I Live Now, Not I…. Some Reflections

From Galatians 2:20:  “…nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me…”  This is from the old King James Version.  I prefer the old translation over all the modern ones in this case.  They are mostly ok but not as clear and succinct, and  it seems to me that there is a kind of muffling of the impact of the whole statement.  And in some cases a whole new layer of interpretation is put on that the reader can barely sense.

The Pauline writings are central to all authentic Christian theology, spirituality, and mysticism.  Galatians is a key moment in those writings, and Chapter 2 is absolutely essential here.  There is a complex argument laid out in Galatians and Chapter 2 especially, and we find a profound display here of what might be termed “the Christian vision of human existence.”  Traditional Biblical theology, both Catholic and Protestant, does a good job of explicating this vision within the parameters of “the Tradition.”  That means that this takes place within the Greco-Semitic sensitivity to the human-Divine relationship.  But what if we approach these verses having been inspired, informed, illumined by the great Asian traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism?  

Consider the full verses of Galatians 2:19-20:

“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”   (This from a standard modern translation.)

And this from an evangelical internet source, BibleRef:

“This much-loved verse is quoted, printed, and repeated often, most especially the first half of this statement. This is also Paul’s grandest declaration yet about what exactly happens when someone is saved or justified by placing their faith in Christ. In a very real sense, Paul’s argument is that we become so closely attached to Him that we die with Him and He begins to live in us. Paul has been emphasizing that faith, and faith alone, is what saves us—adding any requirement of good deeds or rituals is contrary to the gospel (Galatians 1:8–9; 2:16).
Christ was crucified for our sin. By faith, we trust that His death paid for our own personal sin. In that way, we are crucified with Him, our sin with him on the cross. That sinful “us” dies, replaced by the resurrected Christ “in us.” We continue to live in the flesh, of course, but our lives are now directed not by our sinful selves but by our faith in Christ. Paul expands on this great truth powerfully in Romans 6:1–6.
For the first time, Paul mentions Jesus’ motive for giving Himself for us: love. Christ died for us because He loves us. Unlike the unyielding system of the law, Christ is a person motivated by His love and concern for us.”

This is very standard language that could be found in Pauline explication in any of the Christian communities with possibly a few different kinds of emphases. But let me be bold enough to suggest that such explications are inadequate at best and can even be misleading.  There are two special instances where this becomes apparent.  If you are a person approaching this Pauline text from an Asian perspective, we will not only be puzzled by the inadequacy of the explication, but our own experience of Ultimate Reality will probably seem so much more real and deeper(Abhishiktananda found this to be so, and it caused a faith crisis in him for many years).  Secondly, if we are simply an intelligent modern person who reads things with a critical sense, we certainly will be puzzled by the explanation because it leaves in question the meaning of so many key terms.  This person, to his/her chagrin, will discover that the Tradition only speaks in “this language” and there seems to be no room for another way of looking at this dynamic.  

Let’s take a look at some of the key terms in both the Pauline text and the explication:


 What does this word mean?  One obvious reference is the Jewish Law of the Hebrew Bible, what Christians call the Old Testament.  This refers to a whole complex of practices, rituals, requirements, privileges, do’s and don’ts, institutions, and official status given to certain people, etc.  It reflects the Semitic cultural mindset.  This complex defines for the devout Jew his/her relationship to the Divine Reality…provides a kind of access to the Divine.  Otherwise one is an “outsider,” in the darkness of not knowing what is ultimately true.  This complex is considered to be a Divine given in a very real sense.  Now for Paul the “Law” was very important, but it is radically replaced, all of it, by this one reality, Christ.  What defines his relationship and gives him total access is now Christ.  The Law is then opposed to Christ…becoming one of these polarized pairs…Christ/Law…faith/works, etc.  Now what about all those people who are not burdened by this Law (most of the world)?  Paul says, no problem as long as they have faith in Christ the Law is totally useless.  And those who do not know/experience/accept Christ as the “gateway” to the Divine Reality are relegated to a kind of foggy existence that traditional theology does not know what to do with (fundamentalist theology relegates them to “hell”…that is completely cut off from the Divine Reality.) Modern theology, especially modern Catholic theology, prefers to see the Presence of Christ even where that presence is not recognized or acknowledged…like in Rahner’s notion of “universal salvation.”  “Salvation” is another one of those words that badly needs exploring, but here lets just say that it means knowing and realizing our relationship to the Divine, not being in the dark.  But Buddhists and Hindus might object to this view of them, and those Christians like Abhishiktananda who penetrated very deeply into that religious consciousness find that view inadequate.  After all easily a Buddhist could also say to us that all you Christians are really Buddhists but don’t know it….everyone after all has Buddha nature!  So how does the Law/Christ dichotomy work in the situation of very deep religious traditions that are outside the Hellenic-Semitic circle?  

