So nice to meet you in person and chat with you over lunch at SBL. Again, Mike and I appreciate your work on the launch article. Mike and I have a few questions for you, to let the readers get to know you and your background a bit.
1. Of all the scholarly interest in Philippians, a good number of articles, essays, and books have focused on Philippians 2:6-11, the so-called “Christ Hymn.” Why do you think that is? What is so special and interesting about it? (I must admit that I too have written on this in my dissertation and in articles!)
Well, where to begin? This passage was extremely important in early debates about Christology. It may provide a window into early Christian worship, particularly if Paul is quoting from an early hymn (much debated now). It is a compelling picture of Christ as pre-existent (the majority interpretation, which I share), as becoming incarnate, dying on a cross, raised by God, exalted above all creation, worshipped by all creation - in short, an early nutshell version of a very high Christology. And it is bracketed by ethical exhortations for the Philippian community, posing immediately the question of how this story of Christ is related to their common life.
2. Traditionally, scholars have taken two positions on this passage. Either it is about Christology and the unique story and victory of Christ, or it is ethical, focusing on Christ as a model of virtue and obedience that the Philippians should imitate. How do you perceive this juxtaposition and how does your unique approach seek to move beyond this? More specifically, how does “imitation” serve as an important idea in Pauline ethics?
Together with many others, I think the opposition between kerygma and ethics in Paul is a false dichotomy. Obviously Paul could talk about both Christology and ethics in the same sentence. The question is not whether they relate, but how. There's a long tradition that says Christ is primarily an example to be imitated: "ethics" in Paul is simply the imitation of Christ. This is what Kaesemann and others react against, rightly in my view. Exegetically, it ignores the fact that the "Christ-hymn" is telling the story of Christ becoming like humanity, so that in the first instance, Christ is the one doing the "imitating." And conceptually, it presumes that imitation is located simply in human volition, as something that we choose to do, or not to do. Both Plato and contemporary neuroscience recognize that, as often as not, imitation bypasses volition; perception triggers a mimetic response. This is why Plato was worried about the potentially negative influence of the poets, and wanted to ban them from the republic. And this is what anyone who observes infants knows immediately. I'm interested in the role of imitation in reciprocally participatory relationships. In regard to Phil. 2, I'm interested in imitation as the link between Christology and ethics, but starting with Christ as the one becoming like us, and exploring the way our perception of this action of Christ involves a mimetic response that goes deeper than conscious decision. I see this is central to Paul's participatory ethics: Paul presents Christ as mimetically participating in the human plight, such that his auditors respond to Christ mimetically. Such mimesis is deeply participatory, and is the basis of an ethics that involves the whole person in a communal way.
3. Your article gives a dramatic or theatrical angle to the interpretation of Philippians 2:6-11. How did you come to this unique vantage point? Is this an area of interest for you in general?
I got interested in theatrical imagery in Paul's letters through reading Larry Welborn's book, Paul, the Fool of Christ. But that interest grew out of prior investigations of mimesis language in Paul, because mimesis in the ancient world resonates tremendously with the theatricality of daily life, as well as with the idea of performance as a philosophical topos. With regard to Phil 2, the vocabulary depicting Christ's humanity - "likeness (homoioma)" and "outward appearance (schema)" - supported interpreting the hymn as depicting a mimetic performance.
The language of "performance" raises fears of a docetic interpretation of Phil 2, such that Christ is merely appearing to be human. To this, my answer is (1) Paul uses this language of likeness and outward appearance, so we need to ask what function it serves and how it would have been heard by the Philipppians; (2) in the Roman empire, the line between "reality" and "make-believe" could become very thin, with a completely melding of the identity of the actor and the role, ending in the actor's death. I call this a melding of the destiny of the actor and the role, in which the body is the site of authenticity.
4. More generally, in Philippians 3, Paul appears to be de-valuing his Jewish background and credentials. How do you understand Paul’s view of Israel, especially with reference to Romans 9-11 and Galatians 6:16? [NB: This question specifically comes from Mike Bird]
That's a very big topic! I explored it in depth in an article last summer in NTS, called "Israel and the Mercy of God: A Re-reading of Romans 9-11 and Galatians 6:16." Basically, I think that Paul never says the church replaces Israel, or takes on the name of Israel; he always upholds God's faithfulness to Israel. I also think that Christ is the redeemer of both Jews and Gentiles, so that the law does not have a salvific function; there is no Sonderweg for Israel. The difference, as finally worked out in Rom 9-11, is not between different "paths" or "ways of salvation" or "covenants" for Gentiles and the majority of the Jews, but between the way that salvation through Christ is mediated - through human proclamation, or through a direct apocalpyse of Christ.
