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Paul’s Letter to the Athenians

Updated: May 10, 2022

Paul’s Letter to the Athenians

An excursus on faith in the mode of negative or apophatic theology, faith without content, leaving it to the Spirit to blow where it listeth.

Grace and peace to you.

For it is in him that all the fullness of God’s nature lives embodied and in union with him you too are filled with it.

Colossians 2.9

The Martyrdom of St. Denis also known as Dionysius the Areopagite

Henri Bellechose 1415

The Beheading of St. Denis

Paul’s Letter to the Athenians

A Heretofore Unknown Letter by the Apostle Paul to the Church at Athens

Addressed to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Bishop of the Athenian Church,

Paul’s Convert, who, according to legend, became the Patron Saint of France, St. Denis, and also, according to legend, the pseudonymous author, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. Taken together they constitute the Dionysian Tradition.

Tempera on wood

Museo Nazionale, Pisa

Responsible for publication:

Paul Lee The Platonic Academy Press Santa Cruz, California 95060 2009

Paul on the Areopagus preaching to the Athenians

with Dionysius in prayerful response.


This letter of Paul to the Church at Athens was inspired by my interest in Dionysius the Areopagite, the Greek convert of St. Paul, also known as St. Denis, the patron saint of France. (Denis is French for Dionysius.) I utilize the material in Acts, which tells of Paul’s trip to Athens and his sermon at the altar inscribed to An Unknown God, on the Areopagus, where Dionysius is in attendance and is converted.

Now while Paul was waiting for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the market place every day with those who chanced to be there. Some also of the Epicureans and Stoic philosophers met him. And some said, “What would this babbler say?” Others said, “He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities”—because he preached Jesus and the resurrection. And they took hold of him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, “May we know what this new teaching is which you present? For you bring some strange things to our ears; we wish to know therefore what these things mean.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.

So Paul, standing in the middle of the Areopagus, said: “Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along, and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all men life and breath and everything. And he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us, for

‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’ Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all men by raising him from the dead.”

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked; but others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from among them. But some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.

Acts 17: l6–34


Dionysius’ legend is remarkable, all the more so, because in our time it is relatively unknown, in spite of his profound importance throughout the early medieval period as the link to Neoplatonism and the development of Apophatic or Negative theology. [1] Negative theology is based on a logic of negation through a cancellation of what is posited on the form of “not this”…“not that”…and, through negation of what is posited, moving to higher and higher states of comprehension and understanding, as though mounting a ladder. It is an exercise in self-renunciation and self-surrender, an exercise in repentance understood as the confession of self-delusion. It is an emptying of the mind with the goal of setting reason aside. In this way, Dionysius/St. Denis represents the mystical motif in Christianity.

It may be that adding the third Dionysius in the set, the pseudonymous author of the mystical writings that bear the name of Dionysius, usually referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius, accounts for the unfamiliarity. Three figures under the same name in the course of some hundreds of years may make a tradition but one hard to comprehend after it is buried in the historical past. What? In three different graves? What is separated according to factual history is united in legend. My point is that the three filiations of the legend did it in. It was too much to sustain. And then Luther poured scorn on the tradition. He was against mysticism in the hierarchical tradition of the Roman church and so Dionysius was forgotten, all three of them.


I was introduced to Dionysius in a seminar on mysticism I took with Paul Tillich at Harvard. I reported on St. Bonaventure. Tillich thought I was talking about a bone that went on a venture looking for a dog. I grew self-conscious about my nasal Midwestern twang, especially when he became increasingly agitated; he didn’t know what I was talking about. I felt the same way. I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was getting increasingly agitated, as well. I thought my cover was being blown, until he thought of the Latin pronunciation, and then he got it: oh, you mean Bon-a-ven-tura!

I breathed a small sigh of relief and went on. My bluff had not been called.

I can’t remember what sparked my interest later in life in the tradition of Dionysius and his three-fold place in early Medieval Christianity but my interest has grown over the years and has led to this effort.

My interest in the Dionysian tradition and legend prompted me to make a pilgrimage of sorts to France, where I searched out what I could find about his legacy. The first encounter was with a magnificent medieval painting of St. Denis in the Louvre, a very large canvas, depicting, apparently without intending to, the three Denis: the Athenian (Dionysius), the French saint (Denis), and the author of the pseudonymous treatises, as mentioned, who appears some centuries later, (most often referred to as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite), an unknown author, who assumes the name of Dionysius and is the occasion for Neoplatonism entering Christianity. These three, as mentioned, one anonymous, constitute the Dionysian tradition.

I made this threefold association when I looked at the painting in the Louvre because of the depiction of the three stages in the martyrdom of St. Denis. The painting depicts St. Denis in three figures: walking to his execution, his head cut off en route, and falling to the ground. I thought there they are, the three of them: Dionysius, walking to his beheading; St. Denis, beheaded, the martyr; and Pseudo-Dionysius, his head cut off, the Negative Theologian, having lost his mind to Plato.

I attended a service at the Royal Abbaye of St. Denis, on the outskirts of Paris, where Denis is buried, the burial place, as well, of many of the Kings and Queens of France, the first gothic church of Europe. The organ was particularly memorable and made me think I had straddled a jet plane during takeoff. It rumbled my soul.

The priest, in a movingly humble voice, preached a sermon I could barely make out, on the Beatitudes. It was very close to the festival day of St. Denis: October 6th. The stained glass windows, the history of the place, the Museum close by I eventually was able to visit, the Moslem bazaar just over there, a block away, encroaching on the place with all of its immigrant pressure, the façade of the cathedral, all of it so beautiful and evocative of its meaning, the very place where Joan of Arc stood and hung up her arms on the altar, I knew I was at the source of the legend of their Patron Saint, transplanted to France from Greece. After all, Paris is named after the Paris of Troy, who brought Greek civilization to France, just as Aeneas brought it to Rome. Dionysius/Denis was to follow, bringing Christianity.

I found a St. Denis in Saintes, France, where I stayed in a remodeled nunnery with spectacular vaulted brick corridors. I walked outside and in the clear light of day, there he was, standing in a niche, in a courtyard, on the wall of the adjoining church, holding his head in his hands. I went into the church and high on one wall was a severed head on a plinth. Who else? I saw other sculptings of St. Denis at the Cluny Museum in Paris, magnificent examples, among a collection of overwhelming beauty of the Kings of Israel, unearthed during the construction of the Paris subway, where the revolutionaries had thrown them, just as they had scattered the remains of the Kings and Queens of France from their tombs at the Royal Abbaye, where they wound up in the nearby ditches. The revolutionaries moved a cannon in place to blow it up and were persuaded not to because it would make a good weather station thanks to the tall spires; rational enlightenment at work. They put up a statue of Athena on the altar.

A few blocks from our apartment, in the 7th Arrondisement, near the Seine, on my way to my favorite cheese shop, Barthelemy’s, I caught an image in the corner of my eye, as I passed an antique store and did a quick doubletake. There was a four foot St. Denis, a granite sculpting, holding his head in his hands, standing at the back of the showcase window. I went in to inquire, stunned that it might be for sale and found out it was from the l4th century. It was for sale. One thing led to another and I bought it for my 70th birthday and had it shipped to Santa Cruz, where it stands outside my front door as the patron saint of my home and my life. Identifying with it, I thought that instead of wearing my heart on my sleeve, I would hold my head in my hands.

I read what I could about St. Denis and about the Athenian Dionysius and Pseudo-Dionysius. It occurred to me that the mysterious “man” about whom Paul boasts, the “man” who was carried into the Third Heaven and who saw things there that no one may dare utter, could have been Dionysius, although most think Paul is referring to himself. Why in the third person?

I wrote to Jaroslav Pelikan, the famous historian of Church History. He shrugged and wrote back: maybe. I wrote to Krister Stendhal, my old New Testament professor at Harvard Divinity School. He neglected to answer.

I thought about “The Third Man” as a principle of Christian self-interpretation, pointing away from oneself, to another, transcending the ego-self.

