By John B. Cobb, Jr.
The idea that scales sometimes fall from our eyes has taken hold in Christendom. It describes figuratively an experience that many have had.
In this whole passage there is a double change. On the road to Damascus, in the figurative sense, we might well say Paul had his most important experience of scales falling from his eyes. Until then he had not been able to see, or perhaps had not allowed himself to see, who Jesus was. Accordingly, he was angry about the great claims being made for him, and he resolved to destroy this sect of Jesus’ followers. On the road to Damascus, the scales fell from his eyes, and he saw that Jesus was what his followers declared him to be. That led to a drastic reversal of his life orientation. Understanding the meaning of what he had seen took him several days, during which he fasted. During that entire time he was physically blind. There would probably be no Christian church today apart from the conclusions to which Paul came during those days.
The second change, the one in which the image of scales falling from eyes is actually used in our scriptural text, was minor in comparison, but nevertheless important. Physical blindness is not comparable to spiritual blindness in its destructive effects. It does not lead to persecuting those with whom you disagree. Nevertheless, if Paul had remained physically blind, his missionary work would have been greatly restricted. Whether a sustainable movement of Jesus’ followers among the Gentiles, the movement of which we are a part, would ever have occurred without his recovery of physical sight, we can only guess. In any case, we can rejoice that the physical scales as well as the spiritual ones fell from his eyes.
I hope that you have had more than one experience of the scales falling from your eyes. This has happened to me repeatedly, and for each experience I am deeply grateful..
I went to the Divinity School of the University of Chicago after I got out of the Army soon after World War II ended. We were all aware at that time of the horrors the Nazis had inflicted on European Jews. We were sometimes critical of German Christians for not having resisted this evil system more strongly.
Yet in my courses in New Testament and in church history, I do not recall having extended discussions of Christian anti-Judaism. I was vaguely aware that their had been pogroms and persecutions by Christians. But I made no connection, so far as I can recall, between Christian teaching and the treatment of Jews by Christians.and, later, by Nazis and other European racists. I was hardly aware of the extensive anti-Semitism that pervaded American society and resulted in preventing Jews from escaping extermination at the hands of the Nazis.
Only a decade later did the scales fall from my eyes. I discovered that the pious ideas on which I had been nurtured had a shadow side that led to anti-Judaism. Somehow it had never occurred to me that my understanding of Jesus and salvation implied that the Jews were the enemies of truth and salvation. Since I had never been exposed to explicit Christian anti-Judaism, I had difficulty believing how widespread it had been. Nevertheless, rather rapidly the scales did fall from eyes. I saw that Christian teaching contributed massively to the Shoa or Holocaust. I saw that some of that inflammatory teaching was still continuing, that my own theological formulations were not free of this danger.
I grew up on the mission field in Japan. I was somewhat aware as a child that Japanese women were subservient to Japanese men. But I was quite oblivious to the fact that American women, too, were limited by their culture and even by church teaching, in what they could do. The single women missionaries I knew were strong and independent people who ran major institutions with great self-confidence. Missionary wives, like my mother, often held leadership roles alongside their husbands. Many of the Japanese Christian women I knew were also remarkably strong people. In school my general experience was that the girls outdid the boys academically.
In the early days of the feminist movement I began to hear women speak of how restricted they had been and how they were discouraged from excelling. They complained that in mixed groups their voices were ignored. Their opinions were simply not taken as seriously as those of men. Frankly, at first, I was incredulous. But fairly soon the scales fell from my eyes. The patriarchal character of our culture, our history, and our church life became apparent to me. Since the facts were all around me, and had been there all the time, I marveled that I had not noticed them — that I had filtered them out.
A third of my experiences of having the scales for from my eyes was in the area of ecology. I grew up, like most people, with some emotional attachment to nature. I felt kinship to animals and hated to think of their suffering. Nevertheless, I was educated into supposing that all of this was basically sentimental. What truly mattered were human beings and their relations with one another. The really important issues are to be found in history, not in nature.
The power of this anthropocentrism was particularly manifest in my early theological work. I subscribed to a philosophy that emphasized the continuity and interconnection between human beings and other creatures. Yet I took my topics from the standard theological discussion of the day, heavily influenced by existentialism. This led to an exclusive focus on human beings and history. I wrote a book called “A Christian Natural Theology.” But in the book I dealt thematically only with human beings and God. In 1965, when I published that book, it did not occur to me that that was odd.
