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The Self and Subjectivity of Paul

September 5th, 2023 | 12 min read

By Vika Pechersky

Since the dawn of the Enlightenment, the idea of subjectivity has generated and continues to generate enormous amounts of discussion and research, especially in the fields of philosophy and human sciences. In his book Self & Other: Exploring Subjectivity, Empathy, and Shame (Oxford University Press, 2014), Dan Zahavi gives a brief overview of different attempts to define or provide an account of the meaning and origins of the self.

According to his historical overview, since the days of Rene Descartes, the question of the self has been viewed in the context of the general skepticism about the human ability to perceive reality, chief of which is the existence of God. Thus, Zahavi suggested that the questions of the self have arisen in modern phenomenology in an attempt to describe what it means for anything to be real.

However, there is little consensus when the issue of subjectivity is discussed within philosophical and scientific worlds. For one, there is no consensus that the “self” as such exists. It appears that those who argue against the existence of the self, at least in secular philosophy, argue against a specific version of it, namely an unchanging ontological entity, characteristic of the Western pre-modern metaphysics. Zahavi contends that such construal of self has long been abandoned by contemporary philosophy and cognitive sciences. Instead, the self is increasingly viewed and discussed in phenomenological terms.

But even within the realm of phenomenology, significant disagreements remain. According to Zahavi, since Hagel, modern philosophy understood the self to be formed and achieved in a social context. Selfhood is not given; it is achieved. That is, we come to understand ourselves in our interaction with other people. In post-war Germany and France, there was an attempt to describe the self in terms of narrative and linguistic praxis, in which the subjectivity was formed by the narrative and use of language borrowed from the community. Then Foucault introduced the power dynamic into the discourse about the nature and origins of self. According to Foucault, the person comes to understand themself while engaging in power dynamics, where some come to understand themselves as subjects (subjected to authority) and others as those who exercise their power to subjugate others. These proposals, briefly described by Zahavi, have two things in common. First, they reject the existence of an ontological self or that the sense of self is given to the person. Secondly, they frame a sense of self as an achievement through various interactions with our social and natural environments.

On the other hand, such thinkers as Jean-Paul Sartre proposed the existence of a pre-reflective self—a basic mode of existence. In other words, such a self may be hard to describe but is not something a person can fail to be. In a similar vein, Zahavi proposes an existence of a minimal self. According to his proposal, the self is not extended in time but exists minimally in each person’s experience of the present, in which the person understands such experience as their own. Thus, Zahavi also denies the existence of an ontological self but affirms the presence of a simple or minimal self limited to the sense of ownership of our experience in the present.

The world of biblical studies has shown far less interest in the question of subjectivity. While the modern question of self would not have been familiar to biblical writers like Paul, his letters reveal certain assumptions about his sense of self, who he is, his interiority, and intentionality. I suggest that the book of Philippians provides an excellent case study for drafting Paul’s view of himself and outlining horizons for discussing the question of subjectivity in Pauline writings.

Why Philippians?

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul warned his readers against people who could lead them astray from the ultimate destination, namely the day of Christ. This day will usher in restoration and exaltation of human beings (Phil. 1:6, 1:10, 2:16, 3:14, 20-21). Paul speaks at least five times about the day of Christ, which means that Paul orients himself and his readers to the certain telos that should guide their movement in space and time.  

In his Philippian discourse, Paul juxtaposes two groups of people. On one side are those whose lives and teaching the Philippians were to imitate—Paul, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. These men are selfless servants who suffer in their ministry to God and put the good of other people above their own interests (Phil. 2:19-30). On the other side are people whose teaching and lifestyle, if followed, can jeopardize the work of the gospel that God had started among the Philippians. The second group includes people (even Christians) driven by selfish ambition at the expense of others (Phil. 1:17, 2:21), followers of the Mosaic law (Phil. 3:2-3), and finally, the defectors—those who left Jesus altogether for the love of the world and continued living as the enemies of God (Phil. 3:18-20).