I thought about the consistency of Jesus, in the Gospel of Mark, referring to the Son of Man, rather than to himself, always pointing away from himself, except for one variant that is probably misleadingly translated.

The high priest, before whom Jesus is brought, asks: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the chief priest tears his mantle and charges Jesus with blasphemy and they all condemn him to death, spit on him, cover his face, and strike him, saying “Prophesy!”

A variant translation could read: “You say that I am.” [2] It is of interest that even though it is translated “I am,” Jesus then refers to the Son of Man in the third person as though speaking of another. [3] He may have acknowledged that he was the Christ, but he speaks of the Son of Man, as another, as he consistently does in the rest of the Gospel, where it is not clear what his relationship is to the one of whom he speaks, as though he is not clear, either. It slowly dawns on him, maybe as late as the agony in the Garden, that he himself is to suffer the fate of the Son of Man and that he has been speaking of a figure he himself must assume and become: The Son of Man/Suffering Servant.

Now that it dawns on him, he asks to be delivered from this fate. He prays three times to be delivered. He falls on the ground in agony and sweats until he bleeds, calling upon his Father, for whom all things are possible, those remarkably poignant words, and asks to have the cup of suffering taken from him. He doesn’t want to drink his own blood.

How utterly different, to the point of a complete and radical contrast, is the Jesus of Mark from the Jesus of John, for whom the “I am” sayings are paramount, the Logos made flesh, full of grace and truth. Not so in Mark. Jesus contradicts the disciples’ expectations with his Son of Man sayings, conflated with the Suffering Servant songs of the Second Isaiah. This is the critical point. Jesus infuses the content of the Son of Man sayings, the conquering Man From Above, the Heavenly Conqueror, with the fate of the Suffering Servant, who will be delivered over into the hands of the enemy and put to death on a cross. The Son of Man will assume the role of the Suffering Servant, an apparent contradiction.

It must be emphasized that the favored title in Mark’s Gospel is the Son of Man and this title is in conflict with the title: the Christ or Messiah, because the Son of Man is the Suffering Servant, expressing the Paradox with more force than the title, the Christ. It is to the disadvantage of the Son of Man/Suffering Servant title that the Christ becomes a second name for Jesus, as though absorbing the meaning of the former titles.

There is a catalogue of titles in the Gospels that are used to speak of the Christ, or the Messiah, or the Anointed One: Son of God, Son of David, Lord, Son of Man, Good Shepherd, Logos, the “I am” sayings in John, etc. Each title indicates some aspect of Jesus’ vocation. The generic title, to the point of becoming a last name, is the Christ. It is important to recognize that the revelatory breakthrough in the event that comes to be called the Christ-Event is expressed in the various titles that attempt to capture the meaning. They are revelatory responses to the revelatory event and althogether constitute a complex of meaning, a symbolic filiation.

The third person Son of Man sayings in Mark refer to the one who is expected. Jesus points to the one who is to come, as though he speaks of another, making himself a forerunner, not unlike John the Baptist, with whom he is confused. It turns out he is a forerunner to himself which he slowly comes to comprehend. I have no idea why the Son of Man title seems to fade into the background in the later tradition after its prominence in Mark, although there are an equal number of references in Mark and John—fourteen.

Given their selfish ambitions for following Jesus, the disciples think they are associated with someone who has political ambitions just like they do. Jesus, as the Messiah, as the conquering hero, will overthrow the Romans and usher in the Kingdom of God in which they hope to occupy top positions as his erstwhile companions, who have sacrificed everything to follow him. Even if they understood the Son of Man theme as that of a heavenly conqueror who will overthrow the enemy, they balk at the notion that the Son of Man will be put to death by the enemy. This is not their understanding of the Christ with whom they have thrown in their lot. The Son of Man/Messiah/Christ is to carry their political ambitions into the transcendent vision of the Kingdom of God about to be ushered in. The disciples in the Gospel of Mark are the early examples of fundamentalists and literalists—they are obtuse. They don’t get it and their misunderstanding gets in the way of comprehension and understanding. They are self-deluded, worse than obtuse. They have been contaminated, as it were, by the mental climate of the time, where the Kingdom of God is confused with the overthrow of the powers that be in two versions—the immanent-political and the transcendent-universal meaning of the New Age, to be ushered in on the wings of angels from on high. The cosmic outcome supersedes the historical.

In commenting on the change in emphasis from the immanent-political to the transcendent-universal side in the idea of the Kingdom of God, Tillich states: “This was most impressive in the so-called apocalyptic literature of the intertestamental period, with some predecessors in the latest parts of the Old Testament. The historical vision is enlarged upon and superseded by a cosmic vision. The earth has become old, and demonic powers have taken possession of it. Wars, disease, and natural catastrophes of a cosmic character will precede the rebirth of all things and the new eon in which God will finally become the ruler of the nations and in which the prophetic hopes will be fulfilled. This will not happen through historical developments but through divine interference and a new creation, leading to a new heaven and a new earth. Such visions are independent of any historical situation and are not conditioned by human activities. The divine mediator is no longer the historical Messiah, but the Son of Man, the Heavenly Man. This interpretation of history was decisive for the New Testament.” [4]


Jesus is confused about the Son of Man in speaking of another, one who is to come and who will suffer a fate the opposite of what is expected; the Heavenly Conqueror is not the one who triumphs over the enemy but the Crucified Suffering Servant. Is this a retrospective correction of the failure of his Messianic ministry put into his mouth as the consequence of the Crucifixion? An after- the- fact redaction now that the disciples eyes are opened and the messianic mystery (the Suffering Servant/Son of Man) is revealed? His uneasy references to the Son of Man/Suffering Servant sound like a retrospective reading and the carrier of the disciples’ repentance. This is the crux of the hermeneutical puzzle—how to understand the interpolation of an awareness of the outcome, a future point of view, into the biblical narrative, as if narrating events as they happen in the present tense. The narrative and narrator know already the outcome of the story they tell and they are influenced at every step by this knowledge of the outcome. The conflict between the misunderstanding of the disciples and the Son of Man/Suffering Servant sayings of Jesus illustrate this double awareness. It is as if you can hear Mark saying we know now what we did not know then and we are going to relive the conflict even though it drove us to the extremities of suicide and despair.

A careful reading of Mark makes it clear that this is the case, thrown into relief by the rejection of the Son of Man sayings by the disciples, who expect a Messiah that will overthrow the enemies and lead them into glory, not ignominy, defeat and despair. They were not able to accept the Son of Man as the Suffering Servant, they cannot tolerate a Paradox in their fundamentalist/literalist relation to Jesus. No wonder they don’t understand the parables. Wait a minute! We need to untangle this point. If the Gospels are retroactive accounts of what happened and not to be read as a simple straightforward narrative like a newspaper, then how are they to be read? Remember they come after Paul’s Letters. There is a gap between event and the account of the event. The account is a retrospective account. We are now in a situation of telling you, proclaiming, what happened and we are going to introduce our interpretation of what happened into the account. How could we not? Look at our plight. We were grasped by him. He called us and we followed. And we desperately betrayed him at every turn and misunderstood what he was about. We projected on to him our own idolatrous fixations and wanted to fulfill ourselves and our ambitions by identifying with him. Little did we know that this was going to end in ignomy and crucifixion. This is the last thing we expected in spite of what he told us. We were deaf and blind. We were self-deluded. We fell asleep in his hour of agony. We forsook him and fled. We denounced and denied him. Peter swore about it when he was asked if he even knew him. And then the cock crowed three times as though to echo the agony of the one he denies, when he asked three times that the cup of suffering be taken from him.

Mark could be thought of asking: what saved us from suicide or insanity, given the stakes? The Resurrection is his answer even though there is no reference to the Resurrection in his Gospel, only an empty tomb. This is the hidden text in the narrative of the Gospels altogether. The Resurrection is hidden but presupposed. It doesn’t come at the end. It is the beginning—the always already given, the gift of grace. We recount the life and death of our Lord from the point of view of the always already given gift of grace. This is what gives us the strength to tell our story of weakness and misunderstanding and betrayal and false ambitions and failure as disciples. It is the confession of weakness because where we are weak there we are strong. We became transparent to ourselves and glory be to God we have nothing to hide. I, Mark, am the spokesperson for Paul, as you will see.


