* 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, August 31, 2015

John 16: Birthing

As we've observed many times, no one was transcribing the conversations of a historical Jesus. The author of John often writes about the issues and experiences of his community and places predictive or instructive words in Jesus' mouth as a way of establishing authority. If Jesus said it, after all, it has to be right. The obvious problem, of course, is that nobody can even verify that there was a historical Jesus who matched the mythical character in the gospel narratives, much less verify what such a person actually said. Thus, the author of John uses the characters of the disciples in the story to provide additional validation. Toward the end of John 16, for example, the disciples are made to say, "We know that you know all things, and no one needs to question you," and so the reader is expected to believe what the characters in the story believe, through a sort of vicarious trust. It is not all that different from the readers of a Stephen King novel believing in vampires or ghosts because the characters in a fictional story encountered them.

We will set aside this sort of vicarious trust based on fictionalized accounts, even though there may be some historical basis for the account as the author of John recorded. Instead, we'll look at what the author of John wrote, keeping in mind that he and his community faced a great deal of hardship and persecution from the Roman Empire. (We won't get into the myriad causes of that persecution.)

As John 16 continues from the promise of an internal guidance system, the author of John has Jesus speak cryptically about the disciples not seeing him and then seeing him, and pain that will turn to joy. Then, the author has Jesus promise the disciples that anything they request in Jesus' name will be granted to them. Finally, as the chapter closes, the author asserts that Jesus has conquered the world. Let's take a look at these three aspects of this passage in more detail.

How Not to Be Seen

The bits about seeing Jesus and not seeing him and then seeing him again are even written as confusing enough that the disciples in the story don't understand it. Some would read this passage as foreshadowing for the resurrection story, and it certainly makes dramatic sense to view it that way. In this case, it is a literary device that is more or less useless to us in terms of practical application. There is something else here, however, that may point in a different direction. The author compares the experience of the disciples to that of a mother giving birth. Some commentators read this bit as a reference to the earth giving birth to the resurrected Jesus, or some other reference to a rebirth of the Christ figure. Just reading the passages indicates that this cannot be what is intended. The disciples are the ones in pain, and they are the ones who will metaphorically give birth to something that will bring them joy.

Perhaps the author is writing about the birth of the Christian sect, that the disciples will give birth to a new movement within Judaism and away from Judaism that will bring joy. The author of John didn't have the advantage of seeing what monstrosities religious organizations can become when they have power, but rather saw the command of Jesus to love radically as a game changer from previous religious traditions. This idea to love one another first and foremost is what conquered the world for the author of John. So, if the disciples are giving birth to a new religious movement, the author is writing from an optimistic perspective that hasn't been entirely borne out in the history (and current reality) of the Christian church. Certainly, a global political powerhouse designed to control a population through shame and fear does not seem like something that would bring its creators joy. Maybe I just don't find joy in the same things as some other folks. 

What if the author is not thinking in terms of a global political powerhouse designed to control a population through shame and fear, though? What if the author was thinking in terms of how people and communities grow and mature? We considered in the first portion of John 16 that the Jesus character had to disappear in order for the disciples to take the responsibility of living into his example of radical love. When the Exemplar is around, doing all the work, taking all the risks and responsibility, life is pretty easy for the followers. When they are suddenly faced with doing the work of radical love themselves, becoming personally responsible for living into the principles they have embraced, life can become a little more challenging. Painful even. But that sort of commitment to integrity pays big dividends in terms of personal satisfaction and joy. And that joy originates from an individual's own innermost being, so it cannot be taken away by anything external. And that intentional life of integrity has influence that reaches beyond the individual.

The author of John may be envisioning what he hopes for his community -- that they take seriously the example of radical love exemplified in their image of Jesus and that they take personal responsibility for living by that example, even when it seems difficult and painful. Then, his community would see Jesus again, not because of any sort of miraculous return, but because they had each become a living embodiment of radical love -- each one of them an Exemplar for others to learn from and imitate. Maybe conveying these ideas directly seemed less effective than contextualizing everything in the Jesus myth, but somehow many people have glossed right over any suggestion of personal responsibility in the author's words.

In Jesus' Name

The apparent guarantee about receiving from God anything asked for in Jesus' name hasn't done anything to bolster a sense of personal responsibility. People read these promises from the author of John, placed in the mouth of the Jesus character, and they draw all sorts of conclusions about the magical formula of prayer. (For the sake of ease, let's define prayer here as petitionary -- asking a supernatural for something. All prayer may not fit into this category, but petitionary prayer is really what we're talking about.)

Some people even today believe that their financial, physical, emotional, and social well-being are ultimately dependent on their faith and their prayers. Some people even today believe that when something undesirable happens in their lives, God is punishing them or testing them. It would be a lot easier if passing the test involved taking more personal responsibility and trusting the advice of competent professionals, but usually passing such a "test of faith" seems to involve trusting or waiting on God to act on one's behalf. It's rather like being passive aggressive toward an imaginary supernatural, but doing it with an attitude of abject dependence.