Incidentally, for many conservative Protestant religious thinkers this “Law” represents all human religious structures that supposedly mediate or “stand between” you and God…like an institutional Church, rituals like the Mass, sacraments, the priesthood, etc.  Needless to say any non-Christian religious structures and practices would be even more “the Law.”  Catholic theology obviously would not agree to that view!  It has a way around that argument which we won’t get into here, but let’s just say it is not a very satisfying argument and it also leaves much in question.  But from an anthropological viewpoint that position is very interesting….it points to a human need and bottomless desire for utter transparency and total immediacy to the Divine Reality. Recall that Paul says that nothing, absolutely nothing stands between us and God.  And Augustine’s, God is closer to me than I am to myself.  Now this is very, very interesting, and it creates some openings for a genuine encounter with the authentic Asian traditions (and Islam also).


  Now this one is easy compared to the previous term!  This word does not mean the meat on our bones.  The Greek word that Paul uses is “sarx,” and in older translations and more traditional ones that comes out as “flesh,” and in more modern ones it often becomes “body.”  Very misleading.  Sarx really refers to the human condition, its existential limitations….the transiency of life, the dynamic toward entropy in our physical and mental existence.  We grow old, we experience disintegration, we die.  There is a built-in instability in our existence, nothing lasts; we experience the tendency toward a chaotic cloud of desires and emotions that affect our vision of reality.  We seem to have a bottomless thirst and hunger for something “just over that hill,” but that leads just to more desire, and so on.  This is what the Asians call “samsara,” “maya.”  The Buddhists especially understand this human situation well.  Our house is on fire and we don’t seem to know what to do about it…some of us try to put the fire out by tossing gasoline on it.   There are also various “solutions” or “escapes” from this situation provided in the religious world.  (The non-religious world, whether it be social, economic, political or intellectual, calls this condition “natural” and says “simply go with the flow.”)  Some of these proposed paths of “salvation” are deep and profound, like the realization (satori) of Zen; others are more like the “snake-oil of the soul” which can be found in every tradition.  The things which ensnare you ever deeper in being blind to anything but samsara.  Paul tells us the following:  “The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God….”   He correctly tells us that in this life you do not leave THE human condition, but now you live in it with a realization of wholly different sense of who one is….!

Christ died for us/Christ crucified for our sins/crucified with Christ/His death paid for our own personal sin

Now we are getting to the “nitty-gritty” of Paul’s language and theology.  Those of us who are Christians, who grew up in the Christian thought-world, are so used to these words that we might not be sensitive to the difficulty they present.  If we ask what these words really, really mean and not just mouth religious clichés that we heard since childhood and never questioned, then we run into a kind of wall.  What does it mean that someone has to “pay” for our “sins”?  Let’s step back a bit…look at such language from an anthropological perspective….  In all human cultures and civilizations in the ancient past human beings have struggled to grasp their relationship to some form of Transcendent Reality that explains all there is, that makes sense of their experience, that establishes a ground for order against a constantly threatening chaos and disorder….the ever-present dynamism toward entropy.  So….a common occurrence is the notion of “sacrifice”;  the Divine Reality transcends the human condition and pretty much runs “the whole thing” according to a certain sense of order and human beings need to know that sense of order and abide by it.  If they don’t then they “offend” the Lawgiver and a “fine” must be paid…reparations of sorts, etc.  This will involve rituals, mediators, rites of sacrifice, where symbolically something important to us is “sacrificed” to make up for our transgressions.  This usually involves the whole or partial destruction of what is precious to us to placate the “injured” Divine Order.  Unfortunately, in all parts of the globe there is evidence that ancient human beings believed that in some cases what needed to be sacrificed are other human beings, even children.  When people experienced a threatening drought, for example, there might be a perceived need to re-establish a “friendly” relationship to a deity and even the slaughter of children might be seen as necessary for the well-being of the whole group.  We have supposedly advanced beyond that view, but if you stop and think about it all wars have resulted from our divinizing the State or a nationality and then sacrificing millions of lives in order to restore some kind of social order.  (Also, the so-called “honor killings” in some parts of the Middle East and India even today are a remnant of this mentality.)

