In my Sunday school class yesterday, we found ourselves talking about Paul’s at times universalist-sounding language in Romans, and how it relates to traditional Christian ideas about salvation, punishment and afterlife.
I shared my own thought that it is hard to believe that Paul, having worked in the first part of his letter to demolish traditional boundaries such as those between Jews and Gentiles, he was now simply replacing them with others, Christian vs. non-Christian for instance.
It seems that Paul’s message about the boundaries between Jews and Gentiles not corresponding to the boundaries between righteous and unrighteous challenges any attempt to define a group as “the people of God” in a rigid and exclusivist sense.
The message of the letter is perhaps better understood as arguing against the attempt to draw such boundaries at all as human beings, since we lack a “God’s-eye perspective,” as the Bible often helpfully reminds us. Ironically, despite the Bible’s warnings along these lines, many fundamentalists mistakenly think that, because they have the Bible, they do have God’s own perspective on matters. Talk about missing the point!
In the discussion in my Sunday school class we also discussed our human penchant for making walls and delineating boundaries. It is comforting. We like having a sharp line between our property and our neighbor’s, between our beliefs and those of others. But when a ball flies over a fence into the neighbor’s yard, or some Christians discover that they have things in common with some Muslims or some Atheists that they disagree with other Christians about, we are forced to realize that the boundaries are not absolute by any means, and sometimes divide us from people with whom we might otherwise find ourselves united.
Agoraphobia is the fear of wide open spaces. Might it be appropriate to talk about the impulse towards fundamentalism as merely the flip side of a kind of “spiritual agoraphobia,” which inclines all of us at times to seek the comfort of walls and borders, however artificially-constructed or inappropriately placed.
What do others think? Is Paul in Romans trying to push his fellow Jews into a wider space in which they can interact with Gentiles and discover that they have more in common with some of them than they would with some of their fellow Israelites? Or is he simply replacing one sort of comforting boundary with another? Either way, one can pick up on Paul’s principles and apply them to the exclusivism of Christians in much the same way that his letter aimed to challenge Jewish exclusivism in his own time.