A Pauline Christianity (Almost) Without Myth
Introducing the IXS Model
© by Dr. Jan Garrett
July 16, 2006
Minor modification: May 6, 2013
This essay was originally composed as a talk for the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green entitled, "Unitarian Christianity: Reasonable, Radical, and Relevant." I am not, in the strictest sense, a Biblical scholar, although I do have a long-time interest in the history of early Christianity. I partly came to this topic from the study of ancient Greek philosophy, which drew me to Engberg-Pedersen's work. I would be happy to learn from feedback from others whose interest in this topic is broadly similar and whose information base is greater than mine (or who simply see something relevant that I have missed.)
My theme is the essence of Christianity as seen from a Unitarian perspective. But I do not intend to reproduce the views of some Unitarian minister or writer I have read. Most directly I have been provoked to develop this perspective by reading the authentic Letters of Paul (yes, that Paul), assisted by some recent studies of those letters and prompted by my experience as leader of a relatively small Unitarian Universalist congregation. There will be a central role for the idea of God or something like it in the picture I am presenting. There's also a role for a Jesus-type person, who is not equated with God but is especially related to God. So it meets a minimum definition of Unitarian Christianity.
The story or picture I am presenting is reasonable in the sense that it does not appeal to the intervention of superhuman forces like that familiar device of badly written stories, according to which a friendly deity quite apart from the hero or heroine appears at the last minute to save her from a doom for which her own efforts and those of other natural powers in the story were insufficient. It is also reasonable in not assuming any improbable things like angels, demons or immortal souls. The apostle Paul surely believed in such things, but there is a thread running through his thinking that is independent of them and accessible to us through careful study.
The picture I am presenting is radical in being reasonable as just explained; it is also radical in the demands it places on us. It calls upon us to make sacrifices, take risks, and get out of our "comfort zones." It's also radical because it conceives salvation as empowered ethical living, not something that will be handed to you in another dimension after you die.
The picture I am presenting is relevant because it is a live option for people who want to live in right relationships with each other, our larger society, and our fragile planet. It's relevant for Unitarian Universalists for that reason. I suspect, however, that it is a type of Christianity (or if you like a type of religion) that few UU's today imagine when they hear the word "Christian."
The basic picture: The I-X-S Model
A few words on I, X, and S themselves. Then I will discuss the basic idea of the model. "I" is the state of the individuals who give excessive weight to what they are told by the dominant culture, to labels placed on them because of things beyond their control. "I" is also the state of the individual suffering from a sense of his or her vulnerabilities, the state of a person before being spiritually transformed.
"S" is state of the person or the community committed to living in right relationships, the person or community that is "in the spirit." The I-pole is the starting point; reaching the S-pole represents important progress.
What the chart does not show as clearly as I would like is that being at the "S"-pole is not the goal, but a big step towards it, beyond which a further movement is indicated. We'll talk about that later.
In between the I- and S-poles, but above, at the center of the picture, is X. X is the symbol used by the Danish scholar from whom I borrowed the model. In his model, X represents God. I decided to keep the X because X is an algebraic symbol for something unknown. In algebra we solve for X, we figure it out. At least some UU's like to say that we are searching for God (or whatever). So I think that X is appropriate for us even if we do not call it God.
In this picture, X is that at first unknown being or force which can help us get beyond our inadequate, self-centered selves so that we may live in right relationships with our fellow church members, our fellow citizens, human beings in general, and in fact all life on the planet. You don't have to interpret X as God or the creative Spirit of Life, though you have my permission to do so if you want. You don't have to think of X as in the heavens or beyond space and time. At the minimum, however, X must be conceived as distinct from the I-pole. How we name X is less important than the function it serves. The function is transforming our lives, getting us from I to S.
The I-pole designates the state of the individual who lives, in the Apostle Paul's phrase, "according to the flesh." This kind of person places excessive value on physical things (including wealth), social status (citizen, non-citizen), ethnic identity (Greek, Roman, Jew), and performance of rituals like abstaining from work on the Sabbath, even when the work might be very beneficial to others. The person at the I-pole is prone to anger, hatred, fear, distress, and pride in possessing things (like lots of money, heterosexual orientation, light pink skin, American citizenship, a nominal Christian upbringing). These possessions are usually the result of biological inheritance or social environment, not the person's response or lack of response to X.