I have Paul instruct Mark in these matters, Paul who hardly mentions Jesus as such, but refers to the Resurrected Christ, who takes little or no interest in the Jesus according to the flesh, the historical figure, the subject of the Gospels. It is important to remember that the Gospels were written decades after the Epistles of Paul.

I do not find it difficult to think of Mark’s Gospel as the Gospel according to Paul, even though tradition has it that Mark was influenced by St. Peter. I allow for this in my interpretation of the theme of the confession of misunderstanding of the disciples. The Third Person trope serves this purpose of thinking of Mark’s Gospel as Paul’s Gospel. Not I, but the Other. Not I, but the One of whom I speak. Jesus consistently points beyond himself to the Son of Man. Look to him and don’t make me an object of your idolatrous fixation as is the wont of the disciples who think he is going to fulfill their expectations not contradict them. It could be said that the misunderstanding of the disciples drives Jesus to his crucifixion in order to smash their idolatrous fixation. Again we refer to the fact that the prophetic Jesus is primary in Mark and utterly unlike the sacramental Jesus of John who repeatedly points to himself.

Paul Tillich makes the following point on this very issue: “From this follows the inner religious struggle of ….God against religion. In every man there is a tendency toward idolatry; in every religion, a stronger one.”[5]

Make the point about the retrospective understanding as the point of the conflict. Jesus’ self-understanding is the retrospective understanding of the disciples’ confession of self-delusion.

Now consider the immensity of the theme of the misunderstanding of the disciples in Mark, what in the scholarly literature is known as the Messianic Secret, first adumbrated by Wrede, the German New Testament theologian. The disciples don’t get it even though it is given to them to know. They betray their confusion, misunderstanding, self-deception and self-delusion in story after story, culminating in the aweful climax when Mark’s Gospel almost shatters itself: “And they all forsook him, and fled.” And then, as if to add profound insult to ultimate misery, we have the image of a nude youth, his garment torn from him, running out of the Garden of Gethsemene, into the dead of night.

How are we to understand this theme of misunderstanding, self-delusion, abandonment and betrayal? Why are the disciples depicted as being so obtuse to the point of delusion, after their own ambitious gain, and utterly unmindful of Jesus’ sayings about the Son of Man, quick to reject them and rebuke Jesus? They think he doesn’t understand what he is saying. They think Jesus has got it wrong and needs to be corrected. The crisis in this conflict comes to a head in that moment of pure encounter when Jesus asks them who people think he is, bringing up the question of his identity in the most direct way. They answer that the response of the people varies between John the Baptist, Elijah, or one of the prophets. Jesus asks them who they think he is, and Peter says: “You are the Christ!”

You would think that Jesus would say something about the meaning of the Christ and his relation to the term, but instead he speaks not of the Christ but of the Son of Man and voices the contradiction.

“And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him.”

Jesus judges Peter’s response as Satanic when Peter rejects the prediction that the Son of Man will suffer death at the hands of the enemy rather than overthrow them. The point of the misunderstanding is the conflict between two titles: Christ and the Son of Man. Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, does not know what is meant by the Son of Man and his fate and never asks. Moreover, they reject the title and never use it themselves even though Jesus repeatedly and consistently does, without identifying himself with it. It is obviously an explicit theme of Mark to illustrate and dramatize the conflict. The Son of Man of Jesus is not their Christ.

This is the crux of the long process of misunderstanding between Jesus and the disciples. From this point on the road to Caesarea Philippi it only gets worse. We will document the episodes where the disciples grow increasingly alienated to the point where they don’t even want to talk to Jesus anymore so confused and perplexed are they. They get stuck in their self-delusion.

The conflict is opened at Mark 4:10, when Jesus announces that the secret of the Kingdom of God is given to the disciples, who are inside, whereas others who are outside are told parables, so that they will look and look and see nothing, hear and hear, but understand nothing… It is clear from the text that this includes the disciples who don’t get the parable even though “the secret” is given to them.

Finally, at 4:34, it reads: “He never spoke to them except in parables; but privately to his disciples he explained everything.”

Even so, they don’t get it.

They’re in a boat during a storm and are sinking and they are afraid and Jesus hushes the storm to a dead calm and the disciples are awestruck and ask who is this man? Jesus calls them cowards, lacking in faith. After a few more episodes, we read: “After this he allowed no one to accompany him except Peter and James and James’s brother John.”

Another episode with the disciples again in a boat in a storm, after the feeding of the multitude with loaves and fishes, depicts Jesus walking out on the lake. In what reads like a humorous touch, Mark mentions that Jesus is going to walk past them. The disciples think it is a ghost and are terrified. Jesus tells them to calm down, gets in the boat and the wind is stilled and the disciples, according to various renderings, are “completely dumbfounded,” “perfectly beside themselves,” “sore amazed in themselves beyond measure,” and then Mark introduces an odd line to account for their perplexity: “for they had not understood the incident of the loaves”, and then he says why: “their minds were closed.” As the reader wonders why this is the case, because it has been given to them to know, the episode at 7:17 provokes Jesus to ask them if they are as dull as the rest in their lack of comprehension of the parable about the inside and outside of defilement.

“Now they had forgotten to take bread with them; they had no more than one loaf in the boat. He began to warn them: ‘Beware,’ he said, ‘be on your guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ They said among themselves, ‘It is because we have no bread.’ Knowing what was in their minds, he asked them, ‘Why do you talk about having no bread? Have you no inkling yet? Do you still not understand? Are your minds closed? You have eyes: can you not see? You have ears: can you not hear? Have you forgotten? When I broke the five loaves among five thousand, how many basketfuls of scraps did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve’, they said. ‘And how many when I broke the seven loaves among four thousand?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said, ‘Do you still not understand?’

Put yourself in their place. Understand what? What does the feeding of the multitude have to do with the leaven of the Pharisees and Herod? And what has bread got to do with it, let alone the number of loaves?

Then comes the encounter on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the rebuke of Peter; as he looks at the disciples, he knows they all misunderstand.

Then comes the Transfiguration, an episode of great complexity, a prefiguration of the Resurrection. Again, as before, the enjoinment to secrecy is urged by Jesus, not to tell anyone until the Son of Man has risen from the dead. They don’t know what he is talking about and discuss this among themselves making reference also to the coming of Elijah. And now Jesus asks: “Yet how is it that the scriptures say of the Son of Man that he is to endure great sufferings and to be treated with contempt?”

What scriptures? Is he referring to Isaiah? Is the Son of Man the new term for the Suffering Servant? Does Jesus conflate the two? Has anyone before Jesus referred to the Son of Man as the Suffering Servant? Does he refer to Ezekiel, IVth Esdras and the Man from Above, the Heavenly Man, the Son of Man of the apocalypse? [6] What has prompted him to identify the Son of Man with the Suffering Servant?

It is difficult to untangle these passages. The disciples are not the only ones who are confused.

“They now left that district and made a journey through Galilee. Jesus wished it to be kept secret; for he was teaching his disciples, and telling them, ‘The Son of Man is now to be given up into the power of men, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.’ But they did not understand what he said, and were afraid to ask.”

Incomprehension turns into alienation.

What should happen next but their arguing among themselves who is the greatest With respect to what? Misunderstanding? Incomprehension? Lack of faith?

Another blooper follows: they see a man driving out devils in Jesus’ name but he doesn’t belong to the union, he is not one of them, and they try to stop him. Jesus is very patient with them. He has already put a child in front of them as though they were the children in question but the point is lost on them. He tells them that whoever receives a child in his name receives him and the One who sent him; soon thereafter, when children are brought to him, the disciples scold them for it. Jesus is indignant.

