I’ve been re-reading Paul’s epistles this week, and it’s been a pretty horrendous experience. My primary emotional response has been exasperation and frustration. Why did I fall for this stuff for so many years, and why has it taken me so long to see the obvious? I guess it’s a little analogous to doing a crossword puzzle. Sometimes you stare and stare at it, and nothing is clicking. You come back to it later in the day and everything falls into place. You see answers that were staring you in the face.
Writing to the church in Corinth, Paul gave instructions for reining in the prophets, tongue-speakers, and–worst of all–the uppity women! who were destabilizing the order Paul had tried to impose on the community. After Paul tells everybody to get back in line he says this: “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. Anyone who does not recognize this is not to be recognized.” (1 Corinthians 14:37-38)
So ultimately Paul functioned as just another cult leader–albeit an extremely successful one, who has managed to fool people for twenty centuries. “Do what I tell you because I speak for God. If you disobey me, you are disobeying God.” How is that any different from Joseph Smith saying that God told him to re-build his church? Or Jim Jones telling people to kill themselves in Guyana? Like them, Paul just made the whole thing up. There is absolutely no empirical evidence whatsoever that would verify that Paul had a special conduit to the deity. To start a religion you just have to convince enough people that you’ve had a divine revelation.
The scourge of revelation continues to wreck havoc on our world. In 1968 Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” which reaffirmed the Roman Catholic Church’s opposition to all forms of contraception that actually work. The Second Vatican Council had put together a commission of scholars, theologians, bishops, and lay people to study the issue. The commission’s majority report to the Pope urged the church to allow the use of artificial contraception. In “Humane Vitae” the Paul flatly rejected the report. Why? Because like Paul, the Pope was privy to revelation, and revelation trumps reason every time. And now, because of the ridiculous revelation of an elderly, celibate bachelor over forty years ago–political discourse in this country is still being hi-jacked by true believers.