I grew up in this sort of culture, in which prayers were believed to be answered directly by the supernatural, and I have the benefit of experiencing life on both sides of this belief. Now, with over a decade of prayerlessness under my belt, I can attest that life is better without prayer. What I may have expected God to do for me before, I now recognize as my own responsibility. Some things are beyond my control, of course, and for those things I can seek the advice of competent experts. Some things are even beyond the control of competent experts, and in those instances I can hope for a desirable outcome, realizing that it doesn't mean anything one way or the other about me or how acceptable or worthy I am. I know that things will go the way I want them to just as often whether I pray to God (in Jesus' name or otherwise) or I pray to my toaster -- I will get the experience of a Yes, No, or Wait answer regardless of the object of my prayer. In which case, why pray at all? 

I'm not sure how many believers read this commentary, but if there are prayerful people reading along, here is an experiment that you can conduct in your own life: Stop praying for two months. See how things go. Continue to be mindful, meditate, and be introspective if you like.) Also be aware of your own temptation to self-sabotage your life. Not relying on God to solve your problems for you means that you have to take responsibility for your own life. Try it for two months straight and keep track of your good days and bad days, your tragedies and celebrations. Then go back to petitioning God for two months. Keep track of your good days and your bad days, your tragedies and celebrations. Is there a difference? If so, maybe your experience of prayer has something to it that I never experienced. If the practical reality of your life is essentially the same whether you pray or not, maybe you would want to reevaluate your expectations of prayer.

In any case, we should also consider what it means to ask for something in Jesus' name. We have no idea what this may have meant to the author of John. Maybe he believed, as some people still do today, that one's prayers must include the words, "in Jesus' name," in order for them to be effective. As we have observed before, this is the very epitome of magic. If I do the right things, say the right magic words, make the right symbolic gestures -- Poof! I get the results I want. Such prayers are just a Christian version of magical incantations. Maybe that fits with the cultural beliefs of the late first century. 

Maybe the author of John had something else in mind, though. Maybe asking for something in Jesus' name is another way of saying, "If you are following the example of Jesus, if you have his heart and his mind, if you are walking in the way of compassion and radical love, the things you wind up desiring will flow naturally from that way of being." Maybe the author of John is even suggesting, "If you have the attitude of the Exemplar, and you recognize your own power in your life, you can accomplish things you never dreamed possible."

Conquering the World

Whatever he meant, though, the author follows up by directly admitting that much of the words he attributes to Jesus are figures of speech, in other words, not to be taken literally. He legitimizes the scattering of the disciples with predictive statements of Jesus (written over fifty years after any scattering might have occurred), and then he has Jesus proclaim that he has conquered the world. Indeed, some segments of the church do seem in many ways to still be on a crusade to conquer the world and make everyone behave the way certain religious leaders want them to behave, but the author of John had no clue how imperialistic and politically powerful Christianity would become. What could he have meant by asserting that Jesus had conquered the world?

Most likely, the world is a metaphor here for the widely accepted cultural and societal assumptions about what matters most and what gives life value. Today, we might interpret the world as the glorification of capitalism, the perceived importance of having an expensive home in an exclusive neighborhood and all the toys and entertainment devices one can possibly grab. The world may be the perceived separation of people based on skin color, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexuality. The world is certainly the idea that wealth and power make life more worthwhile, that the promise of wealth and power are worth any sacrifices necessary. 

Jesus in the gospel of John is also a metaphor. The Jesus character is an exemplar of radical love that places people and community as more important than possessions, an exemplar of fully inhabiting one's identity and deriving satisfaction from living authentically rather than from living according to an externally derived set of criteria, an exemplar of engaging in building relationships and focusing on human connection rather than engaging in building empires and focusing on stockpiles of useless distractions from the messiness of human connection. 

Perhaps the author of John believed that people would recognize the futility of the socially perpetuated myth of wealth and power if they experienced the fullness of human connection and authenticity available to people. Perhaps he believed that people would be wise enough to choose what is deeply meaningful and satisfying in life over what is ephemeral and fatuous. Millions of people seem not to be wise enough even to understand that this is the choice before them. 

Here is an opportunity for clarity in your life. No supernatural is going to do the things for you that are your responsibility to do. All of the wealth and power in the world will not make your life more satisfying; these things just bring different kinds of anxieties. Your willingness to prioritize building connection within yourself and with the human beings around you is the key that unlocks meaningfulness and satisfaction in life. Your willingness to grow into greater authenticity with confidence is what allows you to transcend the pettiness of living from distraction to distraction until you're put in a box. Connection and authenticity can be painful, more painful than the numbness of being disconnected and irresponsible. But along with that pain comes the opportunity to give birth to something amazing -- You.

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