* 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, May 18, 2015

John 15: Vines and Branches

The narrative at the end of John 14 has Jesus suggesting that his disciples were going to get up and go somewhere. John 15 starts with more teaching in the voice of Jesus. Did they go somewhere? Are they packing up and getting ready to go somewhere while Jesus keeps talking? It doesn't matter. This section of John is not about the plot of the narrative, but about the spiritual paradigm the authors want to promote. Remember that this is not direct quotation. No one was transcribing what an actual historical Jesus said. This is a theological idea created by someone decades after a historical Jesus might have lived, and the likely purpose of putting these words in Jesus' mouth was to clarify the identity of a particular religious community.

With that in mind, is there anything we can glean from John 15 without accepting the premises of the ancient community for which it was written? We'll tackle the first half of the chapter this week, and we'll look at the second half of John 15 next. We can't just translate the idea of the Father deity in this passage as a deepest, most noble self, because it's obvious that the authors conceptualize a supernatural who intervenes in the lives of people, taking action to "prune" some people and to gather others up and throw them into the fire. There is little of value in such a fear-based motivation to cling to a certain teaching or belief.

However, there may be some truth underlying the mythology. Perhaps one could observe that people who respond to their circumstances with integrity learn how to maintain integrity such that it becomes easier and easier to live intentionally by a clear set of guiding principles. This would be the pruning that enables one to bear more fruit. The pruning is simply the result of experience and practice rather than the active will of a supernatural.

What of those who are gathered and burned? For some readers, this is a clear threat of Hell, which they imagine is an eternity of torment. The authors actually don't suggest anything of the sort. The authors suggest destruction, and they don't even clarify whether they mean physical or spiritual destruction. Readers bring their own mythologies to the words of the text and assume that they know the mind of the authors. One of my professors used to say, "Let the text be specific where it is specific and vague where it is vague," and then he would proceed to fill in any vagueness with his own theological convictions. Human beings use their own creativity to fill gaps in knowledge. Perhaps the responsible thing to do is to be aware of the line between one's creativity and actual information.

So, if experience is what results in "pruning" such that a person becomes more and more comfortable and confident with responding to life with integrity, the opposite might also be true. When we become convinced of our own false beliefs about ourselves, other people, and the way the world works, we can head down a spiral of destruction. Letting our fears run us can destroy our relationships, our opportunities for meaningful work, and even our sense of connection with ourselves. If we consistently doubt the viability of our deepest values, there is no way for us to live into them. We could become predictably reactionary to every circumstance, leaving a trail of anxiety-fueled chaos behind us until we self-destruct.

The authors seem to have Jesus say that he is the vine and his disciples are branches of that vine. Then, they have him claim that they are not servants, but are friends. Friends are more or less equal, which the authors demonstrate by asserting that Jesus disclosed everything to his friends. They had equivalent knowledge. The authors still had Jesus issuing commandments to his "friends," though, and appointing them to "go and bear fruit." Maybe the word friend means different things to different people.

If we interpret this business about Jesus being the vine a little differently, it might be more useful to us. If Jesus is intended as the Exemplar of the narrative, then Jesus as an individual isn't the vine so much as the example he sets is the vine. The way of being that connects with one's deep values and acts with integrity to those values -- that is the vine. People who adopt that way of being are branches off of that vine. That practical ideology is built on something deeper than irrational fear, so people who branch off of that way of being must commit to dismantling their fears. Actually, you can't act with integrity to your guiding principles and simultaneously be controlled by your anxiety. Living intentionally cannot coexist with living reactively. 

People who can't or won't let go of their irrational fear, then, can't be connected to that way of being that prioritizes deep values and lives in alignment with those values. Those people are cut off from the vine, not by a supernatural, but by their own choices. Maybe they are cut off because they don't yet have the ability to live with integrity. They have to become more skillful if they want to be a branch of that practical ideology. Which means that they can be "grafted on" whenever they choose to (or learn to) live more intentionally, based on their clear guiding principles. If they never learn or choose to connect with their deepest values and live according to those values, then we see people who only know how to react out of their anxiety -- a habit that eventually consumes them like a fire.