Then comes the stranger who is otherwise identified as the Rich Young Ruler and asks Jesus what he has to do to win eternal life. Jesus recites the commandments. The stranger says he has kept them, so Jesus tells him to sell everything and give it to the poor and follow him and the stranger’s face fell and he went away with a heavy heart; for he was a man of great wealth.

The disciples are amazed. Then he addresses them as children and tells them about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven; easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. More astonished than ever they ask: ‘Then who can be saved?’ And Jesus answers with his key theme: For men it is impossible, but for God everything is possible.

Peter reminds Jesus that they have fulfilled the condition, the ‘impossible’ condition that the Rich Stranger could not fulfill; they have left everything to become his followers. Peter gets the point without realizing its meaning. There is no condition to be met; with men it is impossible. They stand to gain nothing. They do not have a favored position just because they left behind everything they had to follow Jesus, exactly what the Rich Young Ruler could not do. His impossible condition is not their possible one. Jesus says many who are first will be last and the last first. Does this mean the Rich Young Ruler will be first and the disciples last? Is this an aphorism meant to express the ‘impossible’?

Mark l0 announces the approach to Jerusalem and Jesus repeats what will happen to him as though the identification with the Son of Man has been made even though Jesus again speaks of the Son of Man as another in the third person.

The Sons of Zebedee, those Sons of Thunder, act as though they have not been listening, because they put in their bids for the positions of power and glory on his right and on his left, not knowing they are reserved for two thieves, on either side of the Cross. It is a pathetic request and an illustration of their obtuse misunderstanding. Would they be willing to be crucified on his right and left hand to share in the power and glory of his weakness and humiliation?

Jesus admonishes them to wake up: keep awake! As though anticipating their sleeping during his agony in the garden. Evening or midnight, cock-crow or early dawn… How can one not associate this remark with Peter’s impending betrayal as the cock crowed.

Again they rebuke the woman who anoints him, like they rebuked those who brought children to him. They think the ointment with which he is anointed could have been sold and the money given to the poor. Jesus says she has anointed his body beforehand for burial. This is an amazing moment. He turns the act of adoration and devotion, his anointing, into the ignominy of his death and burial. And Judas leaves to betray him.

At the Last Supper he predicts that one of them will betray him and that they will all fall away from their faith. One by one they said to him, ‘Not I, surely?’ Peter answers, ‘Everyone else may fall away, but I will not. Even if I must die with you, I will never disown you.’ And they all said the same.

And then the end comes where the empty tomb is a hollow echo in an abyss.

Why do I like Mark? It is bare bones. Raw. The earliest testimony, after Paul. I like the misunderstanding theme because it functions as an extended narrative on repentance. I have had recourse to the perfect tense to account for the fact that Mark knows the outcome at the beginning. The narrative is retrospective in principle and therefore a double vision prevails—the telling of the events as though they are happening as reported and the awareness shot through the narrative that the outcome is known in advance. Fundamentalist literalism shuts down this double perspective and leaves the reader in the same position as the disciples before the Crucifixion. The reader doesn’t get it because the reader can’t get it on a literalist reading. The text is already interpreted from the double point of view, which is why we invoke the perfect tense to express the doubling: it is a retrospective recall told from the position of knowing it all already. This is the loop of grace where the end is in the beginning contained in the always already given!

Mark knows that Jesus is the Son of Man, the one of whom he speaks, the Messiah, the Christ. Why does he depict Jesus in such a way that Jesus has to learn this; he has to have it disclosed to him as a slowly dawning and inevitable confrontation with the terrible truth? Jesus, in Mark, is the most human of all the gospels. And the disciples are so human they are the epitome of what we call existential, which is a step up from dumb bunnies.

The confession of misunderstanding informs the gospel from start to finish. This is the crux of the double vision. The revelation is hidden, it is a secret, even though it is known at every point, but it is concealed in order to expose the disciples for what they are—ordinary men who failed and who were weak and subject to the most common human frailties. And they were crucified with him and they were raised from the dead with him.

Does Mark insert the Son of Man sayings as the key to this double vision and this concealment? The disciples act like they never hear what Jesus says about the Son of Man and if they get an inkling they reject it and try to correct him. Is this prophecy about the fate of the Son of Man, the insertion of the outcome of the ministry of Jesus, read out throughout the narrative, as a secret to be revealed, a secret no one can comprehend, not even Jesus, until he realizes he has been speaking about a fate he must fulfill, when it becomes his destiny, when he says, not my will but Thy will?

The rush to get to these words—not my will, but thy will, in reading the narrative, needs to be checked, in favor of the agony in the garden where he asks to have the cup of suffering taken from him. His will is transparently clear. We need to pause here and hold this thought. He does not want to be the one of whom he has spoken. He does not want to suffer the fate of the Son of Man if that fate involves crucifixion as he has repeatedly said. He thought he spoke of another and now he knows he is the one. He wants out of the messianic defeat, as though he knows in his heart that a crucified messiah is no messiah at all, even though he has stated repeatedly that it is the fate of the Son of Man.

And so the word of Paul comes to Jesus, when Paul prays to have his thorn taken from him, his very own cup of suffering, Paul’s own version of his agony in the garden; the word to Paul is the word to Jesus, as well, about the sufficiency of grace made perfect in weakness.

Doesn’t Paul say that he asks three times to have the thorn removed, just as Jesus asks three times to have the cup removed? In the background for both is the transfiguration, although Paul refers to ecstatic revelations.

From transfiguration to the agony in the garden, from the cup of suffering for Jesus and from being too elated over ecstatic revelations to the thorn in the flesh for Paul, the tropes or experiential figures are comparable. What is so amazing is the word that comes to Paul that interprets or answers his suffering, just as it answers the suffering of Jesus. The Cross is the answer. God’s strength is made perfect in weakness, the weakness of the Cross. This is the sufficiency of grace. It is a tough message to comprehend. One has to sit with it in silence for a long time.

This is what Paul means by being in Christ, identifying with his suffering, participating in his saving grace. The triumph of Paul in these lines is his ability to make sense of his having the mind of Christ and his participation in his suffering.

These words from God to Paul in his agony are among the greatest words of Paul and equal to the passage about the meaning of prayer, where Paul says we don’t know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit bears witness to our spirit, with sighs too deep for words. The strange image is given that prayer is God praying to God, through us, as our witness, sigh unto sigh. Paul asks you to silence yourself in the mystery of its meaning.

In the wordless silence of his communion with the Spirit, the words are given to Paul: my grace is sufficient for you for my strength is made perfect in weakness. The weakness in the Garden leading to the weakness of the Cross is strength to those who perceive it. Paul, then, boasts of weaknesses, because where he is weak, there he is strong. He has figured out the paradox of the crucified Son of Man in his ordeal and struggle with his thorn in the flesh.

Can we attribute the confession of weakness of the disciples in the Gospel of Mark to this insight of Paul? Is this insight the interpretive key? Does Mark’s indictment of the disciples constitute a confession so that he knows all along of the outcome when they will all be saved?

So remember the perfect tense as the retrospective affirmation of the narrative as though told for the first time with the outcome already known: it is an epic in a new sense of the word, an epic that overturns the antique tropes and stands them on their head, through the reversal of themes, where the lowly and the despised and the rejected and the weak are turned inside out and exalted as on high and esteemed and accepted in spite of being unacceptable. [7] The Paradox, the Offense, the Scandal, the Impossible, reign supreme. This is the gist of the Gospel. The perfect past is the ‘already’ of the perfect present on the way to the perfect future. All three tenses of ordinary time are intertwined and interdependent in the Perfect Tense. Therefore, a bifocal vision is needed in reading the Gospels, a bifocal vision of the retrospective timeframe in the structure of the Perfect Tense. It is not a straightforward story told in a matter of fact sort of way; it is a retrospective confession told from the point of view of the outcome with the realization and fulfillment firmly in mind. This is what happens when eternity enters time. We might as well say it: the Resurrection precedes the Crucifixion and informs the Gospels accordingly.

