Recently I had the privilege of sitting down to interview Susan Grove Eastman to talk about her recently published book, Paul and the Person. Dr. Eastman is the Associate Professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, and her book is a fascinating read. Paul and the Person breaks new ground on the complex issue of Paul’s understanding of humanity and the individual.

Todd Brewer

How did the book come about? Or, another question, why another book on Paul?

Susan Eastman

I think, for me, it came about because this is an enduring interest: the self, and continuity of the individual and the corporate. That has very practical consequences on the ground. I think a lot of my questions come out of human experience in general, and also out of having been a pastor. How do you make sense of Paul’s letters? Those are where my questions come from.

But the continuity and discontinuity question, and the question of the flesh and the spirit — these all come down to questions about anthropology, Christology, about what makes people tick, how do people change, how are we who we are — these really existential questions — and how does Christ make a difference in the ways we answer them? So in one sense, the book arises out of life questions.

Why another book on Paul? Because the Pauline guild does not deal very well with existential questions. And I’ve heard that from other Paul scholars, too, who say the guild has become divorced from life. And there’s a real aridity, like a closed room, and someone needs to open the windows. I’m speaking frankly here, but in the preface I say it’s become boring. I hear that a lot, too, from other Paul scholars. Not all, but some.

B

Everyone’s marching under their different banners.

E

Yeah. Let’s reframe the whole debate. So I think one way to reframe it is to break it open by bringing in other conversation partners. And I’m personally very interested in that. I find it refreshing to talk to people outside the guild. And then I get a new angle on my questions.

B

So, what is the thesis of the book? And how does it differ from recent views of Paul’s anthropology?

E

While Paul doesn’t do anthropology, the book excavates the assumed functional anthropology that is at work in the way Paul speaks. He’s not projecting a theory. What he says only makes sense in the context of a participatory account of persons, just as I think he has a participatory Christology. So persons are constituted from the ground up in relationship to external, environmental, relational factors that operate internally. So I used the work of a philosopher named Timothy Chappell. He’s a British philosopher. He’s a Christian. And he talks about two ways of conceptualizing the self, one in which individuality presupposes relationality, and one in which relationality presupposes individuality. So for a long time the dominant, unexamined way of thinking has been the latter, that relationality presupposes individuality, that we have to be selves first, and then we can be in relationship.

B

This is in contrast with Martin Buber, who discussed the encounter of two individuals, which do not constitute the selves only in that encounter but remain free in that mutual exchange.

E

Right. Bultmann offers a useful example of the individualistic view: first you have the will to selfhood, and then you can be in communion. And I don’t think you can make sense of Paul’s letters by just trying to squeeze him into that box. When he says, “Not I but Christ in me,” and when he says, “I, not I, but sin dwelling in me,” these claims don’t squeeze into the individualistic box. We need a different account. Pauline studies have been dominated by a pendulum swing: either “Paul is all about the individual” or “There’s no individual at all in Paul.” I don’t think either is right, because on the one hand, Paul uses the plural all over the place, but  he also uses singular pronouns. I used to argue with J. Louis Martyn about this, by the way. Lou said the newly competent agent in Paul is the corporate church, period. I’d say, “But Lou, look at this individual ‘each of you,’ ‘each of you.’”

B

“Who loved me and gave himself for me.”

E

Yeah, the individual. You could say that’s kind of paradigmatic.

B

People say that about Romans 7, too.

E

Oh, I know. But he uses the singular “you” as well as the singular “I” at important points. Anyway, I digress. What I’m saying is that, for Paul, what I see, what makes sense, is a self in relation to another as foundational to identity, versus what one would say is the self in relation to itself.

That means we’re not individual isolated sinners who are making bad choices. We are selves in relation to sin, in which we’re treated as culpable, not simply as victims; but on the other hand, we’re incapable of becoming free. And it means that then we are selves in relationship to Christ, without erasing human personhood. It’s relationality that does not erase the identity of the person. You’re laughing.

B

I’m laughing because that’s the question, isn’t it? It’s genuinely me who does things. From my own experience, I make decisions. But I’m not making decisions in a vacuum. You can trace out all sorts of reasons from societal forces to archaeological, psychological forces, which are themselves also relational. But then, it’s still me.