Or maybe the business about the vine is slightly different. If the vine is the practical ideology of living with intention based on a clear set of guiding principles, maybe the branches could also be seen as the various choices that a person might make. Those choices that do not align with that way of being are cut off, or avoided, because integrity prompts a different decision. Those choices made in integrity lead to more satisfying options, yielding a life that is even more fulfilling. Even if we choose to interpret the vine and branches in this way, the bottom line is that integrity yields more satisfying lives than anxiety does.

It may also occur to you that one cannot be consumed with anxiety and also love other people well. The guiding principle the authors of John commend, to love one another, necessitates learning to manage one's anxiety -- learning to dismantle irrational fears. Love is not a haphazard, coincidental occurrence. Love is an intentional act, or an intentional way of being in relationship with another person. Love and fear don't play well together. If love is our priority, then we have to deal with our fear healthily.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

"The way of being that I've demonstrated to you is like a vine, and your deepest, most noble self nourishes that vine. If there is something my anxiety prompts me to do that doesn't line up with my guiding principles, my connection with my deepest, most noble self helps me clarify how to make decisions that have integrity. I cut off the options that don't align with my deepest values, and the principled decisions I make lead to more opportunities to live into my guiding principles. 

"You have already learned how to dismantle your irrational fears and clarify your guiding principles, because I've taught you how. You aren't a slave to your anxiety. Keep living with integrity, as the way of being I've modeled continues to take root in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you create the life you most want unless you live with intention. The way of being I've demonstrated to you is like a vine, and your lives are like branches off that vine. Those who live intentionally, aligned with their deepest values, have transformational lives. Whoever does not live intentionally, aligned with their deepest values, lives a life consumed with anxiety until they burn out. 

"If you live intentionally, and if you are clear about what actually matters most to you, you can accomplish things that other people only dream about. Your guiding principles run deeper than your fear. Your deepest, most noble self isn't represented in your irrational fears. Your deepest, most noble self understands that fulfillment in life is sourced by genuine love. As I understand the principle of love -- demonstrative concern for another's well-being -- so I have loved you; live with that model of love in mind. If you do what I've modeled for you, you will live with that kind of love as a guiding principle. I have said these things to you so that you will experience the same exuberance in life that I have experienced.

"If you still don't know your guiding principles, begin with this: love one another as I have loved you. When you feel obligated to give up something of yourself for another person, that is your anxiety and fear speaking. When you freely choose to let go of your own wants in order to meet the needs of someone else, that is love. Love is not an obligation, but a free choice -- saying 'Yes' when it would be equally safe to say 'No.' In the same way, don't try to live with integrity because you think you are obligated to me. The point is not for you to prove something to me. The point is for you to have the most satisfying life possible. I've told you and modeled for you everything that I have -- vulnerably and authentically -- because I believe in your ability to live intentionally into a best possible version of yourselves. If you connect with yourselves and align with your own deep values, you can create a life that is truly fulfilling. And part of that fulfilling life is in choosing to love one another, and to hold demonstrative concern for one another's well-being as a priority." 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

John 14: Within You

The second half of John 14 continues the message of comfort, encouragement, and empowerment. In the story, Jesus is aware of his imminent arrest and death sentence. The disciples seem not to have caught on in the narrative, so some of the words of this passage seem intended to prepare them for the events that are about to unfold. Of course, these words were written at least 60 years after the events they describe would have taken place, so the authors must have had a different reason for writing them down. Maybe it was just to tell the story in a way that had a clear dramatic arc.

We see evidence in this passage of the superstitions of the time, but underneath much of the language here, there is a message of personal empowerment. This is primarily in the bits about the Advocate or Holy Spirit. There are also a few turns of phrase here that we might consider coercive. "If you love me, you will...," is a hallmark of an anxious communicator trying not to sound anxious. We might graciously reinterpret those sentences into a clearer definition of what the authors mean by "love." Although it is a wonderfully concise way of saying a great many things, love is also a rather vague word that is subject to interpretation (or misinterpretation). Thus, we might replace it in this context with something more precise, such as, "If you trust the merits of what I have taught you and how you have seen me engage in life, you will follow my example."

