Paul's Journey Towards Communion with God
Paul's letters are all about showing us the transformative path towards a life in the Spirit
Paul’s authentic letters are one of the greatest and most insightful pieces of spiritual teaching we have.But to understand them, it is necessary to first understand a few basics—basics that can be hard to see sometimes because of the elaborate theories Christianity has built around Paul’s core message over the centuries.
Especially the more literalist interpretations are a stumbling block to many, as is the reading of Paul’s letters in light of the gospels, specifically their reading as history.
We need to understand that for Paul, we live in two worlds simultaneously: the world of the Flesh and the world of the Spirit. The first is the material world, the material mode of being: in this mode, we understand everything in an earthy and utilitarian way; we think literally, focussed only on our earthy needs and how to meet them. We can’t think beyond the flesh, the direct in-your-face perception, and the materialist understanding of cause and effect.
…because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen, for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4)
Now, we also live in the world of Spirit: the world in which our material world is embedded, from which it flows, as it were. If we can activate our third eye, so to speak, the spiritual mode of being, we start perceiving everything in great subtlety, and can discern the higher laws and principles of this higher world. We have “eyes to see and ears to hear.”
If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh, but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. (Galatians 6)
By building and working on your mode of being as expressed in the spiritual world, you get in touch with the Eternal—and it is there that eternal life springs into existence and is achieved. Hence the resurrection Paul talks about is not an earthy, fleshly one, but one that takes place in the “unseen world.” Christ is the blueprint for this process, and simultaneously, by having established an eternal spirit in the unseen world, becomes accessible to us: a communion with God via Spirit.
It is sown a physical body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. (1 Corinthians 15)
Now we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual. (1 Corinthians 2)
Paul is all about showing us how to do that and how it can bring us to the kingdom of God: an existence that is aligned with the higher world instead of the material one, even while we still walk the earth.
So we are always confident, even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5)
Hence we should never interpret Paul’s words in purely materialist/”fleshly” terms. What he describes is all about the subtle world of the Spirit that Paul wants us to open our eyes to. Everything he describes must be read as a feature of this second, finer, subtler world of infinitely deep discernment.
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; (2 Corinthians 5)
Indeed, we live as humans but do not wage war according to human standards, for the weapons of our warfare are not merely human, but they have divine power to destroy strongholds. (2 Corinthians 10)
For Paul, then, the spiritual path is all about achieving a communion with the Spirit—living in the higher world, the world of the Spirit, to the highest degree possible. It is a path towards inner transformation that is extremely difficult and takes time.
Paul’s Path Towards Transformation
Let me try to put Paul’s transformative teaching into more modern words and in the context of today’s situation.
We start out in nihilism: moral lawlessness. In that state, we are a complete mess, blindly wandering about, not even realizing how destructive our lowly mode of being is. We are completely out of touch with our inner voice of conscience, our connection to the divine: “the prophetic word of God,” as Paul put it.For this voice is so subtle, and so unpopular to the ego and materialist, “fleshly” mindset, that it gets drowned out by the slightest unwillingness to change our ways, to sacrifice our immediate desires, to go through the painful process of spiritual change.
So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental principles of the world. (Galatians 4)
The next step is to receive what Paul calls the Law, which we might call a basic moral code, and the conviction that it should be followed.
Think of someone who stumbles upon a more or less sound moral teaching, such as the one Jordan Peterson offers, or indeed the basic moral tenets of one of the religions.
Once you have “received the law,” a few interesting things happen:
First, by trying to follow it, you realize how utterly incapable you are of pulling it off. Yes, depending on your character, you might have an easy time with some of the rules. But to follow others seems almost impossible. Think of cleaning your room and making your bed every day, giving up your addictions (whether they be food, Netflix, sex, material pursuits, gaming, internet surfing, and so on), or your standard coping mechanisms with conflict (too agreeable, too disagreeable, too avoidant, too angry…)
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Romans 7)
Second, you begin to realize how sinful your existence has been in the past, and how sinful your conduct is even now, given that you are so incapable of following even the most basic moral rules.
This is quite the shock and leads to suffering and spiritual agony.
