Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Conviction



38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8

The Apostle Paul is very quotable and these two verses from his Letter to the Romans is an example of him at his expressive best. What is, I think, seldom noticed is the absolutely crucial role played by the words "I am convinced." Everything that follows depends upon them and could not be uttered without them. Nor could we the readers give our assent to them, always supposing that we do which is not a given, unless we also were able to utter the same three words.

It is to my mind significant that the Apostle preferred to say 'convinced' or as it is sometimes rendered 'persuaded' rather than saying "I am certain" or "I know" or "I believe". Some translations, it is true do miss out on that shade of meaning, and God knows I am no expert on Greek, but the consensus seems to be that the original word used pepeismai conveys the same sense as the one I am using. Why is that important? Well, because it carries certain implications. Firstly it suggests that St Paul required persuasion, that is he was resistant to the conviction which he now advances. Second that the idea has a persuasive power backing it up, that is evidences which can change the mind of a person. Thirdly, and finally, that the idea once accepted has the power of an accepted fact, like gravity or the need to drink when thirsty, to become one of the foundations upon which we ground our way of being alive in this world, because a conviction is not just a belief but it is a belief for which we are willing to die. 

How did the Apostle become convinced and is there anything in his path to conviction which is relevant to those of us today who seek to know whether the quote at the top of this page is a truth statement or not? If the answer relates to probably the most famous Pauline incident of them all then the answer to the relevance question would seem to be a resounding No-

‘While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” I answered, “Who are you, Lord?” Then he said to me, “I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 I asked, “What am I to do, Lord?” The Lord said to me, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.” 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.
Acts 22

Granting that God does from time to time intervene in such ways it is certainly only rarely that He does so and if we refuse our belief in the proposition that our union of love with God through Jesus is unbreakable by any outside force (our own unfaithfulness can break it in a heartbeat though) until we ourselves have such a Damascene experience then we are effectively ruling out such a belief altogether.

But was this the only evidence, compelling as it might be to its recipient, which St Paul relied upon? Probably not. There is also this-

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. 
2 Corinthians 12

It is generally accepted that the Apostle was here speaking about his own mystic experience. At first glance this seems as exotic an evidence as the first and therefore equally redundant so far as ordinary folk go. Such raptures though are, I think, rather more common than you might suppose. The vividness of the Saint's experience and its visual nature make it simply an heightened example of a more frequent occurrence. Many quite ordinary people are rapt up through prayer or contemplation into spiritual experiences or encounters which carry with them every bit as much the power to convince, to persuade, as that which the Corinthians heard about some 2000 years ago. The weakness of all this, viewed from the outside, is that in order to be engaged in such prayer or contemplation in the first place you require either a basic level of faith or the desire to possess it. So the encounter simply confirms what you already believed or wanted to believe. This is not, may I say it, a weakness viewed from the inside because these encounters are so solid and so real that it would be irrational to resist conviction in the truths they convey.

Additional forces operated to persuade the Apostle. He writes about them in the verses preceding those we are discussing-

24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Romans 8

The idea of hope as proof seems startling but the idea is summarised neatly in the Catechism The virtue of hope responds to the aspiration to happiness which God has placed in the heart of every man. Or as the philosopher Simone Weil put it-
At the bottom of the heart of every human being, from earliest infancy until the tomb, there is something that goes on indomitably expecting, in the teeth of all experience of crimes committed, suffered, and witnessed, that good and not evil will be done to him. It is this above all that is sacred in every human being.  
Human Personality
The idea being that the feeling described by the Apostle as hope is an universal one, each human person experiences it and seeks to find something in life which will correspond to it, and in Jesus we find the only figure who meets that need fully. The universal existence of hope suggests that it must be implanted (or evolved) within us for a reason and that there must be something in the world we encounter which corresponds to it and fulfills it as food to hunger and water to thirst. Against this it can be argued that hope as here defined is far from universal or alternatively that other figures, the Buddha, Krishna, Karl Marx or the founder of Islam for example can be found who in their philosophies or through their personalities meet this need at least as well as Christianity.

Did anything else work to persuade the Apostle? Well, there was this-
14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.
Romans 8
It was a basic assumption in the primitive Church and since that each member of Christ only becomes so because they have first received the gift of the Holy Spirit. St Peter described it in this way-
15 And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. 16 And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, “John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 17 If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?’ 18 When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.’
Acts 11
Underlying all the previous evidences that worked to convince the Apostle was this one fact. God sent His own Spirit into St Paul's heart. The response intellectually and emotionally of Paul to that encounter continued to unfold itself over time as that encounter prolonged itself over time. What, ultimately, persuaded him about the nature of God's love was God's love itself. He experienced it and then he tried to understand it and then he tried to express it. The fruits of that loving exchange are to be found in the words that stand at the head of this blog. Is that persuasive for anyone apart from the Apostle himself? No. Somebody elses internal experience might be interesting to read about (or deadly dull) but it carries no power to convince unless it corresponds to something within ourselves. If the Holy Spirit was the agent of conviction for St Paul then He must also be the agent of conviction for us if we are to believe the Apostle. And if we don't have Him what are we to do? Ask ourselves if we desire Him. Do we want to be convinced? Do we possess that universal hope, the aspiration to happiness, the expectation that ultimately good and not evil will be done to us? If the answer is Yes then we can only implore from our depths that we receive this most sweet guest. He will surely come.
Turn ye unto me, saith the Lord of hosts, and I will turn unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.
Zechariah 1:3 


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