One of the factors responsible for most acts of religious intolerance is the presumed knowledge of God. Most religious people are victims of this presumption. In moments of real encounter with God, one comes to realize how ignorant one was. As the Church celebrates the conversion of the Apostle Paul today, it is good to note that this is what happened to Paul in his journey to the Christian faith. The blindness he suffered at the moment of encounter with Jesus on the way to Damascus helped to initiate him into better knowledge of God and His mode of operation.
Saul’s Blindness as Symbol of His Ignorance
Paul’s blindness the time he encountered Jesus can be interpreted as a symbolic expression of his whole life at this point. The blindness expresses his total ignorance of the things that he thought he knew before. What touched Paul most was the voice of Jesus that said he was the one that Paul was persecuting. Paul, in his wildest imagination, never thought he would be accused of being in opposition to God. In fact, he started persecuting the Christians because he thought they were opposing God by not obeying the Mosaic traditions.
He had thought he knew God because of his grounding in the Jewish traditions. In his zeal he embarked on the religious but murderous mission of eliminating all adherents of the new Christian faith, as their belief system did not rhyme with his presumed understanding of who God was. But his theological conviction underwent a somersault as Jesus encountered him on the famous road to Damascus.
The light from heaven and the mysterious voice that called him by name all took him unawares: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4; 22:7). This encounter with Jesus burst his empty shell. The light from the encounter was too much for him and he instantly became blind. He though he had the light which was the Torah. Now he realized that the real light was the author of the new movement he was persecuting. He did not know he was the one in ignorance. He was blind but did not know.
Conversion as the Reception of New Sight
The encounter on the way to Damascus cracked Paul’s old mode of seeing. His old sight came into crisis. That old sight was too weak to see the new light, which is the new way. Now he has to receive the new light and a new sight. All these are dramatized in the meeting with Ananias in Acts 9:17-18. It is interesting how Paul’s receiving of new sight is linked to his baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. Light and sight now come together to express Paul’s experience of conversion and new life, as the scales fall from his eyes. Conversion is the reception of light and the beginning of new sight. Jesus is the light and all who follow him walk in the light.
What we see in the conversion of Paul is the falling of the old walls of prejudice and fanaticism. Like the walls of Jericho. These walls prevented the old Saul from seeing Jesus and his new movement as the fulfillment of Israel’s whole longings as expressed in the Scriptures. In our own lives, we have many walls that prevent us from seeing the goodness in others. And with such prejudice and arrogance we think we know better. The conversion of Saul is a lesson. We must be ever open to the experience of new light from God through which we keep changing our old convictions and keep breaking the walls of prejudice and intolerance.