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Convinced that Romans 1 and indeed the whole of Paul’s letter are under-used resources among Christian scholars across the disciplines, we attempt to show here that the text offers helpful analysis to scholars researching, teaching, and writing in a strikingly similar contemporary Western culture. First, we try to take tactful account of Paul’s presentation of the sins listed as in themselves a revelation of the judgment of God on rejection of his sovereignty, therefore prompting charity toward many of those with whom we exchange ideas; they are not just personal behaviors that God will judge someday. Second, we show that the claim often made that other, especially Eastern, religions are not so judgmental concerning the listed sin and vices as is Paul in this passage is factually wrong. Third, we argue that the analysis and development of the gospel in Romans overall offers excellent resources for a scholar of biblical faith, providing insight, encouragement, and finally a prescription for right conduct of our work. David Lyle Jeffrey is Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University. Jeff Levin is University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health, and Professor of Medical Humanities at Baylor University.

Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools (Rom. 1:22, KJV).

Most of those who inhabit the halls of academe have had days when, in the light of a bureaucratic memo, a story in The Chronicle of Higher Education, or just in reflection on the morning news, it has seemed that these words of the Apostle Paul would be a reasonable substitute for our university mottos. One of us remembers noticing that the Hebrew motto of his university, translated everywhere in English as “Let there be light,” was on the shields and letterheads actually the Hebrew original for “and there was light.” The chuckles produced in the faculty lounge once this was made known led to an embarrassed correction—at considerable expense—of the Hebrew text. That year (1968) was one of momentous change in university culture across North America; within twenty years the amount of light emitted by our institutions of higher learning was visibly dimming; now, more than half century later, it can seem scarcely visible. That this is true of many of our other cultural institutions suggests that the loss of wattage is not exclusively an academic disease, which is small comfort, but a culture-wide phenomenon.

In the early 1990s, one of us started to save some of the more outlandish stories from the press, often, but not exclusively, from the world of the arts and humanities. This “Romans 1 file” was at first a source of merriment and pub chatter, but the file effortlessly grew at an alarming rate, soon requiring a second folder, then a third. By the 2000s, most of the stories were variations on the headlines of magazines one sees while waiting for groceries to be tallied: woman marries porpoise (apparently on purpose);1 transgender artist auctioning off cans of his own excrement (with the support of a major New York auction house),2 a creative riff on Manzoni’s famous shock-art prank of 60 years ago;3 tattooed man has ears removed so as to look more like his parrot (and like Max Ernst’s “Surreal Man”).4

Not to be outdone, the programs of academic conferences and the titles of new courses in the humanities began surpassing the National Enquirer and their ilk for ribald tomfoolery. As John Leo put it in his 1993 column, “The Professors of Dogmatism,”5 a report on the Modern Language Association’s annual convention that year, the “annual gong show of the academic world,” as he termed it, had reached levels of juvenile anti-realism that boggled sober adult minds without and within academic circles. To wit, scholarly papers were read on themes such as “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Three-Button Jacket,” “Between the Body and the Flesh: Performing Lesbian Sadomasochism,” “The Poetics of Ouija,” and “Transvestite Biography.” Scientists were among those who tittered over coffee, having long suspected the humane disciplines of loose and fuzzy thinking, not to say soft-minded and sloppy methodologies.

The tide was just coming in, however, and it rose more quickly than anyone outside the faculty lounges could have predicted. By the turn of the century, news outlets had moved on to ever more sensationalist illustrations of academic opinion in the postmodern era. In 2001, London’s The Independent on Sunday wrote a laudatory review of a new play opening at the National Theatre, Mark Ravenhill’s “Mother Clap’s Molly House,” a play whose chief attraction seems to have been its promise to feature “plenty of buggery” live on stage.6 The year before saw re-publication of Midas Dekkers’ Dearest Pet: On Bestiality,7 followed by Peter Singer’s approbatory review, titled “Heavy Petting.”8 Meanwhile, the Christian intellectual culture to which this journal has long been dedicated was increasingly scorned, treated with contempt, even attacked. In 1993, Peter Berger, in his thoughtful review of The Culture of Disbelief,9 summarized author Stephen L. Carter’s thesis thusly: “How come, Stephen Carter asks, when anyone says ‘God,’ liberals reach for their revolvers?”10