It was sin that was working death in me through what is good, in order that it might be shown to be sin, so that through the commandment sin might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7)
But this realization about your “sinfulness beyond measure” is a good thing, because this fire of self-judgment, when tolerated and gone through forthrightly, can burn away those buffers of yours that had always quenched this subtle inner voice which is your connection to the divine, to the world of spirit.
But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. (1 Corinthians 11)
That stage represents first contact with Christ. You cannot escape those realizations because Christ has shown, by example, that it is possible to live a fully spiritual life, to live almost entirely in the world of spirit while still on earth, even against all the obstacles put in your way by the flesh, the inertia, the sluggishness of your bodily existence.
Christ came, and so you don’t have any excuses anymore. At least those of us who have an inkling that there is more, who walk according to the Spirit, even though we are still stumbling.
…by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Romans 8)
Third, you begin to realize that moral rules are not the whole story; they are merely imposed from without to keep us from going overboard. As Timothy Ashworth put it, they are a “childminder.”
Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be reckoned as righteous by faith. (Galatians 3)
Yes, it is true, in our own age of utter nihilism and madness, we have lost even the little we had; we have lost the law, the moral code. But this code can never be more than a crutch, and the suffering that follows the adoption of a moral code, in combination with gaining a first inkling of Christ, for a person who in theory has “eyes to see and ears to hear”—who walks according to the Spirit—brings home that point with great force.
You realize that a moral code can never tell you how to act in each individual situation. That every rule can be easily used to justify evil, even without contradiction. That you need to go beyond mere rules and develop a deep, loving, truthful inner moral compass.
For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal. 2)
At this stage, you are an “infant in Christ.” Remember that everything Paul says must be seen from the perspective of the spiritual world, not the earthly one. Being in Christ, even at the early stages, therefore, has nothing to do with “accepting the gospel story as literal truth” or anything like that, but with forming a personal connection to the Christ spirit, and hence to the Divine.
Once the Christ spirit “burst through” for the first time during the period of spiritual suffering (because of your realizations about yourself as a consequence of adopting the law), you can begin the journey towards ever-greater realization and communion with the Christ spirit. This in turn will open your heart and eyes more and more, and you will gradually live more in the world of spirit, and see the world according to the principles of the spiritual world, as opposed to those of the world of flesh. It is a journey of struggle, of overcoming yourself, of realizations, of listening to those wiser than you, and most importantly of achieving ever-greater clarity in your communion with the higher: you keep getting better at listening to this subtle inner voice, at stopping to drown it in fear, reluctance, and comfort.
But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us, who has put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a first installment. (2 Corinthians 1)
These deep realizations, this beginning of the divine connection, are a free gift from God, in the sense that it wouldn’t be possible without the help of Spirit. Your own contribution is simply to stop standing in the way with all your fleshly nonsense. Which is a tall order indeed, especially in this day and age where we are so incredibly conditioned to think exclusively in materialist terms, where most of us are traumatized in one way or another, where our very language has almost become inadequate to deal with the spiritual realms, where we are bombarded daily with craziness and ignorance and evilness.
Hence faith is the key. It connects us with the “first installment” that we have received if we are people who walk according to the spirit, at least in potential.
This path is so difficult that you must be deeply convinced of the “good news,” that is, of the possibility that a life lived fully “in Christ” is possible and ultimately the only goal worth pursuing. You must connect to the “first installment” in your heart, for it will tell you the truth of the matter. Most likely you will also have to come across something that finally breaks down all those elaborate buffers and theories you have built around yourself—something that convinces you of the reality of Christ/Spirit, and the possibility of a personal connection, of growth towards a life of “seeing the unseen,” of fully walking according to the Spirit.
But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? (Romans 10)
Deeper and more detailed confirmation comes along the way; but what gets you started and what sustains you throughout the journey is an awakened faith.
Christ can be seen both as a spirit by whom we connect to the divine—our personal spiritual contact point—and as someone who has undeniably demonstrated the possibility of a truthful spiritual path, thereby breaking through our defenses and buffers to allow us to receive a ray of light for the first time.
