* 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.

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"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." 

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