* 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, April 6, 2015

John 12: Walking in the Light

The remainder of John 12 is a bit scattered. Jesus says some things to the gathered crowd, then runs away, and finally shouts some parting words. It's unclear in the text whether he cries out as he's slipping away from the crowd or calling out from a hiding spot. Actually, this passage is probably just a piece of the tradition that settled into this spot in the narrative because it seems to continue the theme of light and darkness.

We've already addressed the matter of looking at "prophetic" scriptures and telling a story that seems to be a fulfillment of those words. The book of Isaiah was not written about Jesus. We've actually looked at the first third of Isaiah, and we'll return to the later additions to the book, but none of it is about Jesus. When other people don't see things the way we do, it's easy to write the other people off and say, "God must be blinding their eyes and hardening their hearts." After all, if other people knew what we know, they would see things as we see them, right?

Wrong. People have their own complex reasons for believing and thinking what they do, and we are not usually in a position to sort through another person's psyche to judge their perspective. Writing people off doesn't explain their position -- it just prevents us from having to examine our own perspective. When we believe that God sees things as we do, and that God has blinded others and hardened their hearts against the truth, we have no reason to consider that our own perspective may be off-kilter. Better to spend our time and energy expanding and focusing our own beliefs and ideas instead of judging other people as blind and stupid.

This passage also begins with a confusing event. Jesus is speaking, and then there is a sound. Some people heard the sounds and concluded that it was thunder. Jesus apparently acted as if there was something intelligible in the thunder, so some people hypothesized that he was hearing angels -- that he was hearing something no one else could hear. The explanation, however, is that the voice was not for Jesus' benefit, but for the benefit of the people... who heard only thunder. Should the reader assume that God also deafened the people against his voice, even though it was for their benefit that the words were uttered? Probably best to leave this aside and chalk it up to the mythology of the ancient community in which the authors of John lived.

Of the portions of this passage that can be useful for us in our lives, we can trace a couple of ideas. The authors have Jesus say that if he is lifted up, he will attract everyone, and the authors interpret that as a foreshadowing of the passion story. What if that phrase means something different? What if it means that his way of being would be appealing to all people if they only saw it clearly? This is followed by the theme of walking in the light, and then there is mention of the fear that prevents the Pharisees from being honest about their agreement with Jesus' teachings. The concluding paragraph gently asserts that Jesus has authority and should be listened to, returning to the metaphor of light.

The authors generally present Jesus as fearlessly loving toward other people. He doesn't worry very much about what other people think (although he is sensible enough to run away when people seem to turn violent). He acts out of his own deep values. He is authentic in his expression of himself. And in being his authentic self, he expresses love and care for the people around him. His deepest, most noble self doesn't lead him toward tyranny or abuse, but toward kindness, compassion, and cooperation. He wants other people to have the same freedom to express their own deep values authentically, because he trusts that human beings share certain guiding principles in common. Once the fear and false beliefs are out of the way, he seems to think that people are, at their core, loving and peaceful beings. If people cast aside their fear and live into a best possible version of themselves, then the world can be a better place.

One of the problems, though, is that people can't imagine what that would look like. People need to see that kind of authenticity modeled in order to even believe that it's possible to be directed by one's own internal guidance system of deep values. Thus, the statement that if Jesus' way of being authentic is lifted up, people will find it attractive -- people will believe that it is at least possible to live in a way that authentically reflects their deepest, most noble selves.

There is still a lot of fear to wade through, though. As is the case with the Pharisees, there are a lot of social controls that work to keep people behaving according to societal expectations. Should we suddenly start living by our own deep values and guiding principles, other people will talk. We might be ostracized or abandoned by some people. The authors of John judge the Pharisees and say that they were more interested in glory from people than the glory that comes from their own deepest, most noble selves. Our relationships with other people are important, though. Being part of a group makes us safer, and human connection is vital to our existence. It's a legitimate fear that if we start living differently, we will put some of our social safety in jeopardy.

Social constraints are like blindfolds. We can be led around by other people's ideas of propriety, but we can't know where we are being led. When we allow the habits of people around us, the marketing that constantly bombards us, and other external directives to determine our behavior, we are essentially walking around in the dark. When we recognize our own deep values and live with integrity to those guiding principles, we are able to walk around in the light -- to have a clearer trajectory for our lives. This is a big challenge, especially when we look around us and find that many of the people closest to us are content to live in the dark. It doesn't seem safe to start walking in the light when everyone around you is happy with the dark.

We can judge those other people, of course. We can call them lazy, shallow, or spineless. We can say that they can't think for themselves or that they let themselves be led around by the nose. We can believe that they are stupid, irresponsible, complacent, or apathetic. Really, though, what reason does anyone around us have to live with integrity to a clear set of guiding principles? What example do they have that living intentionally into a best possible version of oneself is even possible?

Whatever the example of Jesus might have been, that story has been contorted to be about human weakness rather than human potential. The Jesus figures of current Christianities are rarely expressed as exemplars and are much more frequently portrayed as unique divine individuals with superhuman capability. Even historical or living people who do extraordinary things are more often seen as extraordinary people, while we are all normal, ordinary -- incapable of anything more than shuffling through a mediocre life. How can we expect anyone to walk in the light when there is no real model of what that looks like?

This is one reason that living intentionally is so damn scary. We see so few people even trying to do it. It seems far-fetched. Outlandish. Unrealistic. Yet, there are people living intentionally into a best possible version of themselves. We may have to look for them, but there are models we can look to. It's scary to risk being thrown out of the synagogue, but sometimes we have to get ostracized from our familiar exemplars so that we can see another possibility. Our confidence in our own guiding principles is won by pressing through the uncertainty of doing something so few other people are doing, realizing that it isn't that we are extraordinary people, we are just doing something extraordinary. Just about anyone can walk in the light. Just about anyone can live into a best possible version of themselves. It's work, but just about anyone can do it. Few choose to do so.

Paraphrasing the summary of Jesus' teaching at the end of this chapter of John:
If you follow my example of living intentionally and fearlessly by a clear set of deep values, you aren't just trusting me -- you're trusting yourself. You're trusting your own deepest, most noble self to guide you well. If you watch me, you'll see my deepest, most noble self. There isn't a barrier between the way I behave and the deep principles I hold. I'm living this way because it's an authentic expression of who I am, and I'm living this way visibly and publicly so that you can discover how to live authentically in your own life. If you choose to keep living by your old habits, that's fine. It isn't my job to judge you or criticize the choices you make. Something deep inside you knows if you aren't living with integrity, and you're going to put yourself through enough torment without me adding to it. I trust that living intentionally in alignment with the values I hold most deeply means that my life is full and rich and satisfying. I know that's possible for you too. I hope that when you look at what I'm doing, you see possibilities for your own abundant life.
There is no reason this cannot be the message we carry to the world around us. Yes, it is safer to stay within the confines of our familiar social constraints. Yes, it is scary to start doing something different from the people around us. If we care about those people, though -- if we want their lives to be full and rich and satisfying -- one of the greatest gifts we can give is to let them see us living into those possibilities. We live intentionally for ourselves. We get the benefit of living into a best possible version of ourselves. We also influence others, though. And our authentic lives aligned with our guiding principles are going to have a positive influence on the people around us. It is never just about us.

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