Even most people who often perform actions that appear morally right in relation to others are at the I-pole. They don't do it wholeheartedly. They do it to keep up their reputation or to avoid punishment, not because it is what righteousness demands. The S-pole, by contrast, represents the way people are who have committed to living in right relationships, especially communities whose members who have covenanted to right relationships with each other.
For the explicitly Christian version of this, we would need an addition to the chart. Between the I-pole and X, on the arrow lines just below X, mentally place a Y. X (God in the explicitly Christian version) reaches down to the individual at the I-pole, who is off the right path, and moves her up toward itself and over toward S-pole. The way X does this is through a model individual. We can call it Y. In Pauline Christianity, that model individual is Jesus. Since Jesus is "Yeshua" in Hebrew, Y is appropriate. Y is also on the vertical downward arrow just below the X, for reasons that will be clear in a moment.
When we do theological algebra and solve for X, we recognize that X, whatever you call it, is the being or force that summons the person at the I-pole, who lives according to the flesh, to undergo transformation--to be metaphorically reborn--and live as morally perfect a life as humanly possible. This is especially powerful if you think of X--or if you like, Y--as taking the initiative, and the person initially at the I-pole as responding.
Most humans need a focus like X (however we name it) because otherwise it is hard to invest ourselves in the work of transformation from I to S. Without X the connection is too loose and "theoretical." Personifying X, describing it by well chosen metaphors, and surrounding it by appropriate stories, can help keep it in focus.
The arrow from the S-pole to the right represents further work that must be done. It is not enough to covenant to live in right relations, one must continuously strive to do so. The part of the chart that goes from I to X to S represents only the first step. At that point the work-some would say the work of faith-really begins.
Now the Y figure, in Christianity Jesus the Anointed, may be understood as follows: Y is a human being who actually pulled it off, who so fully identified with X and became a member of X's team, that there was nothing lacking in him or her so far as humanly possible. If you believe that Y existed, Y is proof for you that it's possible. That it is possible is what really counts. Because Y did it, believers can say that Y has become a son or daughter of X. But we cannot stop here: X's call is for us all to become sons and daughters of X. If Y was a spirit person, to use the term John Shelby Spong uses to describe Jesus, then we are all called upon to become spirit persons.
Most Christians who take this approach will say that before Jesus appeared there was no clear cultural focus. The gods and heroes of Greek and Roman myth, they might say, were modeled on ancient aristocrats who may have observed a sort of rough justice among themselves and toward their favorites but were manipulative and exploitive of humans outside elite circles or members of conquered peoples.
But now suppose you believe that Y has in fact appeared. Suppose you believe that Y has announced the real intentions of X, or, if you like, the real invitation of X to us. Suppose you believe that Y has shown by example that a mere human can respond to the invitation of X. The content of this invitation is to make the transformative move from the I-pole to the S-pole: not only to covenant to live in right relations but to actually live in them.
This is not an endorsement of an atonement or payback theory. It does not teach that X is angry at us for being sinners but will forgive us if a half-God half-man will pay the ultimate sacrifice so that the scales of cosmic justice will be even. This is not the unattractive story of the "most high God" demanding and receiving far more than a pound of flesh from his only begotten son before He will forgive humanity. In our story, Y makes the sacrifice "for us" only in the following sense: being creatures not of pure reason but of a mixed set of faculties including sense-perception, memory, and imagination, we need concrete examples. If it were not for what Y--or someone like Y--did and endured, we would not have the example we need.
After all the studies of the Jesus Seminar, we still cannot prove using sound historical methods that a very good human being by the name of Jesus of Nazareth was executed in occupied Palestine under Pontius Pilate. So here's where conviction as distinct from knowledge (pistis, usually translated faith, as distinct from episteme, or knowledge) comes in. Conviction is required, at the very least, that one or more people have gone through this transformation. You don't have to believe that such a person was among the victims of crucifixion in the early 30's C.E. in Palestine.
