* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

John 1:1-18 Introductions (meet the book, and meet your ideal self)

We could press forward with Isaiah at this point. The tone shifts dramatically, and the events around which the next chapters were composed are much later historically than the first third of the book. However, our practice had been to look at the “historical” books first, and then to take a look at the “prophetic” books that responded to those events. We also have not spent much time in the New Testament since our completion of Mark. As we saw, Mark has many similarities with the books of Matthew and Luke. John is a rather different reflection on the Jesus story, and it includes a great deal of wisdom that transcends Christian mythology. So, let’s begin to delve into John, and we’ll intersperse that exploration with a continuation of Old Testament texts.

The gospel of John was written sometime between the years 85 and 110 CE, by a Christian (or a community of Christians, possibly in Asia Minor) who followed a distinct mystic path within the Christian cult. This volume is theologically distinct from the other three (synoptic) gospels because it expresses certain traditions connected to a specific interpretation of Christianity. Most likely, this was to ensure clarity and consistency as the influence of this particular spiritual culture grew. It is apparent that the authors know the Jesus stories of the other gospels, which means that these other documents must have been at least partially written and distributed prior to the composition of the gospel of John.

The final version of the gospel of John as we have it expresses a mature, yet distinct, theological interpretation of the Jesus tradition, with less of an interest in chronology and historical accuracy and a greater interest in spiritual truth. It may even be possible that the seven purposefully chosen miracle stories in this gospel reflect sacraments or creeds of a particular community. So, it’s likely that this theology with mystic overtones matured in a Christian community that developed a nuanced set of Jesus traditions distinct from, yet compatible with, Christianity as it was interpreted through Paul and Peter. This document may also have grown over time as the theology of the community developed and spread. 

Often, this gospel is seen as portraying Jesus, Son of God, as the divine miracle worker, through whom eternal life is available (through the gift of the Holy Spirit) because of his death and resurrection. The authors’ seven miracle stories are connected with statements of the character of Jesus about himself, and these “I am” statements have parallels in Jewish Wisdom literature. (Indeed, the identification of Jesus as the Word in this book is a re-framing of the Jewish characterization of Wisdom herself.) However, we will also see that Jesus is depicted here as the ideal example for human behavior, characterized as one who serves out of desire and not obligation, who seeks love and unity rather than making demands of others, and who maintains integrity in the midst of societal misunderstanding and hostility. It is entirely possible to interpret these human qualities and practices as being the source of abundant life.

The introductory 18 verses of John have been analyzed in various ways, with some scholars assuming that the author is commenting on a preexisting hymn because of textual clues. However, there is no evidence of a preexisting text on which this introduction is based, although it could have gone through several revisions before it reached the version we now read. In any case, these first verses set up an authorial tone that is poetic and mysterious, almost as though one needs to be an “insider” to really comprehend the nuances of language. Our goal isn’t necessarily to get inside the author’s head, though. Our goal is just to draw some wisdom or insight that is useful in our own lives.

John 1:1-18 begins with an echo of Genesis 1:1. In the beginning... suggests that something new has happened. We are beginning religious history anew. Capitalization is not a feature of ancient Greek, so turning the Word into a title is an editorial decision on the part of translators. It is apparent that the Word is symbolic of something, though. In Greek, this would be Logos, or the principle of reason and judgment -- more simply, wisdom. Earlier Jewish writings ascribe a feminine gender to Wisdom, but it’s obvious the author is headed in an intentional direction.

So, Wisdom has always been around, and nothing human beings behold came into existence without following the principle of reason and judgment. This thought is often used to justify creationism, even suggesting that Jesus was around before the beginning of the universe. Maybe that’s what the author is actually saying, but without any evidence to support such a claim, it’s just a creative idea. We can say, however, based on all the evidence available to us, that everything that exists follows predictable, natural patterns. There is a certain reasonableness to nature, and we can recognize this even as we continue to learn more about the predictable natural patterns of the world we share and the universe as a whole. The idea of wisdom (or absolute, ultimate Wisdom) didn’t precede human beings, though. Natural processes have been around since there has been anything we might consider natural. Natural processes don’t have any inherent qualities like wisdom, though. The processes aren’t good or bad; they’re just natural. 

Yet, once we start evaluating things -- particularly human behavior -- we certainly find it easy to assess some things as good and other things as bad. We don’t always agree with each other, but we are usually pretty convinced of our own assessment of things. There is a light -- a way of seeing, an insight -- that is available to everyone, and yet not everyone recognizes the value of that perspective. The gospel of John will personify that perspective, that insight, that light. We may not really know what the author’s original intentions were, but we can certainly appreciate the concept of using a character in a story to demonstrate an ideal. The view that many believers take is that everyone should accept that the Light is a unique individual (Jesus) who should be worshiped and upon whom one must rely for salvation. It is an equally legitimate perspective to read John’s Jesus as an exemplar to be emulated -- the embodiment of an ideal that leads to salvation from a very real sort of destruction. 

What we might expect from a more Humanist introduction to the gospel of John, then, could perhaps be expressed:

There is a wisdom and logic to nature. Everything that exists, exists within a predictable array of patterns. Human beings also follow some predictable patterns, even though we don’t always realize that we are engaging in destructive patterns that can’t get us where we most want to go. There is a way of seeing ourselves and other people -- a way of seeing reality -- that creates well-being rather than destroying, and no amount of destructive human behavior can make that way of seeing -- or way of being -- inaccessible.

This is a story. It’s a story about a man who got it -- who saw things creatively rather than destructively. A man who knew who he was, and who knew what kind of world he most wanted to live in. To some people, such a person is really obvious -- a glaring beacon. One of our biggest mistakes would be to assume that we cannot be that person. This is a story about a man, a symbol, an example. This is also a story about all of us.

Such a person who sees the world differently -- who lives differently -- is going to seem unusual to a lot of people. Such a person might be really difficult for some people to accept. Doing things differently is scary. Even if the way we are accustomed to doing things hurts us and the people around us, change is difficult. But, those people who are willing to see themselves, others, and the world a little differently -- those people who follow the example of the man in this story -- they are going to have the power to create something new. They will understand love in a new way. They will understand themselves in a new way. It will be like an awakening -- like a new birth. You could be one of those people.

Imagine that a deeper kind of wisdom took shape in a person. Imagine that there was an individual who didn’t practice the kinds of destructive patterns we all default to when we get scared or anxious. Can you picture what that person would be like? From that image, that ideal, we can derive a new vision of ourselves. Nobody has ever seen any evidence of a supernatural divine being, but we can imagine what qualities such a being would have. A lot of those qualities are qualities we could have -- qualities we already have, if we choose to express them.

If you can imagine a person like that --
          a person who sees the world through eyes of love rather than eyes of fear,
          a person who is personally responsible and conveys honor and respect for all things,
          a person who tells the truth without blame or judgment,
          a person who acts from a place of authenticity --
if you can imagine a person like that, you can imagine a best possible version of yourself. And if you can imagine a best possible version of yourself, you can live into that ideal day by day. And if you can live into that ideal day by day, you can create something new. You can change the world. That’s what this story is about.

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