* 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, October 19, 2015

John 20: The Influence of the Enlightened

The story of the resurrection event concludes in the gospel of John with Jesus visiting the disciples in an exalted form. As we see in John 20, the post-resurrection Jesus character passes through locked doors unhindered, and a week later the Jesus character returns to convince the skeptic among the disciples that he is real. Remembering that this is a story, we know that it would be missing the point to ask where the resurrected Jesus might have gone for the week in between these visits. Instead, we can follow the rather ancient practice of interpreting the text metaphorically.

If the Jesus character is representative of us, then the resurrected Jesus character is representative of a fully alive, fully self-differentiated, best possible version of ourselves in complete alignment between our deepest values and our actions in the world. We might equate being "exalted" with a state of being unhindered by fears and anxieties, acting with complete integrity, sensitive to others without allowing ourselves to be restricted by other people's opinions and beliefs. Just as the Jesus character passes through locked doors, when we are living into a best possible version of ourselves, there are fewer obstacles that can keep us from being the people we most want to be, full incarnations of our deepest, most noble selves.

The resurrected Jesus character is not only able to be in complete alignment for himself, but he also influences the well-being of the people with whom he interacts. In the same way, we nurture others toward wholeness when we act in accord with our deepest values. Specifically, the exemplar in the story empowers others to live with integrity and purpose, particularly with regard to reactivity and shame. If we interpret sin as the reactive result of anxiety -- what people do when they allow irrational fear to be in the driver's seat -- then we recognize that we have some influence on other people's anxiety and the shame that they might feel after letting their anxiety run away with them.

When we show up as less anxious, more at peace, and in greater alignment with our deepest values, we influence the people around us. Just as anxiety is contagious, intentional calmness can be contagious, too. This means that our ability to act in alignment with our deepest, most noble selves has the potential to influence people away from reactivity. Even when people are reactive and act thoughtlessly on their anxiety, our principled intentional presence can influence people away from useless shame after the fact. We can acknowledge that being anxious is human, and reacting to our anxiety is natural. Yes, there are consequences to our actions and messes to clean up, but we are capable of facing those consequences and seeking reconciliation when things go sideways. Shame doesn't help us with these tasks. When we influence people toward greater wholeness by our own integrity and purposeful behavior, we might allow them to place limits on the influence of their anxiety and shame, and learn to cast vision in their own lives.

Now, the story about Thomas seems to be thrown in just to silence skeptics. Pronouncing blessing on people who believe things without evidence is a way of credentialing nonsense. When readers take the implications of this story at face-value, it affirms everything that is dangerous about religion. Believing something just because someone wrote it down two thousand years ago is naive at best. It lacks integrity to believing what spiritual leaders say just because they say it with conviction or wear special clothing or have authorization from a larger organization. Some things proclaimed on the basis of religious doctrine are quite simply false. Not only is there a lack of evidence to support some of the things people believe on the basis of religion, there is actual evidence to the contrary. Yet some people believe that they will be considered blessed or righteous for believing nonsense, because they read a passage like the story of Thomas and interpret it to mean, "ignore reality; believe what your preacher tells you."

Although it's probably easier just to dismiss this passage as a piece of early Christian propaganda to legitimize faith, we could also interpret this story to suggest that there are always things we do not know. We can guess with some reliability that the things we don't know will be congruent with the things that we can prove about reality, but there are still things that we don't know. In embarking on any journey of personal growth -- one might say personal transformation -- we must take some steps without knowing what lies ahead. To characterize growing into greater integrity and authenticity as vulnerable and risky is a profound understatement. When we build our lives with confident alignment to our deepest values, we may not see all that will be as a result of that intentional act. We move forward with as much clarity as we can have about our deepest values, but there are limits to our clarity. At some point, we have to trust ourselves to step forward into something we can't see clearly in order to become more fully alive -- more closely aligned with our vision of a best possible version of ourselves. If we take anything from the story of Thomas' skepticism, it should be this, rather than an admonition to believe nonsense and call it enlightenment.

The author ends the book of John with a statement of purpose. It's clear that the author has an agenda to convince people to accept his own religious position. The agenda of this commentary has hopefully been equally clear: to position the fictional character of Jesus in this ancient text as a metaphorical exemplar of what we might be if we choose to embrace our potential to radically love ourselves, the people around us, and the world we all share.

The goal of our lives is only determined by us. There is nothing outside of ourselves that compels us to outgrow our anxiety and our irrational fear. In some ways, society prompts us to remain anxious and reactive. However, if we choose to move toward being fully alive incarnations of our deepest, most noble selves, we are capable of embarking on that journey. We have within us the potential to act with integrity and intention. We have within us the ability to influence our lives and the lives of people around us toward greater wholeness. If this is not a compelling message of hope, I don't know what is.

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