The example of Y might be considered an example provided us by X, in the sense that Y already had to be inspired by something. Otherwise, the transformation would not have occurred in the human being who became a model for us. Y too had to have conviction (pistis) in the promise of X or the value of the goal toward which X invites and can empower us.
And what does X promise us? If we have conviction and persevere--if we strive to live in right relationships to the utmost of our power, we will be "justified," in Paul's phrase. What does this mean? If we personify X, it means for us that we'll become just, good or righteous, and be approved as just by X, who here represents an unbiased observer. It also means that X, the transformative power, is at work in us as we become just. After all, this transformation succeeds precisely because we are paying proper attention to X.
I've concentrated so far on the I-X or left side of the I-X-S model. We should look at the other side too, the X-S side. How does being lifted out of life "according to the flesh" transform us? Remember that life "according to the flesh" means excessive attachment to externals and rote observance of proper conduct. How does being lifted out of this transform us so that we can live according to the Spirit, i.e., in right relationships?
A key ingredient is identification. With whom or what does a person identify? With the Romans? With white Anglo-Saxon Protestants? With correct performance of prescribed rituals? With the very rich and politically powerful? With heterosexuals? With homosexuals? If one identifies primarily with any of these things one is not identifying with the Spirit. One is not a Spirit person.
In the social and political struggles of the ancient Roman Mediterranean it was common practice for people to identify with a prominent personage. People would identify with their patron or the political leader they followed: I belong to Pompey, I belong to Caesar. Early Christians seem to have said, using the same linguistic pattern, "I belong to the Anointed Jesus" or "I belong to Christ" (in fact, that's what "I am a Christian" originally meant.) In any case, if you said you were living in the Spirit or in Christ, the point was the same: you were aligning yourself with the party of the Spirit or the Anointed One and therefore of the Most High God (and, by subversive implication, not that of Caesar). The practical consequence of this-assuming you were not a hypocrite or just making a power grab, is that you had decided to transform your life.
One can identify with Y and X in different degrees. The first big step was joining the movement. The Jesus Seminar scholars tell us that Jesus did not baptize his followers, but very soon after his death the followers of The Way (as the movement was first called) were baptizing their converts. Baptism was an external event meant to mark an inward change or commitment. Our new member ceremonies and signing the book provide a distant echo of that.
For an early Christian this step likely meant a covenant, a promise to live up to a certain standard with her mind's eye on what God asks of us and on the supposed example of Jesus. Conversion or joining is an important step, but it is not the end. Transformation is not complete as a result of such simple steps. We are not made perfect ("justified") merely by getting doused or signing the book.
What happens when we make a covenant is that we freely assume a set of standards. Making a covenant does not guarantee we will live up to them. The standards are high. The point is not merely to perform right acts outwardly but to do so wholeheartedly, without regret, without inward struggle to avoid it, with sincerity.
Ancient moral philosophers were aware of this problem long before Paul. They had a word to describe the person who knew what she had committed to do and generally wanted to do, and yet frequently failed to do it. We can translate that term "weakness of the will." The rare person who no longer had to struggle against temptation was truly brave or temperate or generous or just; she was virtuous. The ancient moral philosophers understood the importance of perfecting character, of getting beyond weakness of the will. The Apostle Paul is largely concerned with the same thing.
In Paul's understanding, a person is in the Spirit first of all when she joins the movement, commits herself to X. When one makes the identification, one promises to live in right relationships. That is what you have implicitly promised to do when you made the commitment, were baptized, or signed the book. But this initial self-identification is only part of the story. Paul's authentic letters demonstrate this. I say "authentic letters" because we learn from the most careful scholars of early Christianity that only about half the letters in the Christian scriptures attributed to Paul are really by Paul. In the authentic letters we frequently overhear him say things like: "All right, you are in the spirit, you belong to the party of the Risen One; now act accordingly. You said you would leave petty jealousies and possessiveness behind. So do it, already."
