Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Life of Holiness, Romans 8:31-39 (pp. 438-453)

Posted by Robert C. on August 23, 2013

(This is the final post for this reading group project. I have updated the index page of all the posts for this project here. Thanks, everyone, for a great ride, and thanks especially to Jim for writing a great book, and giving us the excuse to delve deeper into Paul’s letter!)

In what follows below, I’ll first offer some meta reflections on Jim’s book as a whole (and in the process I’ll give an apology/explanation for the lateness of this final post). Then I’ll group my comments around three topics that summarize this final reading and provide an occasion for me to reflect on several of the themes that stand out to me from Jim’s book as a whole, as well as his writings more generally. The three thematic topics I’ll address are suffering, joy, and universality.

Meta Reflections

My apologies for the delay in my posting this. I actually did this final reading several weeks ago, but since it’s the final reading, I wanted to post some comments regarding my overall takeaways from Jim’s book. Thinking about these takeaways has been a difficult and time-consuming process—and I’ve had very little spare time. Moreover, on my reading of the book, Jim ends rather abruptly. That’s not a criticism, and it’s not particularly surprising, given that the genre of this book is perhaps best described simply as scriptural commentary, and I don’t think concluding chapters are very common in scriptural commentaries.

But it has been very challenging for me to think through Jim’s project as a whole. This is probably for the best, since it has forced me to do more thinking on my own than would’ve been the case if Jim provided a conventional style summary of and conclusion to his work. Also, I take it that one of the key purposes and themes of Jim’s book itself is a provocation to wrestle with Paul’s text on our own, to think through the various rich and possible meanings in Romans, not just the best possible interpretation.

In Western culture, in particular, most of us are accustomed to books, stories, articles, movies, TV shows, talks, etc. that have a traditional narrative arc—some sort of introduction, a story with plot and characters that develop in some recognizable way, with a tension that builds and then somehow resolves itself. It’s against this background that I mean to suggest that the lack of conclusion to Jim’s book is, albeit unsettling, instructive.

Now, I suspect that Jim is targeting several kinds of readers. Those of us who know Jim’s philosphical (and theological) writing would feel justified in hoping Jim would develop some philosophical themes which he could summarize at the end of his book. Or those of us interested in studying scripture in order to develop a better understanding of the Gospel doctrine(s) would be similarly justified in hoping for a concluding chapter that would tie together the various doctrines developed in Jim’s reading of Paul. Is Jim (or some editor that Jim chose to listen to) thus purposely undermining the expectations of these two kinds of readers? If so, why? If not, is it that Jim is targeting a different audience?

I can think of one other kind of reader that Jim is targeting: the reader interested in simply getting more out of their reading of Paul (and Paul’s Epistle to the Romans in particular). This kind of interested reader might be an academic exegete, but if this is the case then Jim’s self-deprecating preface seems to obviously go too far. No, my answer to the questions above is that Jim is targeting more of a lay audience—and if the reader is academic, I suspect (or, better: I’d argue) Jim is purposely (whether consciously or not) undermining the tendency to read Paul in a way that is too systematic. Reading scripture, in this sense, might best be conceived as a recreational activity that is not instrumental toward some particular argument or thesis, but is a good in itself. In this sense, the typical dichotomous way of thinking in modern society between work and play—a dichotomy that lies at the root of problems of self-alienation (as Paul addresses in Romans 7)—is undermined.

If anything (and in light of what I’ve argued above, this is a big “if”), then, it seems to me that Jim’s reading of Paul is effectively a way of addressing the problem of alienation. Said differently, Jim is writing about atonement—or writing to help effect atonement in us, his readers. But Jim titles his book The Life of Holiness, which is not exactly the same as atonement. Nevertheless, I think it’s close. That is, inasmuch as holiness is a matter of living after the Spirit rather than the flesh (see esp. Romans 8:1-13), Jim’s title can be understood as suggesting a way of overcoming the alienation that our spiritual selves experience when living according to the flesh.

Because I first became interested in Jim’s writing on questions of community, I find it somewhat ironic—and, again, unsettling in a good way—that Jim focuses on the more individualistic parts of Romans rather than the more obviously communalistic parts of Romans, such as Romans 9-11 (Jim discusses these themes in his introduction). But the more I’ve wondered about this, the more I’m pleased at Jim’s choice since it gives me clues for putting together the various strands of Jim’s writing into a relatively holistic framework.