A certain orientation towards their own self characterizes all those who find themselves in the second group. Paul first mentions those who seek status and position for themselves at the expense of others, and the defectors are characterized by a selfish desire for worldly comfort. Finally, the middle category, the followers of the Mosaic law, are referred to in Titus 1:10-16 as those who are teaching others out of “sordid gain.” It is unclear what those people were to gain from persuading Gentile Christians to be circumcised. It could be that Paul sees it as a form of religious and ethnic pride and selfishness. Nevertheless, it is clear that all three groups of people present a dangerous distraction from the telos towards which Philippians are striving and sow disunity primarily by seeking their own selfish purposes, often at the expense of others.

Paul takes on the issue of self-interest from the very beginning of the book (Phil. 1:14-16, 1:23-25, 2:3-4, 2:20-22). Each time he builds his argument against selfishness and promotes a selfless attitude, which in turn would produce unity within the church. Thus, Paul’s use of the Christological poem of Phil. 2:1-11, in which the Divine Son of God is described as emptying himself, becoming human, and dying on the cross in the ultimate selfless act, can be viewed as both the foundation and summit of Paul’s argument against self-serving attitudes.

If selfishness is indeed the problem Paul addresses in this letter, it is not surprising (and ironic at the same time) that Paul talks a lot about himself. In his letter, Paul intimates his joys, hopes, fears, and motivations. Sometimes it almost feels like too much self-disclosure on Paul’s part. Paul digs deep into his feelings, desires, and motives without seeking to abolish the self. Instead, he demonstrates to his readers, using his own experience, how to align their sense of self, who they are, with Christ to ensure their continued existence. Their sense of self, then, becomes the way through which they not only experience life now but also continue their existence in the age to come.

Paul’s Self-Presentation in Philippians

When Paul talks about himself in Philippians, he does so in relation to time, Jesus Christ, and others. It is worth looking closer at how exactly he does that. It is also worth exploring how Paul demonstrates his sense of agency in order to get a general outline of Paul’s vision of himself.

Paul’s Self in Space and Time

From the opening verses of the letter, Paul speaks of himself in various temporal contexts: the memory of the past interactions with the Philippians, his present experiences (Phil. 1:12-18), and the future culmination of history (Phil. 1:3-7). Paul understands himself not only to exist in the present but also to persist through time with a clear vision of the point in the future towards which he is persisting—the day of Christ (Phil. 1:21-26, 2:16).

At the same time, he views himself as changing and developing through space and time while remaining the same self. When Paul discusses himself in Phil. 3, he narrates a panorama of his life, tracing a personal story that starts in the past and undergoes changes that continue to affect him into the future. Yet, the same Paul acts, changes, and develops (Phil. 3:2-18). We can conclude that Paul imagines his sense of self to persist despite personal changes and temporal settings.

Finally, Paul situated himself beyond this temporal existence. First, in Phil. 4:3, he refers to his fellow mission workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. Paul understands them and himself to have a “name” attached to them that exists outside of his temporal existence and is placed in a cosmic context. Second, in Phil. 2:16, Paul seems to believe that he will retain a sense of self with a clear sense of ownership of his ministry work even after the return of Christ.

Paul’s Self in Relationship to Christ

The kenotic self-emptying of Jesus for the sake of people, described by Paul in Phil. 2:5-11, represents the pattern after which Paul views his own self and calls on his fellow believers in Philippi to do the same. This sentiment is especially present in Paul’s admonition to the Philippians to have the same attitude of selflessness as revealed in the kenosis of Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:3-5). Several times in this letter, Paul describes his own kenotic experiences in the manner of Jesus Christ. In Phil.1:21-26, Paul comes to the unified vision of himself by abandoning selfish desires for bliss, even if that bliss is in God. In Phil. 2:17, Paul describes himself as a poured (emptied) offering for the sake of others and their spiritual flourishing. Finally, in Phil. 3, Paul discusses the self-emptying of his old identity and relocating it in Christ. More specifically, in Phil. 3:7-8, Paul describes how he orients himself toward Jesus, considering any other markers of self-understanding and self-identity meaningless, and actively discards them.

