Process Notes: Bible Study (John 1: 1-18)

June 23, 2011

I went to a bible study yesterday, which was such an awesome and amazing experience, especially because I felt like I got so much out of it (and had the opportunity to meet so many wonderful and positive people)! We we’re studying the Gospel of John 1:1-18. Our facilitator made some very thoughtful points that really enhanced my perspective and understanding of certain excerpts of the Bible. First, in this initial excerpt of the John, Jesus is not referred to as ‘Jesus’, but as the ‘Word’ or the ‘Logos’. Our facilitator explained the meaning of ‘Logos’ as ‘the word, the source of meaning’ and proffered an interpretation of the reading wherein John is alluding to the role of Jesus as the means for understanding the words and scripture of the Bible. Here is the dictionary.com definition for Logos, which I think offers even more context to where I’m about to go with this:

1. in Philosophy (how fitting!) . the rational principle that governs and develops the universe.
2. in Theology . the divine word or reason incarnate in Jesus Christ. John 1:1–14 (confirming her definition)
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As I started thinking about this, I began to really appreciate the notion of John’s foreshadowing herein that Jesus’ words and actions while incarnated would be the ‘word’ or ‘meaning’ or ‘perspective and lens of Divine truth’ with which we could revisit and try and interpret (or give meaning to) biblical scripture (particularly the Old Testament).

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I have always admired the metaphorical role Jesus embodies–unconditional love, patience, kindness, forgiveness, hope, salvation, and willingness towards sacrifice (which required the intentional acts transcendence and transmutation) to help lift others up and empower them towards goodness. Jesus was totes a hippie, and I dig that- makes me feel that much more comfortable in my own skin, in fact!

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Our facilitator then made this super awesome point that really got me thinking. She made mention of the level of foreshadowing present in the Gospel of John, especially in relation to the coming of Jesus and his role in the Divine plan. She shared excitement over the notion that, when you start to think of all the ways (throughout the Old Testament, and here in John) Jesus’ coming is foreshadowed, the scripture becomes infinitely more powerful, and every passage carries deeper meaning and significance within it. What I appreciated most was the example she cited. She cited the stories of animal sacrifice demanded by God in the Old Testament (because duh. big surprise, the Vegan in me was never a  fan of those!) and the story of Abraham being told by God to sacrifice his son (the philosopher in me is still not a fan of this), but then applied the perspective-enhancing lens of Jesus qua ‘Word’ or ‘Logos of meaning’ or ‘reasoning principle for understanding’ and highlighted  how the covenant between humans and God is affirmed through this example (between Abraham and God), because it comes full circle in God later making this awe-inspiring (analogous) sacrifice of his ‘only begotten Son’ to save us from our own fear, misgivings, wrongdoings, wrong intentions, ‘sins’, etc. out of his unconditional love for us. Very cool extension of logic and positive interpretation.

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I teased out two points from this that I felt helped broadened my religious perspective, and that I truly appreciated. (1) The notion of using Jesus as the general ‘perspective-lens’ (tool) with which to try and favorably interpret (thereby potentially gaining understanding  and helpful meaning from) some of the more challenging, often troubling or counter-intuitive, stories of Old Testament scripture (again, I think this couldn’t hurt, but only help enhance my understanding of these excerpts by possibly shedding light on additional layers of meaning within the text, available when one proactively searches for notions of foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus throughout Old Testament) available IF AND ONLY IF (2) I challenge myself to read biblical scripture ‘in anticipation of completion’—which is just to say, anticipating (expecting) portions that I may find troubling or counter-intuitive (or downright dangerously misleading or violent) have some metaphorical significance, or serve some greater analogy, within the Bible, that has yet to be experienced by my understanding, and that I could then understand as rationally positive and good.

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Since I’ve always been an advocate of reading philosophical texts in this manner (I always try and assume the author of the book or article I am reading is at least as rational and intelligent as myself, if not, much-much more so, and even if his points seem counter-intuitive or ambiguous or ill-informed–I commit myself to reading in  ‘anticipation of completion’–fancy-schmancy way of saying ‘I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt unless and until you have presented the entirety of your argument and I’m still not on unequivocally on board). A practice that help keeps my ego in check (i.e. whoever the dude–or dudette–is, invested of their own time to document their perspective–organized and disciplined enough to have written a book or article– just to share with others information they accrued through their life) a way of thinking which I think helps me get more from the reading.
So yeah, duh. The least I can do is extend equal consideration to biblical scripture as well, it’s only fair.

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Note: I still find logical tensions in the story of Abraham and God’s mandate that he sacrifice his son. It seems to suggest a principle wherein its okay to be violent towards an Other if we  really believe its for a greater good and that we should be open to the notion of faith in the unknown–which may not be a bad thing for a person in relation to how they choose to govern and sacrifice their own person, BUT to presume dominion over the life and death of an equal Other based on that faith  makes me uneasy. I think a compelling argument can be made to illustrate why, in the case of Abraham and his faith in God, this story carries a powerful message on the power of positive belief and thinking in the face of the unknown (whether it be God or the future or Fate, etc) and in the face of your own fear and doubt BUT when I consider how this metaphor could be used to generate logically consistent operating principles in other spheres of human interactions with each other, again, I just get uneasy (think it may become problematic or potentially–too easily– interpreted in manners that justify wrong actions).

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I do think and pray and hope that if there is more to this story of Abraham (a greater fabric of context with which to understand this metaphor) that my potential for understanding will be enhanced and facilitated.