A few years later, the scales fell from my eyes. I was awakened to the seriousness of the ecological crisis. I read the famous essay of Lynn White, Jr., on “The Historical Roots of the Ecological Crisis”. In that essay he showed how Christian teaching in the Western church had distracted attention from the natural world, treating it only as a means to human ends, and object of human exploitation. This freed the West to advance in science and technology and to develop the means of rapidly destroying the natural systems on which we all depend. I saw how the liberal Protestant tradition in which I had been educated intensified the alienation from nature and thus delayed recognition of the crisis and still inhibited the needed responses. I saw how my own work had fully acquiesced in this alienation.
This instance of the scales falling from my eyes had a greater effect on my own work than had the other two. This was partly because the philosophy I had been using had great potential for guiding a healthy response to the crisis. Whereas in the other two cases, I saw that others were in better position than I to lead, in this case I could use it more inclusively than I had before to contribute to that response.
Paul’s experience on the way to Damascus was both similar and different from the personal experiences I have listed, experiences typical of my generation. It was similar in the sense that he discovered, abruptly, how wrong he had been about the way things were. That happened to me in each of the three instances I cited.
It was different, however, in the sense of being a more total reversal. I had not been intentionally devoting myself to anti-Jewish, patriarchal, or anti-environmental activities or teaching. My experience was of realizing that something I had simply ignored was of great importance. Paul, on the other hand, had devoted great energy to destroying that to which he now knew he must give his life. It was different also in terms of its implications for change. My experiences led me to feel some responsibility for taking up in my teaching topics I had previously ignored. Paul’s experience made it immediately clear that he was to join the new movement and preach Jesus Christ and him crucified.
For some people in my generation, the new awareness brought about by the scales falling from their eyes did lead to truly drastic changes. I knew one Christian theologian who rejected Christianity as inherently anti-Jewish and has stood outside the church ever since. But for most Christians, the new awareness of the crimes of Christians against Jews and of the responsibility of standard Christian teaching for poisoning this relationship leads only to modifications of practice and teaching. We try to make clear that Jesus and Paul were Jews, and that to be Christians at all is to be followers of Jewish teachers. We try to formulate the salvation we find in Christ in such a way that it does not deny that God’s covenant with the Jews still stands. We try to criticize the endemic legalism of Christians without implying that the deep commitment of the Jews to the Torah leads to inferior results in Jewish life. We try to avoid using the word “pharisaic” in a pejorative way. And we try to relate to our Jewish neighbors in ways that assure them of our respect and our appreciative interest in their religious lives and communities. We deeply hope that these new patterns of teaching and relationship will deflect any tendency for Christian faith to give rise again to anti-Judaism.
More common has been the radical response of women who realized that their whole conditioning in a patriarchal culture had blocked their true personal development and devoted great energy to liberating themselves and their sisters. This became for some of them as total a commitment at Paul’s devotion to bringing the gospel to the Gentiles. Feminism has functioned not only as a modification of Christianity but also as a new religious movement disconnected from our patriarchal traditions. But for most of us, the awareness of the pervasive presence and prevalence of patriarchal habits and teachings has led to efforts to change our own habits and the teachings that have been transmitted to us. In personal relationships within and without the church, we try to attain full equality between men and women. We try to restructure the church so as to give leadership roles to women at all levels. We try not to use the masculine pronoun when we are including women, or use it exclusively when we speak of God. We seek the feminine metaphors in the Bible and tradition and try to balance the masculine ones with these. More significantly, we seek in women’s insights new ways of relating to one other and to think about God, other human beings and nature.
Awareness of the ecological crisis and its causes has similar results. For a few, the effect of scales falling from their eyes has led to total devotion to the preservation of the natural world. Much youthful idealism has been channeled into impressive efforts to save endangered species, stop destructive “development”, and fight pollution. But for most of us here, too, this awareness has led to efforts to reform and modify our inherited traditions. We try personally to live in ways that are less destructive of the earth. We recognize that human population needs to be limited, especially in countries where per capita consumption is high. We seek governmental policies and actions that raise consciousness and protect the environment. In the church we lift up the obvious concern of biblical writers for the natural world and emphasize the God created it and saw that it was good in its own right, independent of its usefulness to human beings. We try to introduce more attention to the natural world into our liturgies. We try to make our church buildings and our practices within the church as sustainable as possible.
