Towards the end of January we were invited to celebrate the conversion of St Paul. The Book of Common Prayer (1662) appoints a lesson from the Acts of the Apostles 9:1-22 which describes Paul (then known as Saul) on the road to Damascus. He was not on this road by coincidence; he was not out taking the air or exercising, but was embarked on a journey specifically to seek out “any of this way”, by which of course he meant Christians, with the intention of bringing them “bound unto Jerusalem”. We are left to ponder as to what fate would have awaited our brothers and sisters upon their arrival; I think it fair to conclude that their welcome would not have been a hospitable one since we know that Saul was deeply hostile to Christians.
As he travels the road “suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven”; so bright in fact that he was blinded and brought to his knees, whereupon he heard a voice – the voice of Jesus. After this, still blinded but with the assistance of his fellow travellers, he followed Jesus’ instructions, and continued on his journey.
Meanwhile, the Lord is busy giving instructions in a vision to his disciple Ananias: that he should visit Saul and by touching him restore his sight. Now Ananias was skeptical, for Saul clearly had a reputation, but the Lord explained that Saul was “a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my name before the Gentiles”; so off he went to carry out the Lord’s instructions.
And so it came to pass that Ananias found Saul in Damascus, and he restored him of his sight as the Lord had commanded. Saul was “filled with the Holy Ghost” and “straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God”. Saul had become Paul.
The traditional message we interpret from the story of Paul’s conversion is one of the limitless depths of God’s grace, and reach of his power; that even one who has fallen as far as Saul can come to believe and be called in to God’s mission. But it also throws up all sorts of other avenues of inquiry: was Paul converted before or after his meeting with Ananias? That is to say, was God restoring his sight in recognition of his belief, or in order to confirm it? Why had God chosen Paul in the first place? What motivated Paul’s conversion? Was it fear, having been blinded? Wonder, having heard Jesus speak to him? Thankfulness, having been healed? Or a combination of these; or something else entirely? Does it even matter; if so, how much; and why?
Now, this could be one of those moments when a man says something, thinking it to be utterly commonplace, only to find once he has said it out loud, he is the only one thinking it – but here goes: I did not have a ‘road to Damascus’ moment of conversion, or anything like it in fact. At least not that I can identify.
So where does this leave me? I believe in God simply because I choose to; not because of a vision I have had, an instruction I have been given, or a proof I have been shown.
It seems to me that one of the characteristics which marks out man as being different from other living things is that we have been endowed with a peculiar curiosity: we ask ourselves and each other, ‘why are we all here’? At its most basic level, this question can have only one of two answers. Either we exist entirely as a happy accident of colliding particles, or there is a creating force.
Neither can be proved or disproved of course, and that is why we are in the territory of belief. We have to pick a side. To me, a world which is a happy accident is a pointless one, devoid of meaning and of purpose. Without meaning and purpose, we have left only our most base instinct, to survive.
Survive for what though? And you get back to where you start; a circular argument which arrives back at its own pointlessness.
Now some people may be happy to live in a pointless world, content to make the most of it; but if life is pointless, then love is pointless. If love is pointless, then what a mother and father feel looking down at their newborn baby is pointless; the feelings a couple have for each other as they join hands and make their marriage vows are pointless; our grief for the loss of friends and family is pointless; the sorrow we feel for those suffering tragedy is pointless.
No, I do not want to live in a world without love; a pointless world; a happy accident. So, I choose to believe.
When we celebrate the conversion of St Paul, perhaps in addition to having due reverence for what it shows us of God’s infinite grace and power, what we are also doing is giving thanks, not for how Paul came to believe, but that he actually did so at all – and that we all did too.