Spiritual Agoraphobia

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.

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  • Tom Bartley

    Interesting James, and I was there for this conversation.  I believe that when we set boundaries for ourselves, be they geographical or theological in nature, that we quickly forget or sometimes even deny that such boundaries exist.  Like learning to ride a bicycle we forget the method of learning in the moment of riding.

    We cling to these boundaries as a system of support and comfort to ourselves, while also forgetting that these boundaries are often ones we have constructed ourselves.  I have thought before that Christians (though not exclusively Christians, other religious groups do as well) like to place God in a box of their own understanding.  Something takes place in their lives that leads them to discover God is greater than their construct.  This liminal stage of recognition is a treacherous time for believers who do one of two things:  do their best to strengthen the boundaries of their box or tear down the box to make room for this larger God.  Yet my experience leads me to believe that in this de-construction is more of an expanding boundary.  We push the walls of our understanding out a little bit to encompass this new belief system and then rest their, happy and content until a new challenge forces us to consider our borders again.

    Feuerbach helped put a label to these kinds of thoughts and remains a formidable challenge to us that our understanding of God is closely connected to our understanding of human beings.  

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

    Thanks Tom! Let me share a link to your latest blog post, which is an important part of the context that shaped the direction our conversation in Sunday school took:  http://ccbcthoughts.blogspot.com/2011/11/migration-and-immigration.html 

  • Pat68

    “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.”

    Unfortunately, this stance is oddly comforting to us.  Maybe it points more to our fallen nature.

  • Kim Lindblom

    Pat68, two can play that game. Maybe it actually points to our fallen nature that we insist that people who doesn’t believe the same as we do will roast in hell?

    • Pat68

      @Kim, I’m not sure I understand your comment.  Are you agreeing with me or making a separate point?

  • Anonymous

    Um….I just want to point out that Romans is also the one that includes the scathing treatment of homosexuality:    Romans 1:26 For this cause God gave them up unto vile affections: for even their women did change the natural use into that which is against nature:   27And likewise also the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their lust one toward another; men with men working that which is unseemly, and receiving in themselves that recompence of their error which was meet.
    Yes, I think Paul absolutely did want to separate into two groups, Christian and non-Christian; and he also meant to specify what KIND of Christian was the right kind.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/religionprof/ James F. McGrath

    I think that is a misunderstanding of both what Paul says about Gentile sexual practices, and the role that passage plays in the letter. 

    Here are some things I’ve written on the subject previously:





    Of course, since we all disagree with Paul about some things, figuring out what exactly Paul thought about a given subject should not be the end of the discussion for Christians, but only one part of it.