by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational Church
3 September 2023
“Being a person is hard work; it is anxiety inducing and stressful.” So writes religion professor Chris Stedman in his book IRL: Finding Our Real Selves in a Digital World.
The book grapples with how the digital world shapes our identities, particularly how we struggle with being real online and how our online selves match up with our analog selves. One of his key points is that we are still in the early years of living with these technologies, still figuring them out, still experimenting and learning from our mistakes. Which is one of the reasons that being online can be difficult.
But the main reason, he says, that being online is difficult, is because more fundamentally, being a human is difficult. Regardless of whether we are online or not.
Stedman’s book is a rich discussion of a lot of topics that I know many of us deal with in our personal and professional lives. And the discussion is relevant to all we’ve been learning in recent years about the impacts of these new technologies on mental health, loneliness, and our need for belonging. Which is one reason that we’ll be using his book as a prompt for conversation in the first unit of our revitalized Wednesday night program, which begins on September 13.
But what does digital identity have to do with the story of Paul on the Damascus road? I hope you’re asking yourself that question.
Chris Stedman argues that our struggles with these new technologies and the difficulties surrounding our digital selves actually have the potential to teach us some lessons in how to be human. And one way it does that is through uncertainty. He writes, “Uncertainty may thus be the greatest gift of the digital age.” The internet is messy and it reveals the messiness of our lives and the lives of other people. Which causes us discomfort and anxiety along with excitement and exploration.
And Stedman thinks all of this is a good thing. Because we are learning how little we are in control of things, how vulnerable we really are, and how interconnected we are and everything is. Which is causing anxiety and growing pains, but also creating the potential for real human growth and development.
If we put ourselves in situations in which we can be surprised by ourselves, we will continue to grow and change—a core aspect of what it means to be human. . . . What’s important is an openness to surprise and to things uncharted, or we become unable to navigate life without a map.
So, Saul of Tarsus was a religious zealot. An extremist, who used violence against his opponents to enforce what we believed was the right way to live and worship God. He modeled himself on those figures in Hebrew history who were religious warriors, fighting on God’s behalf against idolatry, foreign influence, and impiety. Because this, he believed, was the way to righteousness. This was holy living. This was how you were justified before God.
The Book of Acts tells the story of Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church and the first Christian martyr. Stephen was basically lynched, taken by a mob and stoned to death. And Saul of Tarsus was there. A witness to it all.
And then the next time we hear about Saul, the Book of Acts says, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Which makes it rather clear how fanatical this man was. The very worst kind of fundamentalist. Sowing terror in his wake.
Saul gets authorization to travel to Damascus so that he can round up the Christians there and drag them, bound, to Jerusalem.
But, God intervenes, and on the Damascus Road everything changed for Saul, who became Paul.
Many of us learned this story as the “conversion of Paul,” but scholars have begun to resist that description. The Swedish Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl began to change our understanding of this story, and of Paul, with his groundbreaking book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles.
Stendahl argued that what Paul experienced was not a “conversion” but a new “call.” A conversion generally means that one has changed one’s religion. But Paul hasn’t done that. For one thing, at this point there aren’t two religions Judaism and Christianity as we now understand them. Those developments still lie in the future.
Stendahl also points out that usually when there is a conversion, the person is having some inner spiritual experience that leads to the change. But for Paul, that isn’t the case. The Book Acts records no inner spiritual struggle Paul was experiencing. And the various times Paul himself writes and talks about what happened, he never describes some inner spiritual struggle.
So Paul wasn’t having any doubts about what he believed. As Stendahl writes, “He experiences no troubles, no problems, no qualms of conscience, no feelings of shortcomings.” He believed and practiced his faith with absolute conviction and certainty.
Until God intervened on the Damascus Road.
And the way Paul and the Book of Acts describe what happened is as a call by God for Paul to embrace a new mission. Paul is struck blind—which probably also has metaphorical implications—and must begin to see again. And see in new ways. See differently.
He doesn’t change his religion—Paul still is a faithful, law-abiding Jew, who believes in the same God, the same scriptures, the same religious tradition.
But, boy, has what and how he believed changed.
The French philosopher Alain Badiou writes that Paul’s Damascus Road experience is simply an event, that happened. It can’t be fully explained or understood. Nor are there any causes that lead up to it. It is simply a new “founding event” that forever changed its subject, Paul. And the event itself is the authority for all that changes and all that he does and teaches. Paul, in his own telling in the Book of Galatians, went to no one to explain the event or give it a sign of authority. He does not return to Jerusalem for three years, but instead goes into the deserts of Arabia. About which we never learn any details.
When he returns he claims to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, who met the resurrected Jesus face-to-face, and who has now been authorized by God to preach to the Gentiles, to the non-Jewish nations, the salvation of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
The guy who persecuted and murdered Christians is now claiming to be one of their leaders.
The guy who believed that he could be justified before God by exercising violent extremism, is now preaching nonviolence and peace.
A guy who believed in killing your enemies, now says you should love them.
A guy who hunted pagans, now wants to welcome them into the fold.
And the guy who sought religious authority for what he did, now says he needs no other authorization than that given him by God, and he is going to go out into the world and fulfill God’s mission.
And, truth is, the other disciples and followers of Jesus do NOT know what to make of this. He was their enemy, and now he says he isn’t. And he doesn’t seem to want to follow any rules or structure or guidance, but he’s just going to do his own thing and that thing, is going to burst open this movement in ways that none of them really anticipated.
The Anglican bishop N T Wright tells us, “I think Paul even glimpsed something of the dark humour of God through which a fanatical right-wing nationalistic Jew should be the one to take to the pagans the news that the Jewish Messiah welcomed them on equal terms.”
And what exactly is that new mission God has sent Paul to be as apostle for? The creation of a new, global, multi-ethnic, inclusive, loving and peaceful Jesus movement. Here’s N T Wright again, “Paul believed that it was his task to call into being, by proclaiming Jesus as Lord, the worldwide community in which ethnic divisions would be abolished and a new family created as a sign to the watching world that Jesus was its rightful Lord and that new creation had been launched and would one day come to full flower.”
The French philosopher Alain Badiou and other contemporary European thinkers find in Paul the most radical political thinker of freedom. Beverly Roberts Gaventa writes that “Paul’s theological horizon is nothing less than the cosmos itself.” And the late Ted Jennings, who came here once to preach and teach us about Paul, claims that in him we discover “one who is seeking to illuminate the most basic issues of our common life as human beings who dwell together on a planet in peril.”
And all of this because of the event that occurred on the Damascus Road that forever changed a religious zealot into an apostle of openness.
So part of what happened to Paul is he learned how to be more human. To be real. And that to do so he had to give up certainty and embrace vulnerability, to be open to wherever God would lead and to possibilities he had never before imagined. And that in this adventure through God’s grace is how one is saved.
Back to Chris Stedman and our current struggles with being human and being real in a digital age. He writes:
I’ve come to believe that making more space for people to be messy, complicated, contradictory, imperfect—to feel real—is not just fundamentally important to ensuring that we live in a world of healthy individuals. It’s important to society as a whole. Allowing people to be more fully human changes the way we talk about difference and increases our ability to understand one another. It helps us recognize that we all enter into these debates with biases and baggage, and that we’re going to screw up but also, hopefully, grow when we do.
And that, I believe, is an essentially Pauline project.
This autumn we will go on a journey through the life and work of Paul, as he bears witness to the world of how we can become real.