Just about that time, with files overflowing with ludicrous, then seriously manic, pronouncements from the intelligentsia—or better, in today’s lexicon, influencers—of Western liberal societies, they were closed for good, mentally consigned to the dictum of the Psalmist: Amar naval b’livo, ein Elohim—“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps. 14:1, ESV). But even this would have been understatement, for by then many fools were proclaiming as much from the proverbial rooftops, not only of academic institutions but also, increasingly, of media outlets, the entertainment industry, and government. The recent revelation that Harvard University had appointed a self-proclaimed atheist as chief chaplain has raised a few eyebrows around the world, but only because it makes explicit the actual stance of academic culture. Interestingly, given our topic, Chaplain Greg Epstein is quoted as saying, “We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.”11 Welcome to the world of Paul’s firstcentury readers in Rome.

Romans 1 as Contemporary Culture Analysis

Romans 1 is a very rich and not infrequently contentious text; almost every Christian faith tradition has made Romans a touchstone of Christian theology as they understand it. We do not pretend to be formal theologians, to many of whom we are indebted, nor is it our purpose, apropos certain ecclesial controversies, to ruffle unduly any denominational feathers. Our intention is merely to examine the social progress of folly as Paul in Romans understands it, then to think about Paul’s analysis of pagan culture in the first century CE from our own twenty-first-century perspective as creatures in an evidently faltering society with many of the same characteristics. We realize that Paul’s letter will be familiar to most CSR readers, but we encourage a reading—or re-reading—before considering what follows here.

Our argument proceeds from a recognition that Paul intends his readers to see the sinful, socially destructive vices he enumerates from verses 23-32 not just as miscreance awaiting the judgment of God, but actually in themselves a demonstration of God’s wrath working on those who reject him. In effect, there is a hell all the way to hell, and that when he says, “Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools” (Rom. 1:22, KJV), Paul makes a clear causal link between rebellion against God and a progressive diminishment of the rigor and capacity for realism in the human intellect. While all people suffer from noetic diminishment because of the Fall, according to Paul, persistence in sin worsens our intellectual capacity to the point we may not be able to perceive truths and rational arguments that would be accessible if we were not blinded by obsessive absorption in one or another of the sins he identifies.

Further, we wish to show that the behaviors enumerated by Paul in his litany of “ungodliness and unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18, KJV) so far from being the peculiar preoccupations of a narrow first-century Mediterranean Christianity, as sometimes has been claimed, are in fact not peculiar to a Christian worldview. The world’s major religious traditions appear to hold that departure from religious observance leads inexorably to similar if not identical negative behaviors, vicious dispositions, and habits which, as it turns out, are more or less universally regarded as sinful.

We take it that our third point can be left largely impliciter, namely, that since we as scholars of faith live in a culture—not excluding academic culture—which is clearly susceptible of the full social analysis given by Paul of the culture of Rome in his time, we ought to develop strategies for coping with that reality in a constructive way. Our primary text will be Romans 1, but we will also reflect briefly on the way it has been read since Paul’s time in the light of some works of landmark historical exegesis—traditions to which most CSR readers are heir.

Romans 1 as a Prolegomenon to Paul’s Anthropology

Early commentaries, including those by Origen and Chrysostom,12 tend to note, even as Plato13 had, that intellectual acuity is prone to be degraded by the habitual practice of vice. While other early Christian commentators (e.g., Augustine) tend to intersperse commentary on Romans with other biblical citations in their sermons, typically in connection to the same supposition, by the later Middle Ages concern about matters of vices and virtues, sin and repentance, as well as the revival of systematic exegesis of biblical texts beyond the needs of the lectionary, produced reflection on Paul’s keystone epistle which develop this insight.

The greatest of these medieval commentaries is by Thomas Aquinas, and it is particularly directed toward an intellectual readership. In a fashion consistent with and building upon his discussion in the Summa Theologica, namely that there are some aspects of reality that can only be grasped by persons who have a moral character congruent with that reality, Aquinas insists that this is understood by means of the natural law without the need for specific biblical revelation,14 and that Paul is here describing a universal spiritual reality. Thinking perhaps of the Paris university community in which he worked, Aquinas argues that the advantages of intellectual vision and analytical discipline are quickly dissipated when moral failures in the scholar lead to a loss of moral intelligence sufficient to cripple the advantage of his intellectual gifts and learning. The vices listed by Paul in Romans 1:23-32 are on his reading conditions axiomatic and inevitable for anyone who knows God yet refuses to honor him; their rationality is blunted, their hearts, in Paul’s term, are “darkened” (ἐσκοτίσθη).

Martin Luther’s epochal commentary is focused on what we might call the inevitable progress of sin once it has begun with ingratitude, which he calls “the first step of their idolatry,” which then leads them to become “vain in their imaginations,” followed by blindness to truth—i.e., reality—and thence by a “total departure from God,” which in turn he describes as “the worst; for when he has lost God there remains nothing else for God to do but give him up to all manner of shame and vice according to the will of Satan.”15

Another foundational commentator, John Calvin, likewise characterizes the social sins and vices in Paul’s list less in terms of the axioms of natural law and more as a particular evidence of the wrath of God at work: thus, their “ungodliness was followed by effects which prove manifest evidence of the wrath of God.” Specifically, “it is certain indeed that he not only permits men to fall into sin, by allowing them to do so and conniving in their fall, but that he also ordains it by his judgment, so that they are forcibly fed into such mad folly, not only by their own evil yearnings, but by the Devil as well.”16

These three foundational commentators have largely set the pattern for Western understandings of this passage in Catholic and Protestant tradition respectively, with the result that modern Catholic commentary tends to see the vices and sexual behaviors as sins against nature, i.e., created reality, hence a manifestation of irrationality, while Protestant commentary has put the emphasis more on willful defiance of God justly incurring his judgment both within and out of time. That said, all concur unambiguously in the view that the evidence of God’s wrath in judgment against ingratitude is evident in the frenzy of ungodliness itself. Paul’s list of “manifestations” remains disturbing, not for what it attributes to Roman culture in the mid first century CE, but because it could with equal apropos be said to apply to our own civilization, notably what he calls “dishonorable passions”—essentially sexual practices which pervert biological functions in both male and female bodies by the mutual agreement, one would say, of “consenting adults.” These are the most controversial passages, especially today, but his rhetorical and logical progression from rejection of God includes also many other symptoms of social dysfunction:

And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them (Rom. 1:28-32, ESV).

That is, the three groups prefaced by “God gave them up” are rhetorically deliberate, but also to some degree a logical progression, just as one would expect in Paul’s most philosophical text.

Modern Commentary

Modern commentators are in general agreement with C. K. Barrett that Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome was written between 50-53 CE.17 They also generally agree with his observation that, on Paul’s view, once a people denies such knowledge of God as they possess, a “vicious circle” takes hold in which they plunge ever further into unbelief, including disbelief that there will be consequences for their unnatural and malicious behavior. Various forms of idolatry ensue, much as is elaborated in Wisdom of Solomon, a Second Temple text which Paul knew and drew on at various points in his letters (especially Wisdom, chap. 13-14), not least here, as a textual comparison will quickly show. For this text, too, when God has been rejected, idolatry of one kind or another, acknowledged or not, surely follows. Thus, as the writer of that older text concludes, “For the worship of idols not to be named is the beginning and cause and end of every evil” (Wisdom 14:27, NRSV). Similarly, Barrett comments apropos of the reiteration of this principle in Romans 1, “Their idolatrous minds and practices are themselves a punishment from God…Once man had fallen from his true relation with God, he was no longer capable of rational thought about him.”18

Given that the biblical text makes it evident that Paul was writing to a community of Christians in a city that he himself has not yet visited, this raises the distinct possibility that he was worried about cultural accommodation among these earlier believers, for, if we are to take Severian of Gabala (c. 400 CE) as a historically informed witness, Rome was widely known for its homosexual community in Paul’s time.19 Though this sexual element of the “desires” (Rom. 1:24) to which God has “given over” those who reject him occasions the first two of three such groupings of “passions” (Rom. 1:26) resulting from the denial of their nature as beings created by God (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28), these have been well covered elsewhere.20 Accordingly, they are not our exclusive or even our primary concern in this article. All the sinful behaviors in verses 23-32 are described by the Apostle as consequences of refusing to acknowledge God and be grateful to him; each is in practice a revelation of the wrath of God, and the habitual practice of any is thus already an experience of living with divine judgment. Paul’s beginning with the sexual sins “against nature” (παρὰ φύσιν) has been most controversial in our time because they are most resisted, while the others (Rom. 1:28-32) have, it seems to us, received too little contemporary attention. A thorough and balanced account of the sexual sins Paul enumerates is painstakingly documented in a textual and art-historical study from Mark D. Smith, who shows that in specifying sins against created nature Paul was doubtless more than sufficiently acquainted with the practices he condemns in 1:26-27, since extant textual records and art objects make clear that they were common realities in the Mediterranean pagan world just as they are in ours, and that they were certainly not limited to pederasty and sex with prostitutes.21

In any case, though the nature of Paul’s condemnation of certain sexual practices has become an irritant for some Western interpreters over the last three decades, too few question Paul’s intent to identify the subsequent range of vices and sinful dispositions that not only produce cultural disorder but, having come under the judgment of God, are simultaneously evidence of that judgment at work.22 All such behaviors are therefore to be eschewed by faithful Christians, just as they were rejected by pious (orthopraxic) Jews.23 But not only these religious communities: also notable is the degree to which they are censured by the moral codes of other religions and cultures. To those parallels we now turn.

“Ungodliness and Unrighteousness” in Other Faith Traditions

In The Abolition of Man, Lewis’ famous discussion of the Golden Rule and other characteristic features of the Tao (or ‘Way’) suggests that there are some truths, some objective values, that are so fundamental to all humans that they transcend even culturally and theologically distinct faith traditions.24 An example of this is captured in the litanies of great sins that appear in the sacred writings of the world’s major religions. The resemblance to Paul’s rundown of “ungodliness and unrighteousness” is not accidental, we believe, but these are offered here as illustration, not as additional validation. This material is described here without compromising our own belief in the special revelation that the Bible signifies for Christians and Jews, but rather to underscore that the admonition in Romans 1 (especially Rom. 1:28ff) represents a warning to all human beings that is near universal. It is therefore ignored at everyone’s peril, and no one is off the hook as far as complicity. We are all accountable.

Judaism. The Ashamnu and Al Chet, most familiarly recited in the Yom Kippur liturgy, are respective short and long confessions of sins repeated multiple times apiece. The Ashamnu, composed in acrostic form, is a recitation of sinful behaviors and attitudes (in Hebrew, from alef to tav). In contemporary English-language machzorim (High Holy Days prayerbooks) these are often rendered in alphabetical order from A to Z, and are thus not an exact translation. For example, in Maḥzor Lev Shalem, the official Conservative prayerbook, this listing reads:

We abuse, we betray, we are cruel, we destroy, we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult, we jeer, we kill, we lie, we mock, we neglect, we oppress, we pervert, we quarrel, we rebel, we steal, we transgress, we are unkind, we are violent, we are wicked, we are extremists, we yearn to do evil, we are zealous for bad causes.25

Islam. The list of Great Sins (variously transliterated as, e.g., al-Kaba’ir), cumulated from within the Qur’an and Ḥadiths, enumerates heinous transgressions that require penitence.26 There is some debate on the number of such sins, with some enumerations distinguishing between seven of the most serious sins and all others, and other listings including at least seventy such sins. The seven are polytheism, sorcery, murder, usury, stealing from an orphan, deserting a military post, and adultery. The others include disobedience to parents, sodomy, arrogance and vanity, lying, gambling, slander, bribery, transvestitism, being untrustworthy, eavesdropping, gossiping, cursing, breaking a promise, injustice, deception, and skipping out on religious obligations.

Buddhism. The 108 defilements (in Sanskrit, kleśas) are a listing of vices or evils that include impure desires or thoughts as well as wicked or unwholesome actions. These are described variously throughout and across the divisions of Buddhism and are enumerated with different emphases in sacred texts. Buddhist soteriology is rooted in overcoming the kleśas and attaining a state of consciousness characterized by nirvana, thus freeing one from the cycle of birth and rebirth (saṃsāra). The defilements comprise thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors of many types and subcategories, some considered hindrances and some outright poisons. In various listings these include abuse, arrogance, blasphemy, callousness, cruelty, contempt, derision, disrespect, dominance, envy, greed, hatred, humiliation, hypocrisy, imperiousness, jealousy, lecherousness, lying, manipulation, obsession, prejudice, pretense, pride, quarrelsomeness, ridicule, sadism, sarcasm, sexual lust, stinginess, torment, unkindness, being unyielding, vanity, and wrath.27

Sikhism. The Five Evils (Pānj Vikār), alongside other sins, are described in the canonical Banis (hymns). As taught by Guru Nanak, these evils are lust, anger, pride, greed, and attachment, and are rooted in haumai, or egoic self-centeredness. Notably, “Haumai is thus a spiritual disease, a condition which dominates the man or psyche of the manmukh (ego-centered). From it flow all the ignorance, selfishness and depravity which mark people dwelling in sequestration from the Guru and God.”28

Jainism. The 18 bad deeds or sources of sin (or päp) are found in the Päpsthänak Sutra. Informed by the teachings of Mahavira, this aphoristic text is part of the larger collection of confessional and expiational texts known as the Pratikraman Sutras. These 18 sinful activities are violence, lying, stealing, sensuous indulgence, possessiveness, anger, ego, deceit, greed, attachment or craving, resentment or aversion, disputes or quarreling, false accusations, slander and backbiting, casual affection and disaffection, gossip, malicious lying, and false beliefs. One must repent not just of their indulgence, but of encouraging others to sin and even of having “appreciated them being committed by others.”29

Taoism. The Sanyuan Pin (“Precepts of the Three Primes”), a principal text of the Buddhist-influenced Lingbao or Sacred Jewel tradition, lists 145 sins for lay Taoists as well as 22 additional sins forbidden to the most observant adherents. The former include picking a fight, speaking evil or hypocrisy, criticizing others, killing or having evil thoughts, harboring greed or passion or pride or sloth, insincerity, lewdness and lasciviousness, stealing, jealousy and envy, turning your back to or cheating a teacher, turning your back to the Tao, speaking ill of the scriptures, disobeying scriptural commandments, disobedience, nastiness, deception, insincerity, gossip, and despising spirits. The latter pertain mostly to cavalier engagement of scriptural study and observance, including irresponsibly promulgating irreverent interpretations of divine law without guidance, thus flaunting sacred traditions and leading people astray.30

Hinduism. Canonical lists of neither sins nor good deeds are laid out explicitly; all actions accrue karma and all debts will be paid in due time. However, reference is made to the Five Great Sins, known as the Pañcha Mahāpātakas, which are unpardonable solely through moral actions. The word mahāpātakas is akin to the Roman Catholic concept of mortal, as opposed to venial, sins. As with so many of these lists, there are variations depending upon the source and the translation consulted, but, typically, the five sins are said to include killing a Brahmin, stealing gold, intoxication, improper sexual relations, and associating with those who have committed any of these sins and are unrepentant. Other lists of dozens of minor sins have been posited, as well.31

Zoroastrianism. A litany of sins, or a liturgical confession of sinful behaviors and attitudes (as in Judaism), is not explicitly present as in these other traditions. However, in Vahishtoishti Gatha (Yasna 53,9), according to the Heidelberg translation, there is a wonderful passage that Paul or one of the Hebrew prophets could not have articulated any better:

Rot spreads through those of evil preferences. They are (nothing but) dusk and darkness, greedy violators of truth whose bodies are forfeited. Where is the truthful Ahura who may deprive them of their livelihood and liberty? It is your power, O Mazda, through which you will grant what is better to the poor person living decently.32

In contemporary criticism, it is often stated that Paul’s admonition of sinfulness is culture-bound and outdated, a product of its time and place, and thus should be read in that context (and, predictably, ignored as a guide for morality). Sometimes this argument is extended in order to dismiss the totality of moral guidance included in the Epistles, or attributed to Jesus or the prophets, or contained in the Bible in general, whether Tanakh or New Testament. Other faith traditions, we are told, especially those that are described as “Eastern,” are not as judgmental and intolerant, and are better guides for modern living, as they are more consistent with the current zeitgeist and more in keeping with the relativistic ethos that defines present-day mores. (A substantial misreading, we have shown, of these major religions.) We should live, accordingly, not by the guidance of accursed and hateful Western (read: Judeo-Christian) morality, but of some amorphous mystical spirituality.

The examples offered in this section put the lie to this contemporary misreading of moral theology as found in the sacred texts of the world’s major religions. Paul’s admonition may hold canonical authority for Christians, but in form and content it is hardly unique. In short, this section of Romans 1 is a prolegomenon to his observation that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23, ESV), not least because Gentiles anywhere have sufficient revelation of God in natural law (Rom. 2:16) that they can choose to live virtuously by the standards they have, even if Torah Law has not yet been made known to them. Unfortunately, as Paul goes on to say, many both within and without Torah Law choose to do otherwise, and in neither case innocently.

Conclusion and Suggestions

It would seem on these considerations that not only is Paul’s list predictably Jewish, but one that would be well understood among Mediterranean Gentiles, and even further afield, even where honored more often in the breach than in the observance. But this is clearly the case with postmodern Europeans and North Americans as well—that is to say, our societies now more resemble the Gentile world of ancient pagan Greece and Rome than the Jewish culture from which Paul came or the Christian culture that he was beginning to build. Moreover, this general condition represents a significant challenge for people of faith who believe themselves to be obligated to a closer adherence to biblical standards for moral living. We suggest that a reversion to the habitual vices Paul ascribes to ancient Roman culture is nowhere more apparent than in the world of our elites—politicians, celebrities, corporate advertisers, and certainly educators. The consequences of this reversion have been momentous for our own culture—including academic culture.

Among university faculty there is now less expectation of objective judgment, of charitable disposition and tolerance for disparate views; in their place we often meet with open misrepresentation and even deceit born of ambition, envy, rigid political agendas, adversarial exclusion and malice, unforgiving and unmerciful “cancel culture,” and the like. There are in our society too, “haters of God,” some of them more vocal than others, to be sure, but more who regularly reveal their anti-religious animus than used to be the case in America especially. These are simply the current “collegial” working conditions for many.

While we ourselves are very grateful to work in a far happier environment, we are well aware that some of our readers, especially perhaps those in secular colleges and universities, may work in far less hospitable conditions. We are reminded of one humanities faculty member who, despairing of the loss of amiability in the faculty lounge, erected over its entrance lintel a sign reading Lasciate ogni speranza, voi che entrate (Abandon all hope, ye who enter) only to have it torn down in the same day, presumably by someone intolerant even of a joke in support of greater civility. To admit to having suggested in the light of recent academic news that the motto of his graduate alma mater be changed to φάσκοντες εἶναι σοφοὶ ἐμωράνθησαν (Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools) is, of course, merely a jest; the toxic environment in many faculty lounges, departmental meetings, and professional conferences, on the other hand, is a serious matter.

We should be realistic: our own version of the social and moral culture described in Romans 1 has brought distress and pain to the halls of academe and further, incurred a significant loss of prestige, even perhaps of credibility, for the profession. Many—not just committed Christians and observant Jews—regard the university as an intellectual institution in decline, and for a scholar who wishes not to conform to the world and simultaneously not to be defeated by the opprobrium, there are serious challenges to be faced, not only in the pursuit and publication of worthwhile research, but in some contexts in teaching as well. Nor are these general conditions likely soon to change for the better; as with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are no apparent magical solutions on the horizon. Both our general culture and its academic subcultures have undergone changes and arrived at stances and predilections which require of us—to the degree that we are “in the world but not of it”—some thoughtful recalibration. We do not propose an extensive series of possible strategies here, but merely indicate a few principles that are consistent with the case for cultural engagement which follow from Paul’s own approach in Romans taken as a whole.

One such principle may be stated in this way: be candid to confess your convictions regarding what you cannot approve as the situation may make it necessary, but do so without demonizing your interlocutors or treating them in an adversarial way. After all, if you believe that they may well be “held captive by sin” in ways that they do not fully comprehend, then they deserve more our kindness than our disdain, for, as noted, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” not least ourselves. Where our scholarship requires of us to correct misunderstanding or misrepresentation, we should be painstakingly thorough in our research, getting our facts right, but gentle rather than triumphalist in presenting our findings. An excellent exemplar is afforded by the article of Mark D. Smith, referenced above, who approaches a volatile Romans 1 issue on which he has discovered both misconstrual and bias, but in such a spirit of fairness as well as commitment to the truth that he both respects his opponents and leaves open the possibility of further (and civil) dialogue. There are many other exemplars, on various issues, which will come to mind among CSR readers. In all such engagements it is appropriate to consider that noetic atrophy and loss of categories may render some interlocutors unable to see “where you are coming from” with clarity. This impediment must be met with tact, charity, and patience if dialogue is to be possible.

A second principle, we suggest, ought to be: do not let the tumult get you down. Yes, the world in which we live and to which we must bear an honest witness, including the academic world, is in pretty rough shape, but it is not helpful to over-dramatize it any more than it would be morally responsible to avoid all controversial topics. Be a truth-seeker, expect to meet conflict, but do not be discouraged. Read Romans 8 as often as needed to remind you who is ultimately in charge! (Hint: it is the “Spirit of God.”)

A third principle: be sure to take full advantage of the riches of “the whole counsel of God”—all of Scripture—remembering Paul’s admonition that those who are Christians are “grafted in…and partakest of the root and fatness of the olive tree” (i.e., Israel) (Rom. 11:17, KJV). Accordingly, one ought to draw strength and perspective from the older Scriptures. Especially helpful in times like this are the Wisdom books—Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes—as well as others of the Ketuvim (Writings), including Psalms.

A final principle: do not expect that academic life in a distressed and turbulent culture will someday be all downhill skiing in powder snow. It will not be. Do expect that each of us may be called upon to present our “bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is our reasonable service” (Rom. 12:1, KJV). The balance of chapter 12 is excellent advice for those of us whose calling is to academic life: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect”(Rom. 12:2, ESV); one ought not to think of himself “more highly than he ought” (Rom. 12:3, ESV); and since there many members in the body (Rom. 12:4-8) we ought not to try to do it all. Teamwork is often the best way, and sometimes the only way. And finally, “Be kindly affectioned to one another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another” (Rom. 12:10, KJV), not setting our mind on “high things” (at least not all the time), “but associate with the humble.” Associate in worship and community life with people who are not academics, nor members of the “elite.” This will help with Paul’s admonition, “Do not be wise in your own estimation” (Rom. 12:16, NAS).

At last, to be brief, almost every verse in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is apropos to such as ourselves today, filled with wise and realistic counsel for our own “Roman” time. Our hope is that in the light of our present cultural crisis we can read Romans with fresh eyes and draw on its wisdom for the work we have to do, beginning with Paul’s cultural diagnosis in chapter 1, but then following through with the analysis and recommendations for spiritual and mental health in what follows. Shalom is the goal, both for ourselves and for our colleagues and interlocutors.


