Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Eros and the Christ: Longing and Envy in Paul's Christology

Given the scope and goal of David Fredrickson's wonderful new study on Philippians, Eros and the Christ (Paul in Critical Contexts)
some scholars might consider him "revisionist." So be it: if he is revisionist, he is so in the best sense of that term--he is re-visioning a text, and undermining the basic assumptions many readers bring to it. All in the service to the text and faith in Christ itself. The book is bold and brilliant in equal measure.

I have rarely (if ever) read a study in New Testament theology that so carefully situates a reading of the text within the wider sweep of Greek epistles/letters. It seems Fredrickson has read almost everything in ancient Greek literature that might compare to the language of longing and envy present in Philippians--language he believes invites us to re-consider Pauline Christology in a radically new mode.

What is the basic thrust of his book? Essentially, Fredrickson believes that the "I long for you" motif present as book ends in Philippians 1:8 and 4:1--a motif also prevalent in much epistolary literature at the time of Paul, before and after--is not only an indication of Paul's theological sensibilities and emotions in writing the letter, but is itself also indication of who Christ is as Lord, and therefore who God is. 

Letter. Paul's theology. Christology. God. All of these are nested and inter-related.

Fredrickson therefore walks the reader slowly, very slowly, through a series of arguments that build his case.

The argument can be summarized like this:

1) Paul's letters as letters both express longing, and are themselves examples of the longing that happens through presence in absence (because the letters represent Paul's absence even while he is present in and through them).

2) Paul is actually pining away like an anxious lover for the Philippians. He longs for communion with them, and this is the dominant motif of his letter, rather than expressing a dogmatic or homiletical point.

3) The language of eros present in these kinds of texts gives evidence that the pothos present in these relationships creates an extraordinary form of human relationship: when two are in love but separated each is both host and visitant of the beloved other.

4) All of this modifies the traditional interpretation of kenosis. Instead of understanding kenosis as "self-emptying," limiting the power of the self, rather kenosis is a "melting" (see the Philippians hymn in chapter two) Christ's longing for union with mortals and his desire to share with them all that he is and has and all that they are and have, just as lovers longs to do.

5) In this sense, then, the best understanding of the Christ hymn is in the context of erotic abduction.

6) If this is the case, the "longing for communion" present in Philippians takes on new sense, both the longing and the communion. Intriguingly, Paul celebrates five leaders (who he considers to be apostolic leaders) even though they are of low status in Greek culture.  Paul himself was a prisoner. Euodia and Syntyche are women. Timothy was young and Epaphroditus is a homesick slave.  Because they are embraced by, and themselves participate in, the desire for communion with an absent beloved, they have status as apostolic leaders by virtue of their claim to participation in the Lord's (Christ's) body.

7) "A longed-for koinonia with Christ authorizes Paul's own ministry and undergirds his recommendation of Euodia and Syntyche, whose legitimation for leadership roles rested on their future sharing with Christ as a bride shares all thinsg with the groom" (130).  "Paul uses nuptial imagery in 3:7-14 to delegitimize masculine hegemony and relocate confidence for ministry away from the possession of a male body to the sharing of Jesus' body. Presenting himself as a manbride of Christ, Paul both fractures the masculine structure of political legitimation and lifts up koinonia as the basis and goal of leaders in the church" (140) For Paul, Christ is the prize, the much-longed-for bride waiting at the end of the lover's struggle.

Intersubjectivity, the idea that selves (redeemed or otherwise) are on their way to becoming something (though we do not know what) through equal, mutual, and desiring relationships with other selves... and so they suffer the absence of each other. This despised frailty of longing, though apparently despised in one age, may light a fire in the theological imagination of other ages (including ours).

In his conclusion, Fredrickson states that he believes the poetry he examines (as well as some of the medieval theology) confirms a figure he had glimpsed in Paul's letters--an erotic Paul--and so he is emboldened to write about it having seen it confirmed in these authors. "They teach us there is no escape from the vulnerability to loss and to grief written inside of love. That is to say, there is no dichotomy that can insulate love from longing." For coming to know that awe-filling truth I am grateful. To project it into God is why I wrote this book" (151).

"The picture of Paul as mourning lover contrasts sharply with the one drawn by many of today's interpreters, who regard him either as a dogmatist, a rhetor, a disciplinarian, or perhaps a combination of all three."

"Paul's desire for communion with Christ opened a social space in which slaves, women, those imprisoned and those deprived of voice could reognizes themselves and be recognized as fully legitimate leaders."


  1. Sounds like a fascinating, if possibly incomplete, study of its topic.

    [ I find the author's lack of any reference to C.S. Lewis, Norman O. Brown, and especially to Gene Outka's AGAPE (Yale, 1977) to be deeply disappointing. The older I get, the more fre- quently I find myself reading books by people who are blissfully ignorant of earlier, classic studies in the stated field. ]

  2. "Paul's desire for communion with Christ opened a social space in which slaves, women, those imprisoned and those deprived of voice could reognizes (sic) themselves and be recognized as fully legitimate leaders."

    "Slaves, women and prisoners -- legitimate leaders." What a nice mix. (Mixing issues always confuses us.) What is the author's point? Is Fredrickson going for a totally gender-free world? Protestants have women ministers. Do you and authors like Fredrickson want women priests to be the norm? Is this what the author is going for -- among other things? I think so.