    9. Okay. rant over. Except for the constant male pronouns when speaking of God. I tried in this response to not gender God, though I may have failed and I’m not rereading it (probably should though). Not that God doesn’t have a gender, and I know God spoke to Joseph Smith as a man . . . but God also speaks to me as female. So that reading of God being God by the power HE has and HIS ability to act has made me tired, because that little pronoun has been an obstacle for women for a long time to seek their own divinity in ways not proscribed and permitted by a male hierarchy acting in HIS name. And it is truly tiring to read all those he’s and his’s and try very hard not to feel irrelevant to the discussion.

    10. Rant truly over, Jim. My last point though is that by the end of this section, on page 158, Jim writes: “Sinners have a heart that, as Paul has just shown lacks wisdom. Their heart does not understand the creation and refuses to discern between good and evil.” To me, this is a very black and white view of the human condition, and one again that operates perhaps not so much from wisdom as from privilege. So I am not liking this part of Paul so much, or at least this part of his explanation of things. However, again, if we talk about the social context in which Paul and the Romans lived, especially the even greater privilege and terrible acts of the ruling class, in might make more sense. In fact, to me it does make more sense, and I’ll maybe try to write about that a little later.

    11. Jim, you write of Satan as if you know this is a real being. I’m afraid I don’t know this actually . . . and I am also not sure that knowledge is essential to a life of faith, trust and holiness.

    Well, all for now. Much here to like, and some things – for me, anyway – to argue with Paul about.


  3. Joe, good question: why didn’t I deal more with idolatry? I don’t know. You are right that it is a topic I’m interested in and have written about elsewhere. It’s hard to say why it didn’t come up as part of my analysis when I was working on chapter 1, especially since it is an explicit topic.

    Alan, thanks for the Zizek reference. One more thing I should read but haven’t.

    Cheryl, I agree with you that we can’t understand Paul to be expressing eternal truths about all people. He’s writing to the Romans and talking to them about their situation. Also: I don’t know what Paul would say, but I would say that people like the children you describe are not sinners, regardless of the terrible things they might do.

    Sorry about the masculine pronouns. They are hard to avoid.

    Ironically, I just had a piece revised by a European, female editor to replace the feminine and gender-neutral references I made in a piece with masculine pronouns. Her argument is that using feminine pronouns to replace masculine ones, for example, makes a difference where there ought not to be one; grammatical gender, she argues, is not sexual gender, so we ought to use the grammatical masculine gender for everyone, including in titles of women, “le professeur” for female professors, for example, in order to emphasize that there is no difference. That doesn’t explain the stylistic issue that occasioned what you called a rant. Just a note of interest.

    I write about Satan as a real being because that’s the way the scriptures speak of him. Does a person have to believe in his reality in order to have faith in God? I doubt it.

  4. [...] James Faulconer on The Life of Holiness, Romans 1:18-23 [...]

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