The audience in the narrative have traveled with the Exemplar, they have seen him engaging authentically in living with integrity to his deep guiding principles (which were in alignment with the stated guiding principles of at least some expressions of first-century Judaism), and they have heard him explain to them how they might do the same. Still, they consider him to be uniquely qualified to live as he lives, and they are content to be less than he -- less capable, less aware, less human. The narrative is about to take a nasty turn, and the Exemplar is going to be killed for living with integrity to his principles, because this is a scary thing to people who value quiet compliance over bold authenticity. He takes these final moments with his friends to prompt them to see their own ability to live intentionally and with integrity.

The reader already knows the story, presumably. The Jesus character dies, reminding everyone reading that it can be dangerous to live according to clearly defined, deep guiding principles, even though it is the most rewarding way to engage in the fragile art of living. Then, the authors bring the hero back to life, which undercuts the very core of their message. With this supernatural act as part of the narrative, the Jesus character is turned into something beyond what any person can hope to be. Instead of feeling empowered to engage in this life fully, many readers believe themselves to be weak and incapable of doing anything good on their own. Instead of following an example of how to live with integrity, many readers spend their time waiting for a next life that they think has been promised to them. I guess it's a good thing the dead can't be disappointed.

Abundant examples among twenty-first century believers demonstrate the tendency of the overall narrative to convince people that they are weak, broken, incapable, and even worthless. Every day, people express their conviction that they need a supernatural's help to make basic moral and ethical decisions. How can such a person even consider being fully alive with authenticity and integrity? This depiction of humanity as weak, worthless, and incapable is not only a useless and lazy image, it isn't even an accurate impression of what passages like John 14 are intended to express.

The point of this part of the narrative is for the Jesus character to express the capability and power of human individuals to live fully. The promise given, to the disciples in the story and presumably to the reader as well, is that whatever you think of as divinity is within you. There is no reason for anxiety, because you already know how to be intentional. You already know how to be honest, even when it is challenging. You already know how to live with integrity to your deep values. The promised Advocate "abides in you, and will be in you." This is different language for what we might call a deepest, most noble self -- the very human qualities of truth, beauty, and creativity that help us define our principles and allow them to guide our decisions. Human beings are not weak and incapable; they have within them all that they need to live morally, ethically, and purposefully. You have within you all that you need to live morally, ethically, and purposefully.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

"If you really believe that the way of being I've demonstrated to you is the best way to live, take this business about loving one another seriously. You have access to your deepest, most noble self just as I have access to my deepest, most noble self. Pay attention to your deepest values and let them guide you, and you won't be disappointed. Other people are going to think that this is all wrong. They don't understand things that you now know to be true about how to live fully. You aren't responsible for their understanding. You're responsible for your own integrity.

"I'm not going to be here much longer, and yet you will keep seeing things that remind you of me in the world. When you see love and kindness and compassion, you'll be reminded of me. When you see justice and equity being carried out, you'll be reminded of me. When you see people paying attention to their deepest values and living with authenticity and integrity, you'll be reminded of me. I'm not really going anywhere when you look at it like that. And if you live in a way that reflects your deepest, most noble self, other people are going to see my hopes alive in you -- they will see what I care about most, made manifest in your life.

"I say this now, while I'm with you, but you don't really need me to tell you this. You know what your deep values are. Trust them. Trust yourselves. Don't be worried about what other people think you ought to do. Don't be afraid of what will happen. Just live with integrity, and place love as the cornerstone of your life. If you live into a best possible version of yourself, you can be at peace with whatever the outcome is. If you don't yet know the principles that you want to guide your decisions, you can discover them. You are responsible for your lives. You are capable. You are powerful. You are insightful. You don't need someone else to tell you what to do. You just needed someone to show you that it's possible."