Paul's letters were not written to people who were uncommitted, who had not yet decided to join the God party. They had already decided. In writing to them Paul can be a nag, but he has a moral right to nag because the people he is addressing have already promised. It would have been different if he had been writing to those who had not made the commitment. Preaching the good news to the unconverted is one thing. Reminding people of the covenants already made is quite another. Those who are perfected, of course, will need no reminder.
We can imagine a line between making the covenant at one end and actually living consistently according to it on the other, between identifying with the Spirit and living completely in the Spirit. Some persons are closer to the goal than others. Some of these are people whose conviction and identification with the goal of transformation are so deep that they are ready to be "sent." What this means is that they are ready to spread the good news to others, and they will not be discouraged the first time they encounter somebody they cannot persuade.
I have avoided one controversial issue so far: what would it look like if a community not only covenanted to live in the Spirit but actually did so and lived in right relations with one another. Conservative Christians, if pressed, would probably say that they are more committed to promoting right relationships than so-called Spirit persons who are critics of social inequality.
We can turn to the insights of George Lakoff, who has shown that we can get our notion of right relationships from a hierarchical Strict Father family model or a more egalitarian Nurturant Parent family model. Paul operated from an interesting mix of strictness and egalitarian nurturance.
Somewhat like a strict parent he called upon his congregations to live up to the standards to which, according to him, they had committed themselves. But at the same time he upheld a radical equality among Christians. Within his own movement, Paul called for eradication of hierarchy between groups that were rank-ordered in the larger society. There is neither male nor female, slave nor free, Greek nor Jew, in the movement of the Risen One, he said. In practice, this meant that within the communities Paul helped to establish women were the moral equals of men--they could be leaders. Christian masters should free Christian slaves. And one was not greater or lesser because he was Roman or Jew or Greek. The common meals of the early Christians-a prime example of the practice of radical sharing of resources-were not to recognize class distinctions. Every member of the congregation who came to the potluck had equal access to what is on offer. Paul's was a nonviolent socially transformative vision. If his egalitarian vision had become permanently entrenched within Christianity as it expanded after his death, the social history of late imperial Rome would have been very different from what actually unfolded.
Contrast with this the behavior of Roman-era Stoics. Paul's Christianity shared some ideas with Roman-era Stoicism, but with this difference. Stoicism by Paul's time had largely made its peace with the Roman social order: a network of ranks and social roles that was like a pyramid. Persons occupying the higher ranks were superior, those in the lower ranks were inferior, with the emperor, reputed to be a son of a god, at the top.
One of the greatest Stoic teachers, Epictetus, began life as a slave, but the Stoics of whom we have record were either members of elite society or, as in the case of Epictetus, associated with them as teachers and pedagogues.
The Stoics held that all human beings, as rational beings, contained within them sparks of the Divine Fire that governed the universe and provided the moral law for us to follow. For the Stoics, all humans are offspring of the same divine Father, Zeus. Inspired by this vision, the Stoics urged each other to avoid cruelty to slaves. Some scholars have carelessly concluded that the Stoics anticipated the doctrine of human rights. But the Stoics did not call for reforms of the Roman political and legal system. They did not urge the abolition of slavery or provide a political challenge to the patriarchal aspects of the Roman society. Nor did they urge dismantling of the two-track legal system in which the most privileged classes (the so-called more honorable people) received more humane punishments than the less privileged (the so-called inferior people) for the same crimes. Nor did the Roman-era Stoics propose the radical sharing of resources in a way that would have empowered the have-nots in their own ranks (assuming there were have-nots in their ranks).
Paul's Christianity was bolder in a subtle way. It is true that early Christianity too did not directly confront the imperial hierarchy, but by living out a vision of social equality and radical sharing, the communities Paul helped establish for a while nonviolently--and perhaps imperfectly--gave their members the sense that another world was possible.
Chilton, Bruce, 2004. Rabbi Paul. New York: Doubleday.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reid, 2004. In Search of Paul. New York: HarperCollins.
Engberg-Pedersen, Troels, 2000. Paul and the Stoics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. (This book is my source for the I-X-S Model.)
Horsley, Richard A., and Neil Asher Silberman, 1997. The Message and the Kingdom. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Lakoff, George, 2002. Moral Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.