The Crucifixion anticipates the Resurrection and do you know what this is called in the Gospel narrative: the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration, in the account of the Gospel narrative, is the outburst of the Resurrection, as a presupposition of the narrative’s outcome. It is its mirror image. We might as well celebrate Easter at Christmas. It is all one concurrent occurrence, piled up, one upon the other, all transparent to one another. The Church Year is the exemplar of this Perfect Tense schematic where every Sunday is transparent to every other Sunday in the unveiling of the drama.

So what are we to make of this conflict, this theme of misunderstanding? Is it Paul’s influence on Mark to the point of badmouthing the Jerusalem Church, with whom Paul is in conflict, under the leadership of James, the brother of Jesus, and Peter, a community that still doesn’t get it, a Jewish sect, stuck in their continuing misunderstanding, trying to make the best of it, but who have not understood the gospel of freedom? Is Mark’s indictment of the disciples instigated by Paul as an indictment of the Jerusalem church under James and Peter, who continue the line as a messianic dynasty? It is not the point I favor although it is a plausible line of interpretation.

Neither Jew nor Greek, Paul is sui generis, a thorn in their flesh, the church at Jerusalem, where they have not seen beyond the Law to the Gospel per se and would probably reject the vision of Paul’s universalism. I don’t want to pursue this line of thought even though it would illuminate a number of themes unique to Paul, although it is important to appreciate that it is the breaking open of the Gospel to the world. [8]

I prefer the notion that Mark’s Gospel is the confession of the disciples themselves; that was how it was, when we were his companions, then we didn’t get it even though it was given, we misunderstood, we imposed our own views and ambitions on Him, we grew distant and alienated and more and more confused and then we abandoned him and fled, betraying him; but now we understand; our eyes have been opened. The Crucifixion and Resurrection have opened our eyes and our hearts and given us a new life. We have been given the freedom to acknowledge how we betrayed him, misunderstood him, forsook him, misused him. We were deluded, caught in the trap of our own ambitions and expectations. The Crucifixion gave us the choice, to the extent that we drove him to it: our choice was either suicide or insanity. We gave him our all and we were undone; we had everything to lose and we thought we had lost it all. It could not have been worse. We are the sacrificial lambs of the Crucified and we were destroyed in ourselves in order to be made new. We paid the price for this atonement.

And then, after our betrayal and abandonment, the Event: he was resurrected! The impossible possibility! As he said: with God all things are possible! The New Being appeared to us and vouchsafed unto us life eternal and the communion of saints. The impossible possibility contradicted our contradiction. Grace has been given for us to confess ourselves; for us to tell the most horrible stories of misunderstanding, making us look like fools, as well as stories of betrayal and abandonment, stories about ourselves in which we confess our guilt and our shame, because this is the measure of the Resurrection: our transparency regarding ourselves and the new life given to us when all was lost. The sufficiency of grace is made manifest in our confession of our weakness; this is the meaning of Spirit-driven repentance.

So have it either way: indictment or self-confession. They still don’t get it or now they see what they failed to perceive and they have the grace to confess it. Either way their blindness is restored to sight, their weakness to strength, their delusion confessed, their misunderstanding understood, their betrayal forgiven, their abandonment overcome, their fellowship intact. They themselves undergo this transformation or Mark does it for them. He is the point of the disciples’ confession—it goes through him. Paul is the background for this transparency and this luminosity. He is the theologian of the Spirit that Jesus promised and that was poured out at Pentecost in the constitution of the church and the communion of saints.

A word needs to be said about the meaning of time in reference to our remarks about the Perfect Tense. Greek has a special word for qualitative time, the full time, the pregnant time, the time of meaningfulness—kairos. It is juxtaposed to chronos, or chronological time, ordinary time, the sequential flow, second after second, minute after minute, clock time. Kairotic time is ‘now’ time, it is eternity intersecting chronological time and elevating it above itself; hence, perfect tense time. It encompasses past, present, and future, in the now. Think of a vertical line intersecting a horizontal line, a break in the sequential flow. The Gospel message occurs in this time. It is the time of ecstatic self-transcendence.

Only those who have experienced grace know the meaning of this spiritual somersault. “Grace is given without prior merit and makes graceful those to whom it is given. Graces are divine gifts, independent of human merits, but dependent on the human readiness to receive them. And the readiness itself is the first gift of grace, which can be either preserved or lost.” [9] This is the critical insight. It is already given even in the readiness, because the readiness is given, as well.

This reflexive principle is the absolute key point of our axiomatics and although I don’t know exactly how to put it, it is a consequence of the intersection of time and eternity. Eternity is the point of reflexivity because it is the point of ecstatic self-transcendence. Now. The temporal flow is elevated above itself and we with it. Our theme of the free spontaneous behavior of the redeemed stems from this spiritual acrobatics.

“Where there is grace there is no command and no struggle to obey the command. As a gift of grace, it is not produced by one’s will and one’s endeavor. One simply receives it.” [10]

And the key point here as it always has to be stated: the reception is also given. There is no end to this reflexive flourish in the understanding of grace and faith. It is the ultimate corrective always doubling back to take oneself back to the gift as it is given. There is no point where this is not the case.

“It is the quality of “preceding” that characterizes the Spiritual impact as grace.” [11]

In other words, one has received it already so that even the receiving is given. It is prevenient.

“It is the quality of “preceding” that characterizes the Spiritual impact as grace: and nothing establishes the moral personality and community but the transcendent union which manifests itself in the Spiritual Community as grace. The self-establishment of a person as person without grace leaves the person to the ambiguities of the law. Morality in the Spiritual Community is determined by grace.” [12]

Although grace has been juxtaposed to eros as in the famous book by Nygren: Eros and Agape, according to Plato and Tillich, and a host of others, eros is a divine-human power. One of the definitions of thymos, the word Tillich gave me (which has become my favorite word) is the eros dimension of thymos, the upward striving toward what is noble, our reaching out in longing for the transcendent. It is the most difficult aspect of thymos to understand, especially for those who have little or no understanding of nobility or striving for what is noble. There is a perplexity here that needs elucidation. The loss of thymos in the history of Western thought is a record of the loss of spirit and the dumbfounding of spiritual life. [13]

There are so many problems tied up in this they are difficult to untangle.

Plato was the theoretician of thymos, making it the middle part in his construction of the self, one of the first such constructions in the Western philosophical tradition. Thymos means courage, vitality and spirit, but in the sense of biological spirit, vigour, spiritedness, think of a horse. Power of being might be the best abstract definition. We catch the meaning in the phrase “vital spirit”, even though it is redundant. It is the region of the upper chest, what Erikson called “the manly chestiness of conviction” when he referred to Luther’s thymos or courageous confidence in his calling. Think of a small fist in the region below the neck, the actual region of the thymus gland, cognate with the Greek root, even though the gland is no larger than one’s little finger. The thymus is the root of consciousness just as it is the master organ of the immune system.

The erasure of this region, with its glandular reference, from models of consciousness, has eventuated in the loss of spirit, as bodily based, thereby accounting for the mind-body split or the subject-object split.[14] Thymos is hidden in the hyphen indicated in the split. This is why it is so difficult to discuss matters of the spirit as if one were speculating on clouds floating away over one’s head, what Kant called “the mass of flighty seemings” and denigrated in his diatribe against Swedenborg in his Dreams of A Spirit-Seer.

Devoid of spirit is the watchword currently. So to speak of eros in relation to grace is perplexing for those who have no understanding of thymos or the seat of the spirit, just as they have no understanding of the meaning of grace that grasps the spirit and creates the faith that receives it.

A recovery of classical anthropology is necessary for this to be understood, which I have tried to carry through in what I call the Thymos Doctrine, following the line of thought Tillich developed in The Courage To Be.

“Theology has distinguished between “common” grace that works in all realms of life and in all human relations, and the special grace bestowed upon those who are grasped by the new reality that has appeared in the Christ. In both respects, the problem of moral motivation is decisive. What common and special grace accomplish is to create a state of reunion in which the cleavage between our true and our actual being is fragmentarily overcome, and the rule of the commanding law is broken.” [15]

This point is difficult because so many theological issues come into play. We will focus on just one of them: the third use of the law.

