I’ve been reading and thinking about Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, a shifty fellow with several avatars in later centuries—you know him, he’s the evangelist of early Christianity who, in a letter to the struggling little congregation in Corinth, told us that faith, hope, and love were the essentials of human being.
He’s also the literary critic who told us how to read the Gospels. His letters are the bulk of the so-called New Testament, and they appear immediately after those Gospels, explaining their bizarre genealogies—the figurative connections to the Hebrew bible, the Old Testament—in eloquent detail.
I’ve been reading and thinking about this man for two reasons. Long ago I insisted that my children go to church with me, even though I’m an atheist. I wanted them to know the Bible. I don’t know what they took from the experience, but I learned a lot in that Dutch Reformed Church, a distant echo of Calvin’s yearning.
More recently, I wrote a play that is set in Rome, in 399, when the church fathers Augustine and Jerome were contemporaries and acquaintances, and when the great historian of the Empire, Marcellinus Ammianus, an anti-Christian Stoic, knew both of them. The premise, my conceit, is that they meet at the home of Marcellinus.
I rewrote the play over the last week because I realized that Pelagius, the outspoken heretic denounced by both Augustine and Jerom–because he advocated “free will”–was a resident of Rome in this same formative decade, the 390s as we would call it. Pelagius now makes an appearance, and he makes a splash in the play—reading him let me understand Augustine’s astonishing effect on his fellow Christians, and later writers, because Pelagius shows us how Augustine himself was lifting the dead weight of the past from the brains of the living.
Pelagius and Paul come together in my thoughts on this unbearable Sunday morning because the comical contretemps between Pope Francis and The Donald looks serious, worth contemplation, through those ancient eyes.
Donald Trump is a “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian,” according to Pope Francis. I agree, but then who among us moderns is not? Who doesn’t want to be Promethean, neo-Pelagian?
At that moment, when I ask myself this question, I read Corinthians again, 1:13. Faith, hope, love, “but the greatest of these is love,” says Paul. Why? Another question I can’t answer, not when my heart is breaking, except by saying this . . .
Paul the Apostle, Saul of Tarsus, was wrong. In Hebrews 11, he wrote that faith is “the conviction of things unseen.” Love is like that, it requires untested and unverifiable belief in another person—it’s faith in a hereafter but it’s a promise to be realized on this earth, so it has a temporal limit.
Love and faith are based on the same groundwork, then, which is nothing. You heard me right.
Hope is different. It makes you an empiricist, someone who says, OK, but what about tomorrow, what are my chances? It makes you want to know, not just believe. It makes you ask, do these wonderful new ideas reside in and flow from the experience I share with my fellow human beings, or am I just making shit up because I can’t stand them?
Faith in God can turn you away from this world. So can love, as it encloses you in the wonderful insanities of intimacy. Hope will not turn you away—not if you have faith in the neighbors you’re supposed to love.