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

If you want to live fully, you have to connect with yourself. Whatever else you choose to believe in, you have to believe in yourself. This is not to say that you form a set of unrealistic expectations about what you can do. Belief in and of itself will not change reality. Every person has limitations. But if you want to fully inhabit yourself, you have to recognize that you are a capable, whole, powerful, insightful, beautiful, creative human being with inherent worth and dignity. You may have a few things to learn or figure out, and you will definitely make mistakes along the way. The bottom line, though, is that your vision of a best possible version of yourself is worth living into -- that you are worth believing in.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

John 14: The Road to Shambala

Any interpretation of the seemingly mystical words of John 14 depends largely on the reader. Those who are less inclined to read thoughtfully may accept a traditional interpretation impressed upon them by a religious leader, but this would still be a human interpretation of an ambiguous text. Interpretation begins with some assumptions on the part of the reader. Some assumptions might be that there exists an eternal soul which persists after death, that there is an actual effective process of petitioning a supernatural for aid, and/or that Jesus was a uniquely divine individual. John 14 says none of that, but some readers believe that it does because they bring those assumptions to the text.

We will begin from a different set of assumptions. Based on the current evidence we have from scientific inquiry, there is no eternal soul; when people die, they are done perceiving and experiencing, even though they may "live on" in the memories of others. There is no supernatural considering requests from natural beings; sincere prayers made to a stapler will result in the same experiential answers as sincere prayers to a deity. Whatever the stories may say about Jesus, every person is capable of living with integrity to a set of meaningful principles that emulate those demonstrated by the gospel narratives. If Jesus exemplifies behavior that other people cannot hope to achieve, then the New Testament and Christianity have little value.

Jesus' behavior as the gospel narratives tell it does strike a chord with us, however. There is something admirable and inspiring about the basic principle to love authentically. When we look at this text through a Humanist lens, assuming that every person has inherent worth and dignity, we can still find meaning and a compelling invitation regarding how we might live.

Yes, it's still true that the authors lived in a particular culture with a particular religious identity, and so Jesus refers to a cosmology that is representative of that culture. To translate the use of "Father" in this passage directly into a sense of "deepest, most noble self" doesn't quite work. That sense is still largely useful, however, and places where it seems less than effective to translate things this way can be attributed to the authors aligning with cultural assumptions about reality.

Incidentally, before taking any seminary courses, I would have felt a little sketchy suggesting that we can interpret things one way in one instance and another way in another instance, based on a pre-selected set of assumptions. After reading numerous theologians, it has become clear that this is common practice, however, and there is no reason to hold to an arbitrary restriction that believing "professional interpreters" dismiss.

Thus, we have something of a commissioning here, issued in the narrative by Jesus to the disciples, but presumably intended by the authors to be appropriate to all readers. There are several phrases here that require definition. "Believe in," for instance, has often been misconstrued as passive trust that never entertains doubt. More useful to us would be interpreting the phrase as "trust in the values and example of." In other words, "Trust in the underlying values of your deepest most noble self, and trust also in the example that I have set for you in living out those values."

Then there is this business about Jesus going somewhere, and preparing the way for others. For readers who assume that there is a heavenly afterlife, this can be a comforting excuse not to worry about too much in this life, because the next life is all set up, comfy and cozy. While there is an element of reassurance here, the point doesn't seem to be to tell the disciples to just relax. If we begin with the assumption that there is no afterlife, and that this life is all we have, then there is some element of metaphor at work here. (Imagine, metaphor in a work of literature.)

Preparing the way for someone often means that a precedent has been set, that an example has been provided to emulate. This would seem to be the most useful interpretation here as well. The Exemplar has modeled a way of being that maintains integrity even at apparently great personal cost, because we give life meaning by establishing clear values and living like we mean it. That is how the way has been prepared. Readers know what that might look like by observing the (mythological and sometimes metaphorical) examples of the gospel narratives.

