Lesson 2: 1 Corinthians 7:29-35.
So Paul is just wrong here, right? I mean, obviously he’s wrong about the end times arriving imminently, unless he’s working with an understanding of time very different to my own – which is certainly possible, I’m come back to that later. But in this passage he’s also wrong about people.
He claims that the unmarried are concerned with religious matters, “the affairs of the Sovereign”, but that married people are concerned with worldly affairs. This doesn’t match my experience at all. Firstly, I know quite a number of people who are married and yet also seem to be concerned with “how to be holy in body and spirit”; secondly, I know quite a lot of unmarried people, myself among them, who are “anxious about worldly affairs”. I am, for example, concerned about publishing academic papers, committee meetings, the number of books I need/want to read, letters written by HMRC even after matters have allegedly been cleared up, and whether I feel yucky today because I’m lazy, because I slept too much, or because I’m coming down with a cold. And that’s just today!
I am also, as it happens, concerned about whether I’m doing what God/dess wants me to do, how to explain Christa in one sentence, whether I understand the Bible correctly, whether it’s possible to do Quaker business in right ordering entirely by email, whether blogging about the Bible is spiritually useful, the ways in which I and others speak about God, and what Jesus would do about fracking. (Statistically speaking, if the the verbs used in the Gospels are a guide, the answer to WWJD is almost always ‘talk’.) These concerns and others like them do not vanish when I’m in a relationship, and I can’t imagine them vanishing if I ever got married; and indeed I know many married people who are also concerned about these and other related questions.
It’s nice that Paul doesn’t want people to be anxious. I’m not sure he’s got the right way of going about it, though.
Gospel: Mark 1:14-20.
Jesus says here: “The time is fulfilled, and the realm of God is at hand;repent, and believe in the gospel.” It’s easy to see how this produces an interpretation like Paul’s, in which “the form of this world is passing away”; and it’s even possible to argue that Paul just got the date wrong by a few thousand years, or more plausibly that on God’s time, which is nothing like our own, it is still in some sense ‘close’. It’s also possible to understand this change, to the time of the realm of God, in a more mystical way: as Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is not a vague idea; it is a reality”. Whether or not we agree with him that the realm of God and the Buddha’s Pure Land are the same thing, we can appreciate the idea that the “pine tree standing on the mountain is so beautiful, solid, and green. … the pine tree belongs to the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha.” In this image, the realm of God is here and now, if we are open to experiencing it. In order to do this, we need to repent – change our minds, our ways of thinking – and accept the good news.
This, of course, is a classic case of the interpretation shaping the reading. I happen to like some aspects of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, and so I read them into the Biblical text.