* 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

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.

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