Friday, 29 July 2011

Pastoral Epistles 2: Lists

The lists in the pastoral epistles are interesting things. They give, rather, the impression of a cascade of ungodly practice, disposed into text as they occurred to the author; but perhaps some diminuendo or (surely more likely) some crescendo effect is intended. Here’s one:
Understand this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of mothers, for manslayers, immoral persons, sodomites, kidnappers, liars, perjurers and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine. [1 Tim 1:9-10]
Since we can hardly help ranking potential sin by severity, and since lying is almost inevitably going to be less wicked than matricide, we might take this as a diminuendo; although that in turn runs the risk of creating a kind of rhetorical anticlimax. The effect, of course, might be intentional: which is to say, the list is a kind of sieve, through which we sift our own wickedness. As we read we move from thinking ‘well, at least I have not murdered my mother!’ to thinking ‘yes, yes, I have lied, I am a sinner’; although rhetorically speaking that’s rather vitiated by the inclusion of general categories (‘immoral persons’) slap in the middle. Here’s another list:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people. [2 Tim 3:1-5]
This feels like a list that is building up to something: human foibles and venalities acquire rhetorical intensity by a kind of aggregation of wickedness in its manifold iterations, until we reach a mode of unforgiveable core hypocrisy: the whited sepulchre, the person who performs religion without really believing it. The climax, though, sets up peculiar rhetorical tourbillions. If it implies that the worst thing is the person who holds the forms of religion but denies the power of it, then does it not also imply the possibility (if no more than that) of the opposite holding?  That the ideal to which we must aspire is to recognise the power of religion whilst abandoning its form? This, in a phrase, would be the ‘atheist’s apology for Christianity’.

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