I believe biblical texts reflect degrees or levels of inspiration. Our ability to discern the redemptive value of a biblical text and to apply it as an instrument of transformation largely depends on our state of spiritual consciousness and our capacity for spiritual discernment. Frankly, it depends on whether or not we know God, whether or not we have had authentic God encounter.
Some biblical texts are simply regressive. Those texts, for example, that sanction divine violence are most likely projections of the community’s fears, insecurities, and blood thirst. When we read accounts of God ordering
an entire civilization under the ban, to kill men, women, children, animals,
and destroy everything, we know that cannot possibly be the God of Jesus. Those
of us who have encountered the God of Jesus know that the God who Jesus says
loves his or her enemies would never order genocide. Some biblical texts are
human projections that reflect humankind’s deepest prejudices, animosities, and
Author and spiritual writer Richard Rohr offers a good rule of thumb. If in the text, God is operating at a level lesser (not as loving, patient, kind, forgiving, just, etc.) than the best person you know, then the depiction of God in the text cannot be authentic revelation. Some texts portray a God less than human. God is certainly better than the best of humanity.
But there are other biblical texts that are nothing short of breakthroughs in human consciousness. They are epiphanies that reflect such a high level of encounter and revelation that they carry immense potential to redeem and transform individuals and communities. 1 Corinthians 13 is such a text. If one decides to live with this text for a year, meditating on it everyday, I have no doubt this would inspire genuine God encounter with much potential for human transformation. Meditating on this text is an invitation for the Spirit to fill us and form Christ in us.
1 Corinthians 13 is a beautiful poetic exposition of love that appears in the middle of a section where Paul is dealing with the exercise of spiritual gifts in the Corinthian worship gatherings. Some of them had placed an inordinate emphasis on showy displays of spirituality. Some were flaunting their gifts even to the point of disrupting and dominating the worship service. Some were “puffed up” in their knowledge, thinking themselves to be spiritually above those they called the “weaker” members.
Paul says, “I will show you the most excellent way.” Here’s the way out of all your quarreling and divisiveness. Here’s the way forward, says Paul. Then he launches into this beautiful depiction of Christian love. We don’t know if Paul is the composer of this poem or if he is drawing upon traditional material, perhaps he is doing both. But what a magnificent text this is.
There is no greater transformative power in the universe, which is why I believe that love is at the very heart and core of Divine Reality. Whenever love is expressed and extended to others an invitation to change is being offered.
Fear, on the other hand, can only promote behavior modification as a result of the threat of punishment; it cannot produce deep, core change in the heart and soul. This is why, I think, the writer of 1 John says that God’s love casts out all fear. This is why any religion that is based on the threat of punishment cannot produce genuine God encounter. This is why Paul includes this ode to love in the midst of a discussion about the use of spiritual gifts in their worship gatherings, rather than warnings of judgment, though Paul does employ such warnings where he feels appropriate.
Whenever authentic spiritual experience and growth happens in fear systems it occurs because love has somehow slipped in through the backdoor. Fear systems create “in” groups and “out” groups and imagine a tribal, exclusive, wrathful God. In fear systems one’s capacity to love is usually limited to the “in” group and even within the “in” group love is usually conditional and restricted.
In describing love, Paul is actually describing what redemption looks like. This is what it means (to use the language most traditional Christians were taught) to be saved. This is a major part of what Christian salvation is.
How did we ever get to the place where we thought of Christian salvation primarily as escape from this world or evacuation into heaven, when the truly transformative texts teach us that the good news is about how to be more fully engaged in life and relationships in loving ways?
I certainly believe that we have a bright future beyond this world/life. Paul talks about that too in 1 Cor. 15 and 2 Cor. 5. In 1 Cor. 13 he simply calls it completeness—“when the complete comes.” When the complete arrives, then what is now partial will give way to fullness/completeness. We see now in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. In other words, in the future state of completeness (whatever this involves) we will experience the kind of encounter with God, other human beings, and the rest of creation that is more open, free, honest, rich, and full than we are able to now experience.
This is what Paul calls the new creation: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). Well, not yet in any complete sense, but it has begun. We still live in an incomplete world, but the power of the new creation archetypally expressed in the resurrection of Jesus is within us and among us.
Our job is to lean into it and experience the new creation now. Paul shows us in this beautiful passage on love what face to face encounter with God and others looks like. Our task, as Paul instructs in 1 Cor. 14:1, is to “pursue love.” To pursue love is to live in God’s new creation, to encounter God, and experience God’s healing and transforming power in more honest, genuine, truthful, generous, accepting, compassionate, “face to face” relationships.