E

Right. And the usual question I get is, “What about responsibility? And how can you judge?” Because there’s all this anxiety about judgment going on. And I find that in all kinds of places.

I had a conversation with a neuroscientist who’s very provocative, very disputed in the claims he makes about neuroscience. He’s all about “we-centric space” and all this stuff, but still says, “Do you make a decision? Who’s making a decision? Well, of course we’re making decisions?” All the time we’re making decisions!” And I said, “But who’s that ‘you’ making decisions?” He answered, “Well, if you commit a crime, you’re responsible.”  But, see, in some cultures they would say, you are responsible and the others involved in the shaping of what you did are also responsible. I learned this from a wonderful book of anthropology on Arctic cultures. In the Inuit culture, if somebody, for example, gets drunk and goes on rampage and kills someone, they say, “Who gave him the liquor?” And the circle of responsibility simply widens to involve the community. There are other cultures in Africa where, if there’s a wrongdoing, the whole village has to be involved in the reconciliation and making things right. So you can have a notion of responsibility that’s just more capacious and more realistic than purely individualistic culpability as in western legal systems.

B

It also makes good sense of the cosmological nature of Christ’s death, as well. It’s not a simple, individual guilt thing. It’s cosmic, taking the brokenness of the system…

E

I don’t deny individual culpability but also want to emphasize the cosmic. If it were just a matter of somebody doing wrong and needing forgiveness, we have that in Islam, we have that in Judaism. This gets interesting if you get into an interfaith conversation. Someone might say, “Allah forgives me. What’s the issue?”

B

As an analogy for Paul’s language of sin, you sympathetically describe “toxic interpersonal systems,” in which one might be enmeshed on the horizontal plane of human interaction. How does the radically new relational nature of Christ liberate one from these?

E

Through a new ‘allied agency’. (I’ve come up with that term since I wrote the book, but I like it.) On our own, we are unable to break free, and we internalize and replicate toxic relational systems. And so we need more than a word on a cognitive level to get free. We need an experience, and the experience is mediated, relational.

I think the source of our liberation is in God who is not part of the web of human interactions. God is free; he operates from without but also from within. Liberation extrinsically sourced. An intervention. But it needs to be relationally mediated through gracious relationships in which a person begins to have a different self mirrored back to them, a different way of being, an alliance that is an experience of love, in a holistic sense. It’s more than a decision. I call this relational mediation of grace an allied agency. It’s not a competitive agency. God can act — we experience this — through relationships. That’s what the church is supposed to be. It isn’t always that.

B

Protestantism has always answered that question with regard to preaching and the sacraments. As the kind of word from the beyond.

E

I guess I would just want to say that all that takes place in a context, and the context in which it takes place matters. I do not believe in sacraments as magic bullets. I hear that kind of talk now. Nor do I believe in the spoken word as some kind of magic. Because the word and the sacraments take place in context, in the community, and so recognizing that context matters. We can’t separate things out. I didn’t write this in the book, because I’m just thinking on my feet here, but that’s what’s going on in 1 Corinthians 11, about the Lord’s Supper. One of Paul’s concerns is (and you don’t have a doctrine of sacraments operative there), but he’s saying that this action that you’re doing is being rendered null because of the way in which you’re doing it.

B

So, how might a Pauline anthropology bear on current issues of human dignity and flourishing? That’s where you finish, saying there’s more to be said about this. So how would you sketch that out?

E

There are a lot of debates about personhood. I mean, I get invited to Templeton Foundation events: “Such-and-such…and Human Identity.” Everything from “Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and Human Identity” or “Evolution and Human Identity” to “Drones and Human Identity” and “Genetics and Human Identity.” The question of personhood is sharpened in particular ways now because of rapid advances in technology. And it’s sharpened in terms of identity politics. There are lots of ways that personhood and what distinguishes a person are front and center. It comes up in disability studies, too, because the operative models of personhood tend to be capacities-based and individualistic. What happens is that when somebody doesn’t fit an individualistic and capacities-based model of the person (which is criterialism; there’s a chapter on that in the book), then people are seen as either not yet persons or no longer persons; they’re not in the category. It’s a category issue. For example, people with advanced dementia — are they still persons? Are they still alive? We say, “He’s as good as dead.” That’s a capacities-based, individualistic model of the person. Where is personhood located? In individualistic models, it’s located in the person, in his or her self-awareness, self-consciousness, utility, or rationality, or whatever.

Or, a person is defined simply as: “an individual substance of a rational nature.” That’s Boethius’ ancient definition of a person. Who gets left out? I’m always interested in that: who gets left out? That’s where I see that a Pauline operative definition of personhood is radically inclusive because it’s founded in Christ becoming a slave and dying for all. It’s radically inclusive and locates personhood not in the individual or in the individual’s capacities. It locates personhood in the gift that is divinely given. If it’s humanly given, then you have genocide. Because if it’s humanly given, humans can take it away. You have to have a divine gift. So I find this question of personhood having traction all kinds of ways. For example, I take part in case studies for medical ethics sometimes, and I learn on what basis people make really difficult, excruciating decisions with, say, somebody who’s severely depressed and suicidal. The language of autonomy is the fundamental patient right, but what do you mean by autonomy? It’s the fundamental right of the patient that you have to “respect and preserve,” but in fact what do you mean by that?

When I was writing my book, I came across people talking about the legal rights of anorexics who decide to die. And that’s totally counter to, say, a narrative therapy approach with anorexics, which distinguishes between the girl and the disease. It says the disease is deceiving her. Pretty much what Paul talks about in Romans 7. But if you don’t have some kind of model by which you can introduce that more complex view, you just have the right of the individual, assumed to be a free, morally competent adult, and then do some kind of psychological evaluation to decide whether the individual is in fact morally competent. I think a more relational account of the person and of human flourishing has a lot of traction to reframe, in basic ways, how we conceptualize the dignity of the person. Another example: palliative care given at the end of life. Medicine doesn’t have a way to deal with it. Because the goal is cure. What if there is not cure? Then, what does the goal become? People become less interesting. Patients are less interesting if they die. Because there’s nothing you can do for them. You can’t be a hero. But if you actually believe in life after death, if you have something beyond, it totally changes the picture of the person and of the care offered to the person.

B

Finally, I’m going to ask the Bultmann question. Bultmann famously translated Pauline anthropology into the contemporary terms of existential philosophy. I’m being charitable to Bultmann, right? Translated. I think that’s what he did.

E

Yeah, I think he consciously did that.

B

Does Paul’s language of cosmic powers need a similar translation today? And how might that be done? Or we not translate and we just talk about powers that exist without translation?

E

The word “translation” is so fraught. I was trying to find words to talk about Paul’s anthropology without reducing it. In a way, it’s finding the words by which you preach it. This is what we all try to do when we preach. How do we talk about this in a way that gets traction in people’s lives? I think we can’t just stand around and talk about powers and “apocalyptic” because people will not know what you mean, and they’ll think you mean something you really don’t mean.

To talk about my overall project, I came up with the phrase “apocalyptic pastoral care.” That’s what I’m about. But I could never have titled it that because people would run the other direction from you. So of course we need to find different ways to talk, and that’s the difficult task. I guess that’s what I want people to do without reducing, without negating, without trying to fit Paul’s gospel into a merely human construct.

When I was teaching as an adjunct for a while in some class — and I don’t even remember what class it was — there were certain students who said, “You know, the trouble is, people never talk about sin anymore. They don’t know about sin.” I said, “Well, they know about bondage. Look, every day I drive by a big billboard with a black-and-white photo on it, and it’s a photograph of two hands, cupped, filled with pills, and all it says is ‘Addiction Is Bondage.’” Or maybe it was “Slavery” — I can’t remember. I said, “People know all about that. That’s apocalyptic.” That’s the experiential hook. People have lots of experiential hooks. Like the thing on anorexia and narrative therapy, which teaches people to distinguish between themselves and “the problem,” i.e., anorexia nervosa, and to talk back to it. Evagrius had a treatise, Talking Back — it was about talking back to the demons. He’d talk back to those demons!

It’s a structural parallel, but of course the difference is that you have to look at the larger context. And that’s where the agency from God (which is larger and not subject to human distortions, and is mediated but still God) is reliable in a way that humans are not. It’s what gives the extra power. AA knows all about this. Alcoholics Anonymous is apocalyptic, in a sense.