Of course, the real elephant on the page is that proclamation, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." Whether the authors intended it or not, these two short sentences have led to an insane degree of exclusivity and harm perpetrated by believers on those who practice other traditions, or no tradition at all. The "Father" of this passage is what we have equated with our deepest, most noble self, not an external supernatural. We might get distracted into fruitless debate about whether Jesus (or the authors of John) knew this, but even in this very passage, the writers have Jesus spell it out. "I am in the Father and the Father is in me." "The Father who dwells in me does his work." This is not an external supernatural. This is something within the person -- within every person.

So, the example set by Jesus demonstrates an understanding of deep guiding principles, which are perceived to be aligned with the core values underlying Jewish identity, but are humanist enough to resonate with all people. By acting consistently with integrity to these deep guiding principles, Jesus models a startling degree of authenticity and personal power. The example is one of a person fully alive.

You cannot connect with your deepest, most noble self if you are not willing to be honest. You cannot connect with your deepest, most noble self if you are living on autopilot or even passively acquiescing to someone else's values. You cannot connect with your deepest, most noble self if you are unwilling to take personal responsibility for your decisions and own your authentic power. That is what these words could mean to us. 

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The Exemplar said to his closest friends, "Don't be defined by fear. Seriously, don't let your fear and anxiety guide your identity or your actions. Trust your deep values; trust the guidance of your deepest, most noble self. You've seen me live with integrity. Now it's your turn. There's not one right way to live on purpose. There is more room for diversity than you can imagine. I haven't prescribed a specific way of doing everything because it isn't necessary. If it was, I care enough about you that I would have mentioned that. You get to decide how you will be, in alignment with your deep values.

"I want you to experience life as I do -- fully alive, fully aware of a best possible version of myself, and fully aware of how what I do connects with what I really care about. You know how to do this." Thomas said to him, "We don't even know where you are going. How can we know the way?"

The Exemplar said to him, "I am where I am going. I've shown you the way in every moment we've spent together. Have you been paying attention? You have to be honest with yourself. You have to be willing to confront your fears and claim your identity from deep within yourself. You have to be willing to take responsibility for living into that identity. If you've seen the way I live, you know what I'm talking about. From now on, you know how to connect with your deepest, most noble self and you know how to live with integrity."

Philip said to him, "Tell us the secret of your deepest, most noble self. Show us what to do specifically, and we'll do it."

The Exemplar said to him, "Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still don't know me? If you know me, you know what I value. If you've seen the way I live, you've seen my guiding principles. How can you say, 'Show us your secret self'? Do you not believe that I live with integrity to my deepest, most noble self? I don't come up with clever things to tell you, but I speak from my deepest values -- from the love and compassion that my deepest most noble self prompts from within me.

"Believe me that I'm behaving with integrity to my deepest most noble self; but if that seems too far-fetched, believe me because of what you've seen of my life. I've been completely authentic with you. It's time for you to take all of this seriously for yourselves, because if you commit to living with integrity to your deep guiding principles, you're going to be the same kind of example to others that I have been to you. In fact, you're going to do even more than I have done, because I'm not going to be around much longer.

"If you can reach a point of fearless integrity that authentically recognizes the inherent value of every person, if you are willing to strike a balance between unconditional love and absolute honesty, and if you are able to embrace a definition of success in life based on how well you align your actions with your deepest values, you're going to be satisfied. There is nothing more valuable that a person without fear could desire."

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Sure, there is still plenty of terminology in there that leaves room for interpretation, and some intentions take a lot of work, even though they may be simple to express. Still, this captures the gist of what this passage seems to be saying, with full awareness that I'm choosing to read it through a Humanist lens. Actually, it seems clear through any lens that these words are intended to inspire and challenge both the disciples and the reader. I'm also not sure how the principles demonstrated by Jesus in the gospel narrative are different from the Humanist assertions that all people have inherent worth and dignity, and that human life is lived fully when people accept responsibility for honoring their intrinsic connection with other human beings.

The bottom line seems to be that we need to know ourselves as fully as we can in order to live the most meaningful lives possible. I don't see a lot of people doing that, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't try.