  1. Joe Kot, “Brit Jew Marries Dolphin,”, December 29, 2005,,7340,L-3191923,00.html.
  2. “Phillips Announces $HT Coin by ‘White Male Artist,’ a Durational Performance Piece and NFT Series, in Partnership with,” Phillips, June 17, 2021, performance-piece-and-nft-series-in-partnership-with-snarkart.
  3. “The Power of Piero Manzoni and His Merda d’Artista,” Phaidon, 2016, https://www.
  4. Liam Corcoran, “Man with Over 100 Tattoos Has Inked Last Blank Place Left on His Body— His EYEBALL,” The Mirror, June 19, 2015, man-over-100-tattoos-inked-5907975.
  5. John Leo, “The Professors of Dogmatism,” U.S. News & World Report, January 18, 1993, 25.
  6. Cited in “Why Nobody Wants to Teach,” New Statesman, September 3, 2001,
  7. Midas Dekkers, Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, trans. Paul Vincent (New York: Verso, 1994, 2000).
  8. Peter Singer, “Heavy Petting,” Nerve, March/April, 2001, web/20010603083023/
  9. Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Anchor Books, 1993).
  10. Peter Berger, “Who’s Afraid of Religious Values?” New York Times Book Review, September 19, 1993, 7:15.
  11. Emma Goldberg, “The New Chief Chaplain at Harvard? An Atheist,” New York Times, August 26, 2021,
  12. See Origen, “On Human Temptations,” Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume 4: Tertullian, Part Fourth; Mincius Felix; Commodian; Origen, Parts First and Second, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (1885; repr., Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), 337-340; and Chrysostom’s sermon on “ungodliness and unrighteousness” in “Homily III,” Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Volume 11: Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, ed. Philip Schaff (1851; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1889), 350-355.
  13. See Plato’s discussion of virtue and vice throughout The Republic, trans. Tom Griffith, ed. G.R.F. Ferrari (c. 375 BCE; repr., New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
  14. Saint Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Letter of Saint Paul to the Romans, trans. F.R. Larcher, ed. J. Mortensen and E. Alarcón (Lander, WY: The Aquinas Institute for the Study of Sacred Doctrine, 2012), 1.7.129-131.43-50. See Adam G. Cooper, “Degrading the Body, Suppressing the Truth: Aquinas on Romans 1:18-25,” in Reading Romans with St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. Matthew Levering and Micheal Dauphinais (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2012), 113-126.
  15. Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans, trans. J. Theodore Mueller (Grand Rapids, MI: Kegel, 1954), 45-46.
  16. John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. Ross Mackenzie, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas E. Torrance (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), 8:34-35.
  17. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1957), 2.
  18. Barrett, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 37.
  19. Cited in Gerald Bray, ed., Ancient Commentary on Scripture: New Testament, Vol. VI: Romans (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998), 46. Severinus would probably have had access to first-century Roman writers such as Suetonius, who in any case make the point clear.
  20. Douglas Moo, in what has become perhaps the most authoritative of recent evangelical commentaries, offers a thorough treatment of this passage. See Douglas Moo, Letter to the Romans, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 119ff, esp. 123-128.
  21. Mark D. Smith, “Ancient Bisexuality and the Interpretation of Romans 1:26-27,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64 (1996): 223-256. Smith offers a systematic critique of Robin Scroggs, The New Testament and Homosexuality: Contextual Backgrounds for Contemporary Debate (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), esp. of 17-118.
  22. Moo refers to this passage as a “vice list,” and discusses its particulars without reference to other exemplars in Moo, Letter to the Romans, 127-135, although not the ones discussed above.
  23. The rabbinic literature enumerates sins in several places. For example, Mishnah Sanhedrin 10 lists several categories of sinner who do not merit “a share in the World to Come.” These include those guilty of “vertical” sins (bein adam l’Makom, or sins against God, such as worshiping idols or residing in an idolatrous city) and “horizontal” sins (bein adam l’chavero, or sins against one’s fellow man, such as treating Torah scholars with contempt, although that might be considered a vertical sin as well).
  24. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man; or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 1944).
  25. Maḥzor Lev Shalem for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2010), 219.
  26. Muhammad bin Uthman Ad-Dhahabi, The Chief Sins (Al-Kaba’ar), 4th edition, trans. Mah-moud Ibraheem (c. 14th Century; repr., Beirut, Lebanon: Dar Al-kotob Al-Ilmiyah, 2009).
  27. Dhamma Tāpasā, “108 Defilements or Poisons of the Mind,”, November 15, 2019, mind/.
  28. Harabans Singh, The Encyclopaedia of Sikhism: E-L (Patiala, India: Punjabi University, 1993), 266.
  29. JAINA Education Committee, Federation of Jain Associations in North America, Pratikra- man Sutra Book (Raleigh, NC: Jain Education International, 2014), 91-93, https://jainelibrary. org/elib_master/jaina_edu/jaina_edu_book/$jes941_pratikraman_sutra_book_in_english_000249_data.pdf.
  30. Livia Kohn, The Taoist Experience: An Anthology (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1993), 100-106.
  31. Krishna Kamal Bhattácháryya, The Law Relating to the Joint Hindu Family (Calcutta, India: Thacker, Spink and Co., 1885), 424-425.
  32. Helmut Humbach, Pallan Ichaporia, The Heritage of Zarathustra: A New Translation of the Gāthās (Heidelberg, Germany: Universitätsverlag C. Winter, 1994), 105.

David Lyle Jeffrey

Baylor University
David Lyle Jeffrey is Distinguished Professor of Literature and the Humanities at Baylor University.

Jeff Levin

Baylor University
Jeff Levin is University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health at Baylor University.