In Talbot Brewer’s The Retrieval of Ethics, he argues that modernity is wrong to think about a stark tension between what is good for individuals vs. what is good for the community (think of the Hobbesian war of all against all). Similarly, I think Jim’s commentary on the Romans helps us see how we can reconcile our-(individual)-selves to God, and taking Jim’s other more explicitly philosophical work talking about community, we can understand how the community relates to God, how individuals relate to God, and how individuals-in-relation-to-God relate to the community-in-relation-to-God. Viewing Jim’s book in this light thus evinces a nice comprehensiveness to Jim’s thought as a whole.

Suffering

Moving to a discussion of Jim’s comments on Romans 8:31-39, I’d like to start with the theme of suffering and theodicy in Romans 8:35ff (pp. 447ff). I like how Jim says that the dangers Paul lists “are not imaginary or exaggerated dangers but real possibilities for Christians living at the time” (p. 447). Thinking in terms of dangers that were actually imagined is helpful in overcoming two dangers that I think are quite common in scripture study: on the one hand, becoming too abstract and general, in a way that has little bearing on our lives as they are actually lived; on the other hand, trying so hard to apply the scriptures to our lives that we do violence to the scriptures themselves, wresting them to conform to our lives, rather than conforming our lives to the scriptures.

Accordingly, suffering comprises a particularly interesting and productive link between the lives of those we read about in scripture and the lives we lead. A danger I’ve seen in discussing suffering in a classroom setting is that people sometimes get rather bogged down in sharing particular experiences of suffering, without connecting these experiences to the larger scriptural thematic and redemptive role that suffering is meant to have.

Jim provides a beautiful gloss on the problem of theodicy. Jim writes: “Suffering does not separate us from Christ. Indeed, it joins us to him. . . . [W]e must recognize that our suffering can be part of our imitation of [Christ's] life” (p. 448). To link this to the meta reflections above, when suffering is properly understood it links us to Christ in a redemptive and upbuilding way that increases our individual holiness—which, in turn, transforms us into relational beings (related to Christ and thus ready to be related to both our own selves and others via Christ).

In the context of theodicy, Jim also writes, “Paul’s approach to human suffering is not to explain it away, as some have done and continue to do. . . . Paul is merely saying that if God suffers, then we too ought to expect suffering to be part of our existence” (pp. 448-449). Jim has written a fantastic article on the problem of suffering in “Rethinking Theology: The Shadow of the Apocalypse”. I’ve had a bit of an epiphany in thinking again about this older article, which has had a profound effect on my own thinking (and my relating to God and others), and what I learned from Jim sitting in on various classes of his, especially his Levinas class. What I think undergirds pretty much all of Jim’s writing is a struggle against the modern tendency to think of ourselves as autonomous agents that are firstly selves and only secondarily related to others. What Jim seems to see in Paul is a sense in which we, as disciples of Christ, must first see ourselves as firstly related to Christ (and others), and only secondarily constituted as selves. This, on the one hand, seems an almost trite way to characterize the essence of Christianity, and I think it resonates in a very familiar way to us Mormons. On the other hand, I think this alternative way of thinking requires a seismic shift in the way we understand ourselves and relate to others and the world—a shift that requires constant vigilance to be true to.

The previous two paragraphs may seem to be a shift away from the topic of suffering, but if we think in terms of passivity, the connection should be relatively clear. The call of the Gospel is, in a certain sense, to be open to others. To fight against the deeply entrenched tendency to be, as Paul Simon put it, a rock or an island, resisting or fighting against suffering that occurs in our own lives and the lives of others. It is no small thing that Christ’s suffering lies at the very heart of the Gospel, and it is what opens us to the possibility of a redemptive relation with God, ourselves and others.

In a sense, then, I think Jim’s reflections on suffering in his final pages of the book can be understood as a kind of conclusion that brings together all the themes he has addressed in the foregoing pages of his book.

Joy

In commenting on verse 31, Jim quotes James Dunn who notes that, in these passages, Paul’s “‘exuberance and joyous elation is unmistakable,'” and that this “note of exuberance and joy marks the rest of this section” (p. 440> It seems a bit odd, at first blush, that perhaps the two most dominant themes of this final section of Jim’s book, and this part of Paul’s letter, are marked by themes of suffering and joy—after all, these themes are usually conceived as opposites. In a Gospel context, however, it should be no surprise to find that suffering and joy are closely linked, and this is particularly true for Mormons who frequently hear this pairing in popular quotations of 2 Nephi 2 where we learn that opposition and suffering and necessary for joy and happiness.