Finally, we will—hopefully—reach the stage where we can fully embody the Spirit, fully live in the higher world, fully move beyond the flesh to perceive everything according to that finer, richer, more far-reaching, more subtle world and existence.
So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir through God. (Galitians 4)
Here is how Ashworth depicts the process schematically:
I would just add that in today’s age of moral degradation, we start even before the Law: as I have outlined above, and as Paul seems to imply as well, first God needs to give us moral rules, which he does by helping us recognize the basic rightfulness in the universal moral law.
The Law, then, is the starting point. For those people who “walk according to the flesh,” it will always be just an authority that is more or less followed (but withers once the authority fades away, like in our times). But for those who “walk according to the Spirit,” the law can be a springboard towards self-realization and transformative suffering, IF our faith, in touch with the “first installment” God granted us, gets awakened by the “coming of Christ,” that is, a first undeniable contact with the Christ spirit, one way or another. (This contact can be established via different means for different people in different times.)
The Path is Not for Everyone
A warning. As Paul makes clear again and again, and which his own experience clearly shows, achieving a high degree of communion with the Spirit, of the “prophetic word of God,” will make you many enemies.
For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing: to the one group a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. (2 Corinthians 2)
The point is: there are those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, who have the potential of achieving a life in communion with the Divine. But even those most often stumble on their path and can turn hostile towards those who begin “walking according to the spirit” in earnest. Then there are those who simply don’t have eyes to see etc. They live exclusively in the material world of the flesh. And those will be absolutely furious about your higher existence: they literally smell it.
Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2)
The more you try to show them your way of being, the more furious and hostile they get. Your very presence upsets them. The clearer your demonstration of your faith, the more hostility.
However, once you start living in the higher world and perceiving things from that higher, spiritual, non-literal, non-materialist perspective, powered by deep love and understanding, those who are receptive can also smell that subtle fragrance on you. And they will be uplifted, touched, drawn a little closer to the divine.
It is this duty to serve, and to shine the light (often in subtle forms), that characterizes the transformative path. This is the only way to advance, and Paul is very clear about it.
Paul’s letters are a true treasure. And precisely because of the instinctual hostile reaction by those who have “no eyes to see”—the people of the flesh—have they been partly tempered with, their meaning warped, and their messages distorted towards the literalist interpretation of a gospel that was never meant to describe a wonder-healer in Galilee, but to convey Paul's deep spiritual truth in narrative form.
This becomes crystal-clear once you look at it from the perspective of the higher world, where Christ resides and a communion is possible, through the mirror darkly, while we are still on earth.
Just as Paul had an apocalyptic outlook on the world and thought that the end of his civilization will ultimately bring salvation IF we are spiritually prepared and witness it from our vantage point in the spiritual world, so it is today: things are about to get worse, from a materialist perspective. From a spiritual perspective, though, we might move towards salvation.
But we need to be prepared.
Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of the mind, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12)
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Timothy and Titus are most likely inauthentic, as are various passages even in some of the authentic letters. It would be naive to think that later authors and compilers shouldn’t have attempted to alter Paul’s message, especially in light of Paul himself warning us of constant persecution and misunderstanding of his gospel.
For an in-depth discussion about Paul’s ideas as they relate to the communion with the Spirit and the prophetic word of God, including a new linguistic analysis to better make sense of the original text, see Timothy Ashworth, Paul's Necessary Sin: The Experience of Liberation, Routledge, 2016
It is exceedingly likely (and indeed obvious once you look at it from that perspective) that Paul’s teachings are the heart of Christianity, and that the gospels came later. Mark’s gospel, the first of the gospels, at least in part was an attempt to convey Paul’s teachings in narrative form, to warn us of the dangers of “fleshly” interpretations and the “people of the flesh,” and possibly give historical clues. The later gospels were embellishments of Mark with their authors’ own agendas—leading to precisely what Paul and Mark warned about: literalist and “fleshly” thinking. A few theologians in the past have made that observation, against opposition of the traditionalists who seem stuck in their literal reading of the gospels. For more on this fascinating story and many references, see Laura Knight-Jadczyk, From Paul to Mark: PaleoChristianity, Red Pill Press 2021