Interestingly enough, the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Hebrew Bible is an attempt to at least eliminate child sacrifice and “spiritualize” the whole notion of “sacrifice.”  However that basic dynamic still remains; we still have a “debt” to pay for “transgressions” or to restore some divinely given order.  So when we get to the New Testament we have to see the story of Jesus’ life and death within the context of this language and this universal dynamic, which is especially strong in the Middle East.   Paul’s insights, intuitions, and vision of Jesus’ life and death are profound, revolutionary in that context, and transformative, but his language and his ability to put into words is limited by that worldview.  (Incidentally, all the other major religions have their own kind of interpretive problems.)  If we take these words literally, we are faced with a God who  stands out there somewhere and demands “payment” for our “transgressions.”  There was a “debt” to be paid, and the crucifixion of the Son of God “paid the debt.”  The whole New Testament is riddled with this language to one degree or another, but we also have to notice that there is more than one layer of language in the New Testament.  We see that mostly when Jesus presents a view of the Absolute Transcendent Reality which he calls “Father,”  “Abba”—very intimate designation, it is a reality that is absolute and universal love and that our lives are totally enveloped and infused with that Love.  It is our Source and our Destination and our Everything in between.  Paul’s other language firmly emphasizes that vision, it is this layer of language that needs to become the foundation and interpretative principle of the other language.  We need to discover and interpret the life and death of Jesus as somehow changing our own vision of reality and empowering us to live by a principle that is not mediated by cultural limitations….and that brings us to the next words…..

The sinful “us” dies, replaced by the resurrected Christ “in us”

These words are just a hint at the most important and most central idea in Paul’s presentation: the Resurrection.  Let us again emphasize that “resurrection” in this context is not “resuscitation” or some kind of continuation after death of life as now lived.  Unfortunately a lot of religion and spirituality is lived in the imagination…meaning it is limited severely by our abilities to conceptualize and form images in our mind.  This can keep us from deep realization and inhibit abiding in those depths in our daily existence.  For Paul, the Risen Christ is totally beyond any kind of concept or image and totally beyond our capacities to grasp such a reality.  That’s why for Paul the chief “practice” for a Christian is faith; and this is not some “act of the will” or some kind of inner imagining to make yourself believe some concept is “true,” etc.  It is more like this, and I choose this example realizing that I seem to be in very different territory.  The quote comes from Wu-men, a most remarkable Zen master from 12th century China.  Whatever activity a student proposed as his religious practice, Wu-men rejected…his goal was to block every path and challenge the student into a new awareness…he was the proponent of the “gateless gate”:  “If you follow regulations, keeping the rules, you tie yourself without rope, but if you act any which way without inhibition you’re a heretical demon. … Clear alertness is wearing chains and stocks. Thinking good and bad is hell and heaven. … Neither progressing nor retreating, you’re a dead man with breath. So tell me, ultimately how do you practice?” This is much closer to Paul’s mindset than you might think.  This is much closer to what Paul calls “faith” than you would ever guess.  Simply because for Paul this “faith” has replaced “Law,” the structure and concepts and all evident “ways” and “gates”  that are posited as standing “between” us and the Divine Reality.  This “faith” is now the “gateless gate” for the Christian.  It is the foundation for the ultimate koan, if you will, in the Christian context; something that certainly is way beyond some feeling or notion or wish…something that will actually “crack open” the superficial layers of awareness that we walk around with.

Now consider again those key words of Paul:  “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me.”  This has to be the ultimate Christian koan…unless of course you water down these words to a trivial sentiment.  It is a sad fact that too much in Christian preaching all this Pauline language –“Christ in me,” etc.—gets treated as if it were merely metaphorical/symbolic, or it gets turned into an abstract new principle of activity and life…we “imitate” Christ, or related to that it is simply an ethical call to live by another moral code, or, worst of all, with that little preposition “in” the picture that is presented is a kind of radical dualism where somehow there are now two principles of life …there is your identity and then there is Christ somehow attached to this identity as an addendum.  Whatever grain of truth there is in all these positions, they all fall very far short of the Reality Paul is pointing at.  And THAT points to a Christian nondualism.  One could say that Augustine summed up Paul in these words:  God is closer to me than I am to myself.  It is only here that we can even begin to appreciate and encounter the deep mysticism of the other great religious traditions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, etc.