I enter a personal confession at this point. When I was a student at a Lutheran seminary I picked up the notion of the Third Use of the Law without knowing what it meant. It was a concept devoid of a definition as far as I was concerned. Little did I know at the time, as I struggled anyhow with the first two uses, which were hard enough to comprehend, that the Third Use was the conflict between Luther and Calvin on the issue of justification and sanctification. Decades later, I came to define the Third Use as the free spontaneous behavior of the redeemed, a definition I liked, in opposition to dogmatic Lutheranism, where spontaneity was the last thing anyone expected to encounter anywhere. It is now clear to me that I was caught in the conflict between vitality and the type of spirituality represented by dogmatic Lutheranism, which meant the suppression of vitality understood as the consequence of distorting the definition of faith in the slogan “justification by faith”, where faith supersedes grace and gets mis-defined and misunderstood as belief. Instead of free spontaneous behavior we get willful subjection to dogmatic authorities. Pure doctrine!

Later in life, the theme of the Third Use came back to me, as though it was an unfulfilled theme, when I wrote a play about the argument over the assassination of Hitler, A Lullaby For Wittgenstein, and mulled over the Third Use to justify Bonhoeffer’s affirmation of assassination and the issue of tyrannicide. I had taken an interest in the collaboration of Bonhoeffer and Von Moltke and their conflict over the assassination of Hitler: Bonhoeffer for and Von Moltke against. I thought Bonhoeffer’s view was an example of being above the law and an application of the old argument sanctioning tyrannicide.

I argued my understanding of the Third Use with two Lutheran minister friends and colleagues in Santa Cruz and they tried to persuade me I had it wrong, that my understanding was a misunderstanding. I thought they were old fogeys, just like my seminary colleagues, and were stuck on justification. I thought I sided with Calvin, especially when I found out that the Third Use had sneaked into Lutheranism under Melancthon, who was influenced by Calvin.

Tillich seemed to confirm my view and then one day I re-read the issue and found out I did have it wrong. I had misread Tillich. Luther was the representative of free spontaneity, not Calvin, and for that very reason did not want to add a Third Use to the adumbrated Two.

Here is what is involved. Nothing less than the meaning of Christian life. Another quote from Tillich can help us here: “The act of faith and the act of accepting the moral imperative’s unconditional character are one and the same act.” [16] Tillich refers to the “motivating power” of the moral imperative and whether the paradox of grace (accepted though unacceptable) diminishes the power of moral motivation. “It is a very old question, used against Paul as well as against Augustine, against Luther as well as against Calvin, and against the Reformation as a whole by the humanists and the evangelical radicals. It is a justified question insofar as it points to the possibility of converting the paradox of grace into a cover for lawlessness.” [17] This issue is expressed in Luther’s famous “sin boldly but believe more boldly still.”

I am guilty of the conversion in the following sense. I confused freedom in the Spirit (free spontaneity of the redeemed) with arbitrary willfulness. Under the cloak of acceptance I did the unacceptable. I liked sinning, God liked forgiving; really, the world was admirably arranged, as in the words of a poem by Auden. I perceived the lack of motivating power in the intellectualistic distortion of the Pauline formula, shortened to “justification by faith.” And so I thought I would remedy the matter in myself in defiance of Orthodoxy, misunderstanding this ‘remedy’ as Calvinist Third Use.

“…Calvin spoke of a third function of the law, namely, the function of guiding the Christian who is grasped by the divine Spirit but who is not yet free from the power of the negative in knowledge and action. Luther rejected this solution, asserting that the Spirit itself leads to decisions in which the ambiguity of life is conquered. The Spirit, by liberating a person from the letter of the law, gives both insight into the concrete situation and the power to act in this situation according to the call of agape.” [18]

This conflict between Luther and Calvin has meant downplaying or neglecting sanctification in Lutheranism, which, by the way, prompted the Pietistic reaction in the name of carrying through the experience of justification to a life of sanctification. This reaction is best represented by Kierkegaard, whose attack on Christendom, and Lutheran orthodoxy was inspired by pietistic influences.

Tillich points out that “Calvin’s solution is more realistic, more able to support an ethical theory and a disciplined life of sanctification. Luther’s solution is more ecstatic, unable to support a “Protestant ethics” but full of creative possibilities in the personal life.” [19] Hence, the free spontaneous behavior of the redeemed.

“In Lutheranism the emphasis on the paradoxical element in the experience of the New Being was so predominant that sanctification could not be interpreted in terms of a line moving upward toward perfection. It was seen instead as an up-and-down of ecstasy and anxiety, of being grasped by agape and being thrown back into estrangement and ambiguity. This oscillation between up and down was experienced radically by Luther himself, in the change between moments of courage and joy and moments of demonic attacks, as he interpreted his states of doubt and profound despair.” [20]

I suppose this sounds odd to one’s secular ear inasmuch as the interest in what it means to live a Christian life in a secular world is diminishing under the impact of the criticism of such a life. Secularism favors neutrality in matters of the spirit. Debates over the Law and the Gospel and the uses of the law tend to fall on deaf ears. But starting from the negative theology of Pseudo-Dionysius an affinity with the neutrality of secularism regarding spiritual life is shared. This means that there is an affinity for clearing the decks. All bets are off. Start again from a neutral position.

Here is the crux of the matter in a single paragraph from Tillich’s Systematic Theology, Vol. III, and if I had to find a single quote that summarizes Tillich’s thought this would be it:

The preceding discussion of faith and the mental function has shown two things: first, that faith can neither be identified with nor derived from any of the mental functions. Faith cannot be created by the procedures of the intellect, or by the endeavors of the will, or by emotional movements. But, second, faith comprehends all this within itself, uniting and subjecting it to the Spiritual Presence’s transforming power. This implies and confirms the basic theological truth that in relation to God everything is by God. Man’s spirit cannot reach the ultimate, that toward which it transcends itself, through any of its functions. But the ultimate can grasp all of these functions and raise them beyond themselves by the creation of faith.” (p. 133.)

Tillich struggles to describe the marks of sanctification when he points to four principles of sanctification: increasing awareness, increasing freedom, increasing relatedness, and increasing transcendence. It is the second principle that I saw at work in Bonhoeffer, although the others were present, as well. It was the issue of being above the law in advocating the assassination of Hitler. In Kierkegaard’s terms it meant the teleological suspension of the ethical and in Paulinian words it meant freedom from the law. This is what made the debate with von Moltke, who was against assassination in principle, so profound. The ambiguity of the situation was irresolvable. One had to act or not. The tragic irony is that they were both martyred for their views.

As Tillich puts it: “Freedom from the law in the process of sanctification is the increasing freedom from the commanding form of the law. But it is also freedom from its particular content. Specific laws, expressing the experience and wisdom of the past, are not only helpful, they are also oppressive, because they cannot meet the ever concrete, ever new, ever unique situation. Freedom from the law is the power to judge the given situation in the light of the Spiritual Presence and to decide upon adequate action, which is often in seeming contradiction to the law.” [21]

The debate over the Law and the Gospel is endless; they are dialectically intertwined and no matter how much one strives for the freedom in and of the Spirit, the law continuously reminds one of the existential predicament and holds a mirror up to it, a mirror where we can hardly sustain our gaze. “Freedom in chains” is not a bad metaphor for this dilemma and we sing in our chains like the sea (Dylan Thomas).

St. Paul had his ecstatic experiences where he was unduly elated, as he put it, and he was checked with his thorn in the flesh. It kept him from boasting. He will boast of another as though he is that other, that man who was caught up into the Third Heaven, from whom he distances himself in the third person by referring to knowing a man who…, and maybe it was Dionysius the Areopagite to whom he refers; I like to think that. In any event, he knows better than to boast of his own elevation, his own mystical experiences. He knows that God’s grace is made perfect in weakness and that is good enough for him as it is good enough for us.

Of our weaknesses we are prepared to boast in the freedom of the Spirit.

