It is a paradox, to be sure. The light which blinds is the light by which we see more clearly and more fully, albeit always “through a glass darkly” as Paul says in 1st Corinthians (13.12). The light which blinds, as Paul says later in Acts, is “a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 26.13), something more metaphysical than physical, something more like Plato’s Sun as the child or image of the Good in The Republic.
“I could not see for the glory of that light,” Paul tells the Hebrew people on the stairs of the Temple (Acts 22. 11). He speaks to them in Hebrew after having spoken in Greek to the Roman Tribune, Claudius Lysius, who is Latin speaking yet understands Greek, to get permission to speak to his fellow Jews. To add to the complexity of cultures and languages, Lysius initially thought that Paul was an Egyptian somehow connected to the Sicarii, Jewish zealots violently opposed to Roman rule, later known through another kind of linguistic confusion as the Assassins, a 12th century Arabic term in Nizari Ismaili Shia Muslim culture wrongly associated with hashish!
Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth, marks the first use in English of the word, “assassination”. “If th’ assassination could trammel up the consequence”, contain as in a net the results of our actions, we would do whatever we could get away with even if we know it is wrong! Paul’s pursuit of what he thinks is right, the persecution of the followers of Jesus, a sect, brings him into collision with himself. The sufferings of Christ, he discovers, are not opposed to the glory of the Messiah but are contained in each other. The suffering is in the glory and the glory in the suffering.
The biblical scene is one of conflict and confusion and yet out of it comes the beginnings of “something rich and strange” (Shakespeare’s The Tempest) which will become the Christian religion. The story in Acts (21.40ff) belongs to the Christian Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul (January 25th), usually and wrongly taken to signify his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. That is mistaken because Christianity or the Christian religion does not actually exist at this point in any kind of distinct and clear way.
The story of Paul’s conversion is really about a break-through of the understanding, a kind of epiphany which signals a new and deeper understanding not just of what belongs to Jewish thought and prophecy but about reality itself. The ‘light’ imagery of the story in all three accounts which Paul gives in Acts suggests something quite profound and philosophical. The evangelical Christian tendenz is to see the story of Paul’s conversion, the so-called ‘Damascus Road experience’, as paradigmatic for Christian witness. Perhaps, but I would like to suggest that it signals something more. It can be seen as belonging to a self-critique of human reason not altogether unlike Oedipus in Sophocles’ great tragedy, Oedipus Rex. Oedipus not only thought he knew who he was but thought that his form of knowing was the dominant and only form of knowing. Like Oedipus, Saul, later named Paul, comes into collision with himself about what he claims to know. He discovers the positive in the negative in the collision or coincidence of opposites.
What this means is a deeper understanding. Human reason in its discursive qualities - ratio - discovers its limitations, contradictions and opposites. As such it discovers its ground in intellectus, in an understanding which transcends all distinction and opposition as that upon which all being and thought depend. This is something which cannot be grasped by the divided nature of human reason. In the case of Paul, it is not so much about the experience as its meaning conveyed to us in such paradoxical terms.
There is nothing “new under the sun”, the great Hebrew philosopher in Ecclesiastes, tells us. Yet that excursus of ancient thought about happiness and the good remains open to what is beyond the sun, the very things which Paul claims, a light above the brightness of the sun. That is something which cannot be grasped or measured in finite ways.
Paul’s story is about the discovery of a greater truth arrived at precisely through his zealous pursuit of an understanding which is partial and one-sided. It reveals its limitations. He discovers that the one whom he is persecuting - Jesus of Nazareth - is the truth of God whom he honours. It is an example of dialectical reasoning - a break-through of the understanding through the collision of opposites whose coincidence opens us out to what is the absolute Good, to what is beyond being, in Plato’s terms επεκεινα τησ ουσιασ, what C.S. Lewis translates as “the far side of being”.
This insight into the radical nature of God as transcendent and yet made manifest in Christ Jesus marks the Conversion of Paul. Beyond that event and experience, it speaks to the whole process of our learning in which we are constantly undergoing a transformation, a conversion into that upon which our being and knowing radically depend. Such an awareness ‘blinds us into sight’, seeing what is beyond, by freeing us from the blindness of our dogmatic assertions, finite and limited.
In our confused and uncertain times, our certainties turn into uncertainties but may manifest a deeper understanding and appreciation of what belongs to the dignity of our humanity. Such is an insight into the light which is “above the light of the sun”, the light of God’s grace and glory. The Psalmist’s prayer is that “in thy light shall we see light” (Ps. 36.9), the light of grace and glory. Such is Paul’s epiphany and the hope of our own. The conversion from the ignorance of our knowing into the greater light of understanding requires perseverance and commitment. Such is the epiphany of education for us all. It is not simply a one-off experience but the continual process of “the renewing of our minds”.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, Head of English & ToK TeacherChair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy