* 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

Monday, December 8, 2014

John 7:31-52 Being Living Water

In the second half of John 7, lots of different people are discussing Jesus and prophecy. It's obvious that the authors want the Pharisees to be seen as the ignorant villains of the story itself, but there are some interesting statements that suggest the authors may have been arguing with some of their contemporaries as well.

For instance, one of the points of Jewish messianic prophecy seems focused on the birthplace of a messiah. It's clear that Jesus doesn't fit that prophetic mold, because (according to the authors of John) he wasn't born in Bethlehem. He doesn't fit the prophecies, yet the authors clearly think of him as the messiah. This is a different approach than what the authors of Matthew and Luke seem to take. (The gospel of Mark doesn't have any sort of birth story for Jesus.)

It would seem that the authors of Matthew and Luke invent a story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem, including genealogies that don't even line up, just to have the tale agree with prophecy. The authors of John, however, point out that prophecy is less reliable than what people are able to witness for themselves. The people in the story of John 7 believe what they believe about Jesus because they have seen something, not because circumstances line up with predictions from long-dead forecasters.

The criticism of these believers in the story comes from the Pharisees who say that the crowds don't understand religious law, so they can't possibly know what they're talking about. Yet, the Pharisees were supposed to be among those Jewish authorities who instructed others. Any indictment about the ignorance of the students is a denunciation of the teachers. Maybe these fellows weren't really all that bright after all. Or at least, maybe the authors of John wanted them to seem stubbornly unenlightened and ineffectual. In any case, the authors of John point out that prophecies aren't always to be trusted.

Some theological debates seem to have little value. Dare we even go into the business about there not being a Spirit yet? Trinitarians assert that their god is a three-fold entity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. One deity, but three somethings. Personalities? Functions? States of existence? Trinitarians don't agree, and it isn't always clear to them what they're talking about. Many Trinitarian formulas, however, assume that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are all in some way eternal. Usually, the challenge is to the Son part of the equation, since they equate the Son with Jesus. Being human, Jesus had an obvious beginning, and eternal things do not have a beginning. The observation of John 7, however, seems to be about the Spirit. The Spirit apparently wasn't around at some point, and thus had a beginning, which means that the Spirit cannot be eternal. If you believe John's accounting, that is. All of this is rather pointless unless you are trying to prop up a Trinitarian belief system, which is based on a whole lot of other problematic assumptions before you even get to the bit about people being eternal. But in case it comes up in conversation, John 7:39 challenges the concept of an eternal Spirit.

I would challenge the existence of an eternal Spirit for the same reason that the gospel of John says that people believed what they believed about Jesus. We know what we know about the world by observation and rational analysis. Science continually improves our ability to observe well, but even in ancient times, there was obviously a sense that witnessing something first hand was a key to belief. The people in the gospel of John's story believe because of their own experience. Even Nicodemus, who is among the Pharisees, defends Jesus because of a personal experience.

We know what we know about the world by observation and rational analysis. This is problematic in and of itself, of course, because we don't always know what we're observing. As we mentioned last week, our brains are lazy. If there is an easy answer available, we often stop looking for more complex answers. Lights in the sky? Must be a UFO. No need to consider any other options. An infected person with a 50% survival rate gets better and goes on living? Must be a miracle. It's cold outside today? Must be global cooling. We aren't all good scientists, and even good scientists make mistakes in their observations sometimes.

In our own personal experience, we might find it easy to believe that there are supernatural forces at work. Anything that we cannot rationally explain in the first few moments we think about it seems extraordinary. We have to rely on people who have done the hard work of figuring some things out through intentional observation and rational analysis. There are actually scientists who have studied things like prayer and miracles, and the conclusions of every investigation to date that has followed strong experimental standards has been that what we experience falls within natural parameters. Some people do recover from really serious illnesses. Sometimes people do experience the things that they pray for. These experiences may seem extraordinary to the individuals experiencing it, but they are not unnatural. If an illness has a 1% recovery rate, it stands to reason that out of every hundred people who become infected, one of them will recover. To that one person, it seems miraculous, but someone has to be that one survivor out of a hundred infected, even though the physician can't tell who's in that one percent until they recover.