I don’t think I would have had the nerve to touch it but for the article on Chapter Seven of Paul’s Letter to the Romans, a philosophical meditation by my mentor, Hans Jonas. I can do no more than make reference to it and make a few comments about what it reveals about reflexivity.

What I find remarkable about Jonas’ meditation is how comparable it is to the famous opening lines of The Sickness Unto Death by Kierkegaard and his pseudonym, Johannes Climacus, one of the metaphysical crochets, that inimitable Kierkegaardian term, of all time. In wondering how to introduce what Jonas says and remembering the complexity of the Kierkegaardian text on the same issue, I realized I never thought of the will as cognitive. The notion of a thinking will startles me. The will appears to me as blind without the intellect directing it. When I tell myself to do something it is my intellect speaking to my will. The mail has come. Go get it. It’s time to go to bed. Go. I hardly notice myself doing something that is not directed by my mind. I suppose this is why I had a hard time with the notion of nonverbal behavior. I couldn’t imagine doing anything without the accompaniment of my thought processes. How would you know it was behavior if you couldn’t verbalize it? The notion of pure intuition, as with women, was beyond me. I always had to think or talk about it. It was as though my mind was never at rest. I actually went through a period when I thought about nonverbal behavior, but then I relapsed and forgot about it.

I don’t know what this has to do with the problem of the will and the relation of the will to the mind but I can assume that there are problems here I can’t begin to entertain, beginning with the difference between consciousness and self-consciousness, which is reflexive.

Let’s give it a try in the formulations of Jonas and see where it leads. I can also refer to one of the great efforts to think through the dynamics of the will in Paul Ricoeur’s writings, especially The Voluntary and the Involuntary, following in the tradition of Aristotle and Kant, and his book: The Symbolism of Evil, where he works out the theme of the servile will.

Jonas writes: …”it is the will in which the reflexive process relevant for freedom is performed. …the willing …says, not only ‘I will’, but at the same time also ‘I will that I will this’.

Every willing wills itself and has at each moment already chosen itself. The will thus has in itself its own inherent reflexiveness in whose performance it primarily constitutes itself as what it is, and by which it is radically distinguished from any mere desire or impulse.”

This answers my query about how to get beyond the notion of impulse or desire in the operation of grace. I did not see how the will opened the way to this prior state before anything we can think or say.

Jonas goes on: “Thus understood the will is not just another and particular psychical function among others, classifiable under wishing, desiring, striving, impulse and the like. Nor is it the same as explicit resolve or, in general, anything that appears and disappears, is sometimes present and sometimes absent. The ‘will’ is a priori always there, underlying all single acts of the soul, making it possible for things like ‘willing’ as well as its opposite—lack or renunciation of will—to occur as special mental phenomena. It precedes any explicit resolve, any particular decision, although it is in itself, in its essential nature, nothing but continuously operative decision about itself—that permanent self-determination from which the subject cannot withdraw into the alibi of any neutral, indifferent, ‘will-free’ state: for the primal decision of will is itself the condition for the possibility of any such state, be it indifference or its opposite.”

Maybe you can see where this might lead. It could lead to the old debate between Luther and Erasmus on the freedom and bondage of the will. It could take us back to the distinction between the voluntary and involuntary in Aristotle and acting in and out of ignorance, which, I confess, I still don’t understand. It would entangle us in a discussion we are ill-prepared to conduct. Maybe at some future point. I am aware here of biting off more than I can chew.

In the stunning painting by Poussin, of Paul in ecstasy, the angels are not taking his pulse as though he was on a treadmill too long. St. Paul has not passed out from over-exertion; these are not personal health trainers with wings. St. Paul is not falling off his horse, either, although, as a trope, it is worth thinking about. Think of a horse nearby, confused over his dismounted rider, who has been knocked off and is now flying with the angels. They have picked him up as he fell. Saul or St. Paul has been taken off. He is blind for three days. He is given a new name. Now angels, as then, bear him up. It is the exemplary moment of self-transcendence. Paul in ecstasy, with flights of angels carrying him aloft.

There is no worry about this event—the conversion of Saul to the Apostle Paul. The Saint. The first theologian of Christianity. A visionary equal to St. John. The proposed teacher of St. Mark; the opponent of Peter; the inspiration of St. Augustine and of Luther and the Reformation. The prophet of Christian foolishness against Greek wisdom. The one who tipped the balance between reason and revelation. The advocate of the free spontaneous behavior of the redeemed. Look at him. He wants you to know his ecstasy. The tenderness of angels gently touching hands and feet; to be carried, as though upon a cloud, so tenderly and delicately, as in a ballet of the spirit. Everything conspires to tell you of his state of mind. He is being carried into the Third Heaven, where he communes with St. Dionysius the Areopagite. Dare we call him Paul’s teacher, in this mystic moment of ecstatic self-transcendence? St. Denis! I know a man who…

Are they the same man in the mind of Christ? Is this an instance of the communion of saints?

Isn’t Poussin, in this painting, re-enacting in Paul, the ecstatic self-transcendence of Dionysius, when he was carried into the Third Heaven, at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion, where he saw things no one may dare utter? Because if you say it, the words can become objects in space, sounds to be heard or letters on a page, to be read. And misunderstood, argued about, resisted.

Words no one may dare utter. For that very reason. The prohibition to protect the luminosity of the vision, the tension of the experience. The unspoken yet spoken vision that God will be all in all. The deepest intuition of the Areopagite was given to Paul and he knew enough to dare not utter it, although he repeated it. So there he goes into the Third Heaven to meet his master, his Greek teacher, his Platonic Christian, his convert, his great witness to the gentiles and his reference for the freedom of the spirit when it is convulsed in luminous disclosure. Neither Jew nor Greek, they are both transformed in the unity of the Spirit.


There is hardly a word in the religious language, both theological and popular, which is subject to more misunderstandings, distortions and questionable definitions than the word “faith.” It belongs to those terms which need healing before they can be used for the healing of men [and women]. Today the term ‘faith’ is more productive of disease than of health. It confuses, misleads, creates alternately skepticism and fanaticism, intellectual resistance and emotional surrender, rejection of genuine religion and subjection to substitutes.

Paul Tillich: The Dynamics of Faith

There is an assumed identity in the composition of this letter: Paul with Paul. I am named after the Saint and Apostle, as I am named after my father, also a Paul. And I am a student of another Paul, who proudly continued in the theological tradition of Paul: Paul Tillich. And dare I mention another Paul, another teacher and friend, whose influence also has been incalculable—Paul Ricoeur.

There is a point of identity in having the mind of Paul as Paul tells us to have the mind of Christ. Being in Christ, participating in the New Being who is the Christ, is this same point of identity. It is a spiritual participation and it is in this sense and in this attitude that this letter is written. It is an attempt to work out what one thinks about matters of faith.

I have done this elsewhere, also letters, in my Letters To Bonhoeffer, to be published, whenever, under the title: Justified Godlessness. This effort was the beginning of the work-out, not unlike its exercise or athletic analogy. There is even a study of Dionysius called: Athlete for God.

There is a compunction on my part to work out an axiomatics, a kind of meta-dogmatics, regarding propositions that have to be understood in order to disentangle the rampant confusions that eventuate if they are not understood. The pre-eminent axiomatic proposition is the definition of faith: grace creates the faith that receives it.

If you don’t get that one, go ahead and mess it up by identifying faith with belief. It is tantamount to giving up the show and collapsing into distortion and error. This is the fate of fundamentalists and literalists who just mouth biblical quotes in a contentious tone which are thrown at your head like stones. I can hear the babble of quotes about believe this, believe that, believe, believe, believe, alright already. Go ahead, ignore the axioms, carry your confusion through to admitting that faith is believing without evidence, faith is believing without the admission of doubts, faith is believing in the neurotic defense of the castle of one’s deluded convictions, all performed, mistakenly, to the glory of God.