These three examples, and we can all think of others, deeply affected by attitude toward my own Christian faith. I had grown up identifying being Christian with being good. If I discovered that something I had thought was Christian was not good, then I assumed it was not really Christian. Now I discovered that through most of Christian history, normative Christian teaching had contributed to the suffering of Jews and women and encouraged exploitation of the Earth. I could add that Christian teaching about sexuality as basically evil led to a great deal of repression on the part of those who strove hardest to be faithful. The effect of Christian teaching on homosexuals was, and still is, far more brutal. I could not but wonder whether Christianity had overall done as much harm as good. In that case, was it good to be a Christian? Should I, perhaps, join the growing community of post-Christians, who may acknowledge the positive contributions Christianity has made, but who see no reason to continue with a tradition that has so many flaws?
Perhaps I could say here that again the scales fell from my eyes. I realized how much I, and many others, I think, want to find some group or movement that is largely pure so that we can identify with that. But there are no movements or groups that are not profoundly flawed. We live in a profoundly flawed world and are surrounded by profoundly flawed individuals. We are ourselves examples of those profoundly flawed individuals, and we corrupt even the purest initiatives. In fact we cannot really find in them even an initial purity.
Is the only reasonable response cynicism? If our religious traditions are all deeply flawed, should we not abandon the quest for the good? Does it not make more sense to look out for our personal interests with little regard to what this does to others? Many, indeed, have chosen this route. The quest for wealth and personal health and enjoyment has come to characterize our national character and that of much of the rest of the world as well.
But that is not a gain. Indeed, it threatens the human future and even the life of the planet. The deeper thinking to which my recognition of collective Christian guilt has led has actually heightened my sense of our collective need of the gospel both within the church and without.
We cannot find a historic community free of guilt for past crimes, nor a new community free from present corruption. The question is not so much the past or present virtue of a community. It is more how it responds when the scales fall from its collective eyes and it sees how wrong it has been. Does it cling to its destructive ways? Does it pretend to itself that it has no responsibility for these sins? Do its members simply abandon it, so that they do not have to bear responsibility for what it has done? I would find it hard indeed to identify with a community that responded in any of these ways.
But I found that my community, the old-line Protestant one, followed a different course. It repented. Yes, we have committed terrible crimes against Jews, against women, against others, and against ourselves. But as we become aware of these crimes, we acknowledge them and seek to follow the difficult road of change. We try to change our teaching and our practice so that we will no longer contribute to anti-Judaism, to patriarchal domination of women, or to continued neglect of the needs of the Earth. Our change is flawed. Not all of our members join in repentance. We have a long way to go, and we will never get to the end. Also, we will keep discovering additional crimes of which we need to repent. We hope we will have the strength to respond. We know that repentant movement does not have the popular appeal of one that presents itself as pure. But we will not abandon this fundamental character for that reason. To do so would be to betray our Lord.
We know that collectively we are clearer about what we now reject than about how to reconstitute ourselves in a better way. For example, we reject anti-Jewish Christology, but what do we put in its place? That is not yet nearly as clear. We suffer from lack of such clarity, and we sin by our unwillingness to wrestle seriously together with our theological poverty. We are, indeed, continuing to sin, but the continuing repentance signals that the one whom we try to follow is not identified with the anti-Judaism or the patriarchalism or the anthropocentrism or the failure to think well of which we have been, and continue to be, guilty. On the contrary, it is by him and his teaching that we judge that we have sinned.
Our repentance indicates that we are more committed to following him than to the particular beliefs and practices that earlier generations developed in their effort to follow. In that lies hope. We do not need to abandon our faith. However distorted its expressions have been and still are, we can engage together in healing and upbuilding activity. We do not have to become cynical. We can believe that Jesus Christ remains the hope of the world. We can experience the scales falling from our eyes not only as repeated recognitions of our collective and individual sin, but also as discerning more clearly who Christ is and what it means to follow him.
Jesus called on all his hearers for metanoia. That means a profound change of mind. We have translated that as repentance. We who repent in response to the scales falling from eyes are true followers of Jesus.