I found Jim’s reference to John’s intercessory prayer particularly intriguing. I think a case could be made that in light of the larger Christian tradition, Joseph Smith’s contribution can be most usefully understood as suggesting a particular kind of reconciliation of the Johannine and Pauline trajectories of Christianity. At any rate, Jim suggests here a rather intriguing (and distinctly Mormon) way of understanding the links between suffering, atonement, and joy: “Of course, one must be free from sin to feel that joy, which requires atonement, but it is noteworthy that at the very moment when Jesus begins his suffering on our behalf, he understands what he is doing in terms of joy” (pp. 446-447).

Linking Jim’s idea of joy to the discussion of suffering above, it is important that the love of Christ mentioned in verse 35 is, as Jim tells us, “Christ’s love for us—not our love for Christ” (p. 447). Joy is obtained by understanding the link between Christ’s love for us and his suffering, and recognizing God’s love for us in this way is basically what brings us joy—and in experiencing this joy, we desire to suffer with (or for) others.

Universality

Jim addresses the theme of universality in his discussion of Romans 8:32 where Paul proclaims that God delivered up his own Son “for us all.” In this sense, Paul’s message implies that it is for every person, “with no respect of persons” as Paul puts it in Romans 2:11. However, Paul immediately follows up this phrase with a different kind of universality with the claim that God will freely (“graciously” Jim says in his alternate translation) “give us all things.” Jim favors the implication here that “all things” means “all of creation,” similar to the meaning in Romans 11:36 (p. 442). In this sense, Jim notes how the universality at work here might be understood in terms of D&C 132:19-20 where we are to understand that the exalted will inherit “all heights and depths” and receive “all power” (p. 442).

The implications of this linkage between universal love and universal power, as I’ll term the two kinds of universality described above, are . . . well, mind-blowing to me. A rather hackneyed idea exists that love can conquer all. Perhaps this gives us a good first intuition of for how to think about the relationship between universal love and universal power.

To think about this literally seems absurd, or at least incomprehensible, that God would bless us with absolutely everything. For example, does this imply being blessed with a rock that was so heavy we couldn’t lift it? However we answer this question would seem to violate the notion that we could be blessed with literally all things (so, to accommodate this example, we’d have to at least restrict our conception of blessings to those that are not self-contradictory—but this opens a logical can of worms that I won’t bother trying to explore here…).

At a more practical level, however, four additional thoughts might be helpful. First, the NRSV translation, turning this into a question, reads “will he not with him also give us everything else?” This way of understanding “all things” is much more limited, and suggests (at least on my reading) something like everything else that is needful—or something.

A second thought would be to focus on the aspect of the promise that all things are given—that is, everything that exists would be given to us as a possible experience of joy and/or understanding.

Third, given that the Paul goes on to talk about suffering, Paul could intend something like all experience being “given” to us by God, in the sense that all experience is redeemable by God (perhaps something akin to Lehi telling his son Jacob that his afflictions in the wilderness would be consecrated for his gain).

Fourth, and finally, Jim notes that “Paul appears to recall the figural sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham by using language that is very similar to that of Genesis 22:16″ (p. 440). In this sense, the notion of universality might be understood in terms of degree, like Abraham’s “universal” (or infinite, we might say) willingness to obey God. In this sense, God’s love is a figure or type that we should emulate. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son, or God’s willingness to sacrifice his Son, or the Son’s willingness to obey the father—each of these examples provide an illustration of how God’s love works, and how it is able to overcome any obstacle, including the most terrifying of all obstacles, death itself. So, in this sense, holiness and atonement are enacted by means of divine love, which is powerful enough to overcome all obstacles in uniting individuals and communities to God and each other.

One Response to “Life of Holiness, Romans 8:31-39 (pp. 438-453)”

  1. […] Romans 8:18-25 (pp. 394-420) [-Joe S.] 7/8: Romans 8:26-30 (pp. 421-437) [-Robert C.] 7/15: Romans 8:31-39 (pp. 438-454) [-Robert […]

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