At the same time, viewing himself in relation to Jesus’s resurrection helps Paul make sense of himself and his persistence through temporal changes. This is especially evident in Phil. 3:20-21. This passage represents Paul’s argument against the selfish defectors whose self-centeredness will prove to be short-sighted—they will meet their destruction in the end. Instead, those who find themselves in Jesus Christ will persist into the glorious state by sharing in the life, the body, and the power of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s Self in Relationships to Others

Paul’s sense of responsibility for the well-being and flourishing of the Philippian community and their financial support in response shows that he considered himself in active exchange with the Philippians. Moreover, Paul finds meaning for his sense of self in his relationship with others who were entrusted to his spiritual care. It is evident in his emotionally charged discourse in Phil. 1:21-26, in which Paul’s seemingly divided person comes to a unified understanding of himself precisely in his relationship to others. Paul is emphatic that his ministry to the fledgling church communities gives meaning to his earthly existence, thus uniting him into one resolute self. When Paul declares that he does not know which to choose, to be with Christ or continue his earthly ministry (Phil. 1:21-26), he lifts the curtain to give a glimpse into the thought process of his inner self, revealing a meaning-making person who deliberates and comes to a certain understanding of himself defined by his public ministry of the gospel and relationship with others.

Finally, Paul shows that imitation of others forms how people view themselves and the kind of life they get to inhabit. As mentioned earlier, Paul offers two sets of examples. On the one hand, there are people worthy of imitation—Paul and his coworkers in the gospel, because they orient themselves away from self towards God and the good of others. On the other side, there are those whom Philippians should not imitate because those people are oriented and locked into their selves, be it banal self-serving, selfish ambition, ethnic or religious pride, and physical comforts. How easy, it seems, for  so many Christians to get wrong perceptions of things, including their own lives and be led astray by the self-serving example of others! Therefore, Paul urges his readers to stay clear of the behaviors, ways of living, and internal motivations manifested in the second group of people because they represent a false way for believers to make meaning of themselves and their lives. Instead, Paul views himself and calls the Philippians to view themselves as non-self-centered and actively-emptying selves who empty themselves in their daily lives for the benefit of others.

Paul, an Acting Agent

This short overview of Paul’s self-presentation indicates that in his Philippian letter, Paul presents himself with a strong sense of agency. Even in the case of following in the self-emptying steps of Jesus, Paul does the denying of self for the sake of others. Furthermore, Paul actively remembers (Phil. 1:3-5) and actively forgets (Phil. 3:7-13), imitates Jesus (Phil. 2:17), deliberates with himself (Phil. 1:23), makes meaning of his own self and earthly existence (Phil. 3:7-11). Paul sacrifices his well-being (Phil. 2:17), chooses (Phil. 1:22-23), and strives towards a telos (Phil. 3:13-14). All these things can be attributed to the sense of interiority, intentionality, and subjective processes of relating to self in different contexts. All that to say, in the pages of this letter, Paul is actively involved in shaping his own life.

However, several passages in the Philippian letter complicate the simple construal of self as an acting agent or self-in-self-relation. First, in Phil. 1:6 Paul tells his readers that God will perfect the work that has started in the Philippians until the day of Christ. Second, in Phil. 2:12-13, Paul calls them to work out their salvation because God works in them. Finally, in Phil. 3:7-14, Paul describes how he undergoes intense exertion of himself towards a prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ.

It appears that in himself, Paul both holds in tension and moves seamlessly between the actions of two agents—God and Man. God works in the Philippian community. There is distinct intentionality in what God seeks to produce, namely, a new kind of people. Paul is very confident of this fact. At the same time, Paul demonstrates in himself and calls the Philippians to the active and intentional cultivation of a work ethic towards a specific vision of their own person—selfless, peaceful, communal, Christ-like. Therefore, we see both God and people working in and through each other towards the same goal: the making of perfected humanity both individually and communally.

In the pages of his Philippian letter, Paul demonstrates how he acts both in response to and in accordance with God’s actions within the Christian community. Therefore, even though Paul has the ownership of his actions (it is Paul himself who loves, rejoices, forgets his old self, strains forward, etc.); though he calls on the Philippians to have the same sense of ownership and active agency; Paul attributes the result, the righteous person, to God and Jesus Christ (Phil 1:11, 3:8-10). We can conclude that Paul’s view of himself as an acting agent is inseparable from the agency of God at work in and through the human being.