Join the vainglorious camp of Billy Graham and all the other evangelists who wrongly preach that some condition has to be met before grace operates, that you have to believe in God, or something about Jesus, whatever the sentence, or you have to get up and come to the altar, in order to be saved. Some condition has to be met to get it on. On your knees.

I can imagine St. Peter, shaking his head at Billy Graham, when his time comes, and saying, “It’s a pity you got it wrong, Billy; you had the best intentions, but you got it wrong. You never understood the axioms and you never understood the unconditional and you consistently misunderstood faith as belief. What are we going to do with you?” Billy starts to justify himself and Peter says, “Billy, Billy, I wouldn’t start. You even confused salvation as an act of cosmic healing with the pathetic little egocentric decision of an isolated soul in some big sports arena or walking on the beach with some President.” Billy suddenly sees that repentance is emptying the mind and not filling it up with words about Jesus. St. Peter sees that Billy can make amends now that he is beginning to get it. “What can I do to make amends,” Billy asks. St. Peter answers: “Let’s start with the theme: faith without content! How about that?”

We have focused on one of the central axioms, as far as the tradition is concerned, the Pauline axiom regarding justification through faith by grace. But not without some reluctance. The reason for this is that justification is almost devoid of meaning as a religious term; it is associated with measurement when you justify something with something else, as in ‘lined up.’ It is also juridical as in being justified in a court of law, proven innocent or confirmed in one’s claim. Nevertheless, it is the central principle of Luther and the central axiom of the Reformation in his reliance on Paul.

But it has become subverted in the most unfortunate way by contemporary Lutherans who have shortened it to a formula that falsifies the meaning in principle: justification by faith. This means, of course, that you have to believe this and that, dependent on Lutheran dogmatics, what they have the unmitigated gall to call pure doctrine, and by this you are justified as the content of your faith. It is the Lutheran creed which begins, like the Nicene and the Apostles, with “I believe….” So you are justified by what you believe and you have the classic instance of the intellectualistic distortion of the meaning of faith, just as you have one of the classic instances of self-salvation. Do you see what a relief it was to read in Kierkegaard: set reason aside; like St. Denis, holding his head in his hands.

After I had begun writing the Letter, I began the Introduction. I saw how difficult it was to disentangle my thoughts from the thoughts of Paul. In the Introduction I take up themes and pursue them in my own voice without thinking of Paul per se. I knew, for instance, that Paul never speaks of the Son of Man in his Letters. How or why would he try to influence Mark with the Son of Man/Suffering Servant theme? Because I wanted him to didn’t seem sufficient as an explanation even though I leave open the option that Mark is following Paul’s condemnation of the disciples, re-gathered in Jerusalem under James and Peter (they still don’t get it), or, on the other hand, Peter’s possible influence on Mark, according to the tradition that links them, so that Mark’s Gospel can be read as a confession of the delusion of the disciples and a witness to their participation in the Resurrection, now that their eyes are open and they can see and hear what they were blind and deaf to. The conflict between Paul and the Jerusalem church seems to cast doubt on the theme of the confession of self-delusion as a way of understanding Mark’s Gospel and his use of the theme of misunderstanding, alienation and betrayal, in the sequence of stories that indict and condemn the disciples. Does this indictment account for Paul’s self-legitimation based on his independent call to become an Apostle?

The theme of the First and Second Adam, I have Paul reconsider from the point of view of the Two Adams in the Genesis account, represented by the dual creation of man in the image of God and the dust of the ground. I try to clear up the confusion between the Two Adams of the creation account and the First and Second Adam of Paul’s account. The figurative symbols become even more complicated when you consider the sequence Adam/Noah/Abraham, especially in the light of the famous essay by Erich Auerbach: Figura. Auerbach’s discussion of figural prophecy raises the issue of the promise and fulfillment schematism and how subsequent figures add to the interpreted matrix and how they come to fulfillment in Jesus as the Christ. Paul Ricoeur refers to this multi-layered meaning structure as “phenomenological filiation.” This concept is meant in the spirit of hermeneutical devotion to the principle of the bible interpreting itself as an interdependent symbol system with a resonating dynamic when symbols are compared to symbols. It is like an overlay in graphic design, one image over another, but transparent to one another.

Eric Voegelin probably has the best understanding of this approach to the biblical symbol system in his discussion of the primary figures in the Old Testament narrative and their symbolic inter-relations. [22] The term occultation comes to mind as a hermeneutical technique, when one figure passes before another, obscuring and superseding, but not removing what comes before, referring to heavenly bodies passing in front of one another. Palimpsest is another metaphor that could be used for this accumulation of figures and meanings that add, rather than subtract, to the meaning, as a text upon a text. This is the filiation effect, as Ricoeur formulates it. Think of the generations of your ancestors who have preceded you and the generations to come, who are all related to you, even to the point of your genetic code and even though it is difficult to move back even two generations in the memory of our ancestors, the notion of impact and influence is obvious as it shows up in our personality and talents and character.

Now consider a symbol system that took thousands of years to come into formation. No wonder it was closed when the canon was established and no more texts were allowed to be included. The closing of the canon is the great decision to announce that the symbol system had come to fruition.

We are told to work out our salvation in fear and trembling, as Kierkegaard, as well, admonishes us to do. I include here the word of Kierkegaard which everyone who reads this should take to heart, as forbiddingly formidable as it is to acknowledge:

…“according to the [Christian view], eternal life is attended by the bone-and-marrow-piercing consciousness of every idle word that is spoken.” [23]

“I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter; for by your words will you be justified and by your words will you be condemned.” Matthew 12:36

On entering God’s Sabbath rest: “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

Hebrews 4:12

St. Paul reading his Letter to the Athenians

Paul’s Letter To the Athenians

On the occasion of his return to Rome and addressed expressly to Dionysius the Areopagite, the Bishop of Athens, and leader of the Athenian Church, the convert of Paul.

You have eternal life already. If you don’t have it now, you are never going to get it.


You have to get it in order to get it and it is always already given.

Paul Lee

Paul’s Letter to the Athenians

Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, the Son of Man and Suffering Servant, and mindful of our brother Dionysius the Areopagite, to the church at Athens, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ, who in his great mercy has already saved us, before anything we can think or say and I mean already. And not just us but the whole creation: salvation is an act of cosmic healing. When the Spirit is given to us we are made whole, along with all of creation sighing with eager longing to be redeemed with us. Nature, too, mourns for a lost good.

I rejoice in you always as recipients of the grace of God, given to you, to create the faith that receives it, all glory be to God who accomplishes everything for us and our salvation. I repeat for your edification: grace creates the faith that receives it! Therefore, empty your minds, you have nothing to lose but false beliefs. Let the Spirit of God enter and know that your letting this happen, whatever attention you can summon, is the Spirit’s work, not your own. You can cooperate as long as you realize that the Spirit takes precedence. Think of a twinkling of an eye or a step before any step you can take, a step already taken in your behalf.

I look back with some reservations regarding my stay with you even though I consider it to have been profitable. I had more than ample time to converse with your philosophers, some of whom dismissively laughed at me and called me a ragpicker, or a bird pecker, someone who goes after crumbs. Their word for it was spermologos: an ignorant plagiarist. Let them laugh. They perfectly demonstrated the foolishness of the wisdom of the wise.

I don’t mean to speak contemptuously of them, these seekers after wisdom, but they reminded me of the Pharisees whom many take to be the most righteous of men. I should know. I was one of them. Pharisees are exemplars of scrupulosity; they follow 613 scruples in every step they take in daily life, their moral consciousness is so highly refined. Hardly anyone can claim more or go further in the refinement of ethical behavior. But our Lord called them the living dead, benighted sepulchers, because they counted their scrupulosity as righteousness; it was their trap.

Like the Rich Young Ruler, when they encountered our Lord, they went away in despair because he made an infinite demand upon them, more radical than x number of scruples, however refined one’s moral consciousness. “Love your enemies.” That’s one. And “lend without expecting anything in return.” That’s another. The Golden Rule transcended. The Pharisees hardened their hearts against this infinite and unconditional demand: the law of love—love the Lord your God