17 This I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you should no longer walk as the rest of the Gentiles walk, in the futility of their mind, 18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; 19 who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleanness with greediness.–Ephesians 4.17-19
There are other like passages in the Pauline corpus, but let’s focus on this one. As of late I have been struck, at empirical levels, by this reality. It is easy to get caught up in the theological world of my own studies, and forget just how pagan people are in this world. You’d think this wouldn’t be the case because I work in the ‘world,’ in part of the world that lives in a sort of vulgar state of existence (spiritually). But I’ve been impressed again by just how ‘past feeling’ the ‘Gentiles’ in fact are.
The Reformed et al. often refer to this ‘past feeling’ as total depravity. The idea being that at a spiritual level (which of course is the level of all levels) the person living in that status is not living at all; instead they are existing in a state of death (or separation) vis-à-vis God. And this would make sense, wouldn’t it? If there is only one ontological category for ‘being’ or ‘life,’ wouldn’t it make sense to think that anyone not united to this Life would be dead? I sometimes forget this though. Recently I was talking to someone at work about God, and for them God, and in particular, Jesus, seemed to simply be an abstract idea that could either be cursed or blessed; it simply depended upon what someone chooses to believe or not. At one level, sure, that makes sense. But what struck me was the cold indifference this guy had when referring to all things divine. For him there really wasn’t much difference between Allah and God in Christ; for him (my interlocutor) they could simply be symbolic figures projected out from varied cultural phenomena. Either way, for him, who Jesus turns out to be, at least existentially (in the moment), doesn’t impact him one way or the other. This is the ‘past feeling’ I think the Apostle Paul was referring to; it has moral implications.
Jesus, in John 3, makes clear that to get beyond this ‘past feeling’ status one must be born again; or in the Petrine voice, a person must ‘be born again of an imperishable seed.’ The Apostle Paul makes clear that Jesus swapped His eternal life for our eternal death, and by this movement He won eternal life by being the One for the many. Paul iterates the reality that we’ve been made rich by Jesus’s poverty for us; by Him becoming sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Jesus told Nicodemus that if he wanted to enter eternal life he had to be ‘born from above.’ These are all themes that are musts in order for the pagan to get beyond the ‘past feeling’ state they continuously live in and from.
It is interesting how self-evident things seem to the ‘natural human.’ They seemingly find it hard to imagine a world that gets beyond their immediate sense experience, as if they can’t imagine it, it can’t be real; as if, they can’t see it, it must be the stuff of religion and fairy-tales. The Christian apologist might think they could somehow reason their way past this sort of non-feeling mode ingrained in the pagan esse; but the problem is deeper than that. Reasons can be given, I mean they’re there, but without the Holy Spirit the pagan can’t call Jesus, Lord. It can become frustrating for the Christian to be continuously confronted with the world of unbelief, but it isn’t as if the biblical reality in Christ doesn’t have explanatory for this. If the pagan had spiritual lights in themselves, then the Dominical teaching, and the biblical reality revealed in the cross of Christ would be proven false. This is ironic; the unbelief of the pagan actually proves, or at least, illustrates what they are denying. If they could affirm on their capaciousness what they deem foolish and weak (the cross of Christ), then what need would there have been for the cross of Christ? The via of the pagan is the Gnostic way. The Gnostic way attempts to elide the need for the Gospel by self-asserting its own abilities to generate lights where there seemingly is only darkness. In other words, the pagan way, like the Gnostic way, believes it can generate its own ‘salvation’ by self-assertion of its own intellectual prowess and reason. This takes manifest forms: for the slack, it simply looks like the person who lives in an unexamined garden variegated pagan mode of existence; for the motivated, it looks like the various philosophies and religions of the world. The conclusion is the same; there is overconfidence in what the self-possessed self can accomplish.
Interestingly all of this plays into the macro-narration of Genesis 3, and the Serpent’s lie to Eve about being able to be like God. That’s where this ‘past feeling’ mode that Paul refers to originated. The word of the Serpent has never left his kingdom of darkness, but his word was neither the first nor the last! God’s Word, the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, is the Word that has invaded our ‘ordinary’ time, and in Jesus’s Yes for us, He has reestablished and elevated the created order to the recreated order that God has always already intended in the Lamb of God even before the foundations of the world. The word of the Serpent has been destroyed by the Word of God, just as the head of the Serpent has been crushed by the heal of the Son of Man.
I continue to pray for people I encounter on a daily basis. I think it is God’s grace that He is allowing me to be surprised—once again—by the ‘past feeling’ mode pagans inhabit. It stirs me up, and motivates me to want to bear witness to the reality of God’s life in Christ that much more. It makes me realize that I might be the only face of Christ these pagans might see, and in that I have a great stewardship; if not a great reward. What I am impressed with more and more in our increasingly pluralist world, inhabited by what Charles Taylor calls ‘buffered selves,’ is that people aren’t progressing or elevating toward a genuinely greater spiritual “consciousness.” Instead, people are digressing further into the abyss of the inner-self that is indeed ‘past feeling.’ I’m afraid people, though, mistake technological and scientific progress with spiritual and moral progress; i.e. that the human species must have an innate evolutionary spirit that is ultimately able to transcend its own present status and reach into the heavenlies through the advancement of material processes (cf. Gen. 11). Ironically, if anything, humanity in the main is worshipping the creation rather than the Creator (cf. Rom. 1); they are worshipping the ratio and creativity that ought to be bearing witness to the imago Dei that Jesus is for them in their stead. They have misplaced their own faces for the Face of Christ, not recognizing that the Christ has already taken their faces as His own, and given them new faces to the point that they could now resemble His. Kyrie eleison.