We all have assumptions and beliefs about how the world works. Some call our set of assumptions and beliefs a mental model. We've mentioned mental models before. One major difference between scientific predictions and prophecy is that scientists allow their mental models to be corrected, while people who adhere to prophecy expect reality to conform to their own mental models. Sometimes, scientists change their mental models very reluctantly, but a basic premise of scientific knowledge is that our beliefs have to adjust to new information. A tendency of prophecy is that, when a prediction fails to come true or seems impossible based on new information, any explanation that maintains old assumptions and beliefs is preferable to changing the mental model.

If we are not willing to change our mental models from time to time, we will be stuck in a perspective that doesn't grow. We will be stunted. We won't bring our best possible selves forward. The gospel of John is a story, but the characters in that story reveal some truths about us. When we see a truth right in front of our faces, and we choose to reject that truth in favor of our old familiar beliefs and assumptions, we are like the Pharisees in the story. When we do this, we miss opportunities to create the kind of lives and the kind of world we most want. We miss out on living into a best possible version of ourselves when we don't let reality and truth outweigh our assumptions.

In the story, though, the Jesus character reflects another possibility. "Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, 'Out of the believer's heart shall flow rivers of living water.'" Incidentally, this isn't a quotation from any known Old Testament scripture, so we don't know what scripture the authors are quoting here. The book of Jeremiah does refer to Yahweh as a fountain of living water, but that's about it. "Living water" refers to clean, flowing water that comes from a spring as opposed to dirty, stagnant water in a cistern. Some people take these words attributed to Jesus as self-referential, as if Jesus is referring to himself exclusively as "living water." The actual words suggest something different.

We've said that to "believe in" someone is to fully trust that person's example as the appropriate way to live. In other words, believing in a person is reflected by emulating what that person does. So, if anyone is not satisfied with a current experience of life, consider another way of engaging in life -- a way that expresses unconditional love for others while clearly defining one's own values. If your mental model isn't allowing you to live into a best possible version of yourself, try on a new mental model built on the premises that all people are worthy of love and that you are beautiful, creative, and capable. If you adopt this new way of seeing yourself, other people, and the world, the effects will flow into the lives of other people around you as well. This isn't a selfish vision, but a vision of transformation.

Old inaccurate assumptions and beliefs cannot contribute to a better world. They will only get in our way. If we want to live into a best possible version of self, we have to base our mental models on truth about ourselves, other people, and the world we all share. This also means that we have to revise our mental models as we get new information. All of this goes back to living more intentionally, considering our values and being purposeful in how we act with integrity to those values. When we do that, we are like refreshing water from a pure spring in the lives of others around us.

A Little Experiment: Assuming. As a way of demonstrating to yourself how many assumptions you make about others, notice a stranger at a meeting or restaurant and make a mental list of all the assumptions you can make about that person. Some of your assumptions may be right. If you're at a conference for accountants, you might assume a person's career pretty accurately. Make your list more detailed than that, though. You probably assume some things about a person's education, family, hobbies, faith, and political affiliation too. Notice how many things you assume about a person you actually know very little about.

A Risky Experiment: Verify. Introduce yourself to that stranger from the previous experiment and see how many of your assumptions were accurate. You might even tell the person that you are working on not making assumptions about people.

If you really want to learn something about yourself, repeat these two experiments with as diverse a group of people as you can for a month.

A Big Experiment: Inquiry. Consider one of your beliefs. If you want to play it safe, use a belief in Bigfoot or something like that. If you are willing to go deep, take a belief in which you've invested a little more emotional energy. Examine the evidence for that belief using the SEARCH formula introduced by Theodore Schick, Jr. & Lewis Vaughn in their book How to Think about Weird Things:Critical Thinking for a New Age:
State the belief clearly.
Examine the Evidence for the belief.
Consider Alternative possibilities.
Rate, according to the Criteria of adequacy, each Hypothesis.
The "criteria of adequacy" is a way of saying that an idea (1) can be tested, (2) yields observable predictions, (3) is the simplest explanation [that is, makes the fewest assumptions], and (4) is consistent with other trustworthy observations about the world.

As I said, a big experiment.

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