I think that Paul ALWAYS reserves the name, "Israel," for flesh-and-blood Jews, his kinsfolk "according to the flesh" (Rom 9:3). The difficult texts for this claim are Gal 6:16, and in some views, Rom 9:6. With regard to the first, the relationship between the clauses in Gal 6:16 is difficult to determine. I translate it as "And for as many as will walk in line with this rule, peace be upon them. And mercy be even upon the Israel of God." That is, Paul pronounces a benediction of peace on the "new creation community" of those in Christ, in whom there is neither circumcision nor uncircumcision. But then, perhaps because he seems to come so close to disinheriting his own flesh and blood kindred, he prays for mercy on Israel. Perhaps he is praying for the success of the mission to the circumcised (Gal 2:7).
Mercy is a word Paul uses very little, and almost exclusively in relationship to Israel, especially in Rom 9-11. There,he works out in more depth (and personal intensity) what "mercy on Israel" looks like. The text that some read as referring to Israel as the church is Rom 9:6 - "not all who are from Israel are Israel." My view is that Paul simply is saying what all Jews knew - not all abraham's descendents are Jews, but rather Israel exists by divine election, not blood descent (Rom 9:16). Ultimately, Paul anticipates Israel's experience of divine mercy in a way that is analogous to his own (2 Cor 4:1) - that is, through a divine apocalypse of Christ directly into his own life under the law, apart from human mediation. Paul talks his own experience in Gal 2:15-16; he expresses his eschatological hope for Israel in Rom 11:26.
Hofius wrote an article years ago in which he linked Paul's depiction of his own experience and his eschatological hope for Israel. I think he's exactly right. And one thing this observation illuminates is that Paul thought theologically in conversation with his own experience as well as in conversation with Scripture.
5. I have heard that you have had some interesting interactions with Christians in Sudan. Would you mind sharing a little bit about that? [Again, this one is from Mike, but I am very interested as well!]
Duke Divinity School and Virginia Theological Seminary support something called the Visiting Teacher Program at a small theological college in the Episcopal Diocese of Renk, in southern Sudan. My husband and I traveled to Renk last year as part of this program, and since then have remained in communication with church leaders there. The Christian churches in Sudan, primarily Roman Catholic and Episcopal, but also Presbyterian and a few Methodists, grew at an astronomical rate during more than two decades of genocidal war between the northern (primarily Arab and Muslim) government and rebels in the south (primarily African and Christian or animist). More than 2 million killed, millions more displaced, many enslaved. Every Sudanese we met had lost many family members; the students had grown up in camps, or as child soldiers. They also told me about miracles in which they experienced God's power as deliverance from destruction. So it's a place of unimaginable suffering and faith, and a place in which the apocalpytic content of Paul's gospel as deliverance from "the present evil age" comes to life in new ways.
There is a referendum in Sudan scheduled for Jan 9-15, in which southern Sudanese will vote on whether to secede from the north and form a new country. There are many fears of a fresh outbreak of war. Thousands of southerners who have been living in Khartoum, in the northern part of the country, are heading south for the vote, and the churches are in the forefront of providing food, shelter and medical services for these displaced folks. So this is a crucial time for Christians in Sudan, and for the country as a whole. The churches, because they are truly indigenous and not alien western aid agencies, are well positioned to be major providers of leadership, medical care, agricultural development, and education. They need our prayers and support in every possible way. Our little Visiting Teacher Program is one of very many programs in the US attempting to do just that.
6. Would you share with us what other kinds of projects you are working on these days?
In the near future, I'm writing an entry on the theme of "Participation in Christ" for a new handbook on Paul's letters, to be published by Oxford. But the long term book project continues the trajectory of the article on Philippians, exploring the link between participation and imitation in Paul, and putting it into conversation with both ancient notions about mimesis, and contemporary work on the role of mimesis in human development. For example, there are some fascinating studies on the neurological links between perception and mimetic action. There are studies of imitation in infants within an hour of birth, raising questions about its role in developing capacities for human empathy and relationships. Imitation (often in spite of ourselves) is a way in which we become part of one another - it's a very real form of participation, of what Morna Hooker calls "interchange in Christ." Plato also speaks of mimetic assimilation as a means of “participating” in God by becoming as much like God as possible (see, e.g., Phaedrus 253A–B). Philo and Plutarch talk about virtuous assimilation to God. What does Paul's radical notion of God in Christ assimilating to humanity do to this picture of transformation? I have a long-standing interest the question of how people change, and I think that Paul's depiction of mimetic participation between Christ and humanity provides a compelling way into that question.
Thank you, Susan, for taking the time to respond.