Paul, the Person

What kind of person emerges from this brief analysis of Paul’s self-representation in Philippians? First, an ambitious one. Paul is ambitious when it comes to his missionary work. He wants his work to last till the day of Christ. He is also ambitious about the kind of person he wants to become—righteous in Jesus Christ. Finally, Paul is ambitious about his future— he is doing everything he can to attain bodily resurrection, the life of unity with Jesus Christ.

It is somewhat ironic. It is hard to know just how self-aware Paul was when it came to analyzing his ambitions. Indeed, in Philippians, Paul distinguishes himself and his fellow workers quite sharply from those who were pursuing selfish ambitions. Yet the distinction is not based on presence or absence of efforts or even personal goals; instead, Paul directs his ambition toward attaining bodily resurrection by emptying himself for the sake of others. Thus, Paul’s discourse (especially in the first three chapters of Philippians) is precisely about the difference in these ambitions. It appears that Paul has no issue with being ambitious or zealous as a sign of personal agency. He is, however, arguing against specific means and the ends of human ambition.

Second, we meet a meaning-making person who intentionally situates himself and finds meaning within various temporal and social contexts. Paul brushes away the thought of abandoning space-time along with his vocation and communities he sought to cultivate for personal bliss. Although his reasons are ultimately Christological and kenotic, nevertheless, Paul places his sense of self and meaning for embodied existence within social frameworks. Exchanging locations for his identity and self-representation from his Jewish heritage to the person of Jesus (Phil. 3) once again points to the meaning-making person who locates himself within various settings.

Third, Paul emerges as the person who refuses to construe himself outside of his relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul relates to himself as self-in-relation-to-Christ. Those who think of themselves apart from God revealed in Jesus Christ will simply not last. Their selves and physical existence will cease. The only way to ensure that a person continues to persist is to empty themself of their fleshly self and place their sense of self in the person of Jesus Christ. Again, this kenosis of self does not mean abandoning the sense of agency. On the contrary, in the Philippian discourse, Paul demonstrates in his example and calls others to imitate him in developing an active self that acts in response to and in accordance with God’s actions revealed globally through Christ and within local Christian communities.

Paul in Conversation with the Modern Philosophy of Self

While Paul’s discourse in Philippians is far from contemporary concerns for the nature and origins of subjectivity, he nevertheless is deeply concerned with human existence and operates within a certain framework of understanding himself, as I have attempted to outline above. It is possible to imagine Paul responding to Zahavi's overview of different views of subjectivity: Yes, all the above, and more! Paul seems to affirm the givenness of our human life within the cosmic order, he displays a strong sense of ownership of his experience, and the fact that our environment constantly shapes our perception of ourselves. His admonition to the Philippians to choose their role models carefully is a case in point. Paul’s own sense of self was shaped by extraneous forces, either the community in which he was brought up or the powerful call of Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus. Paul’s ontological understanding of self persisting in different temporal contexts while undergoing development can be attributed to his understanding of cosmology and Christology. Paul’s notion of a resurrected, embodied existence in unity with Jesus Christ leads him to view himself as an ontological entity, albeit constantly shaped both by his own internal processes and by extraneous forces.  

For Paul, his self is an ontological reality that exists as an object of God’s work and will persist in various social and temporal contexts by emptying himself and attaching to God through Jesus Christ. At the same time, Paul believes that his own self and others are constantly being shaped by extraneous forces (other people, narrative ideas, God, etc.). He calls Philippians to develop and exercise keen discernment in choosing which influence to embrace and which to forgo. Thus, Paul believes that his ontological and experiential self is in the process of development in which both men and God actively participate. Finally, he attributes the final result—a perfected person—to the work of God.

Vika Pechersky

Vika Pechersky is the Submissions Editor at Mere Orthodoxy. She holds an MTS degree from Loyola University Maryland. She lives with her husband and three kids in the Washington DC area.