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We also discussed the metaphor of darkness versus light that gets used in John 1: 1-18. We agreed there was something timeless and moving to the human spirit in drawing on the notion of this juxtaposition (an intuition I could agree with). What I loved most, was how one attendee made reference to the notion of the exponential power of light in the face of darkness, citing the example of finding and lighting a candle in a dark room. Despite the room seemingly being overcome in darkness, if you kept searching for the candle, found it, and lit it, the small light would emanate throughout the entirety of the darkness in the room, and the room would be present in light. I loved, love, thinking and applying that metaphor in other spheres of life, especially in non-profit work and advocacy (or any time you are looking to facilitate or help improve the circumstances of an Other). It’s easy, I think, to become jaded and negative and a slave to your ego and insecurities when you are disproportionately burdened by a society premised on unequal distribution of resources, power, freedom, and potential. Many of the clients I have had the opportunity to serve have been filled with such darkness and bleakness and hopelessness (and were only able to see the world through the most negative of lenses) BUT I found that if you bear with them, past their insults and judgments (which are always the product of their own insecurities and hardly ever have anything to do with you– which is a wonderful thing to remind yourself, less you take things personally and let it hinder your ability to truly serve them) and you find any one thing that is incredibly good in them, anything that inspired you about them, and you let them know (consistently affirm it to and with them)–then it is just like you found that candle in them (which seems to require, more than anything else, faith and patience that the candle does exist) and you light that positivity within them. You show them how and why you think they are truly amazing, inspiring, awesome, interesting, and super-special, and then observe  how that candle you have lit will brighten every sphere of their life and  affect the decisions and actions they will take—diminishing all the darkness, the singular moment of light being exponentially more powerful than all the darkness that has sedimented from years of suffering and negative experience.

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I get that analogy. I believe it because I definitely felt the truth of it working in non-profit, specifically with socio-economically disadvantaged youth, women, and families.

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In social psychology, we learn that people grow up and form their sense of a social self and identity and personality through their interactions with others (George Herbert Mead writes really well and does a great job of explaining the social construction of self in childhood development). Always sounded intuitive enough to me; if everyone around you sees you as a failure or not-intelligent, or unattractive and undesirable and worthless, that is most likely how you learn to see yourself, and how you will act, and the personality and identity you will be socialized to embody. Likewise, if those around you interact with you like you have worth, are super special, super smart , have lights of positivity and unique talents shining throughout and beyond you, emanating outwards from within you, that is most likely how you will learn to see yourself, and how you will act, and the personality and identity you will be socialized to embody.

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What’s so super cool is knowing you really don’t have to have a degree in social work (which, like other professional/academic degrees, is largely the product of a mundane, sometimes unjust, always imperfect, and somewhat arbitrary intelligence credentialing system of power distribution), or a career in non-profit, to light candles in the lives of every conscious presence (person, animal, alien life form, career criminal, social deviant, who cares–the more personally challenging, the greater the reward!) you have the opportunity of crossing paths with in this life. I think that’s pretty awesome. If I say one thoughtful, sincerely motivated compliment to a few ‘random strangers’ I cross paths with during the course of my day, I feel like my day was so-super productive (personal productivity being something I semi-obsess over), and that feels genuine and awesome and reassuring and exhilarating and empowering (and addicting!).

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Post script: Upon re-reading this, and reflecting a little, I think there may be some parallels between the metaphors of light and darkness and the story of Abraham. I’m not going to go there now, because if I indulge in every connection my mind thinks it finds, and subsequently wants to explore more (especially on the heels of this understand-the-world-through-metaphors mind-binge I’ve been on).. I’ll go bat-shit crazy, but maybe something for later, noted now, so I don’t forget.

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4 Responses to “Process Notes: Bible Study (John 1: 1-18)”

  1. Rob said

    Some things are worth going bat shit crazy over.

  2. Dan Miller said

    Mary, this is a wonderful summary and reflection on the Bible study! I wish I could have been there to discuss this with you afterwards. Here’s one point that I was thinking when I read your (Kierkegaard-ish) paragraph on God’s command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. You say that the passage suggests that we should be open to having faith in the unknown. This is a really interesting point, and I think there are at least couple different ways one could understand “faith in the unknown”.

    First, one could take “faith in the unknown” to suggest a belief in something despite not having any (or at least very little) positive evidence for it. However, this is surely not the kind of faith that Abraham has in the above situation (I don’t take you to be understanding it this way, I’m just clarifying this interpretation of “faith in the unknown” to make a distinction).

    Second, one could take it to mean having faith (believing something, or trusting in someone) while in a situation, despite not knowing what the outcome will be. This sort of reading is suggested by the author of Hebrews when it says “faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see” (Heb 11:1). The difference between the first understanding of “faith in the unknown” and this understanding is that one can have justification for having faith even though one does not know how the future will be.

    Although (presumably) Abraham does not know what will happen to Isaac, he believes that God is trustworthy and good. God had promised a son to Abraham through his wife Sarah (Gen 17:12) even when he and his wife were close to one hundred years old. God fulfilled his promise in the birth of his son Isaac. God also had promised that through Isaac Sarah would be the mother of many nations; i.e., that Isaac would live to have many descendants. All of this gives Abraham reason to trust God in his situation. We can only speculate what was going through Abraham’s mind when Isaac asked his father where the lamb was that would be sacrificed, and Abraham replied that “God himself will provide the lamb”. Because God did provide a ram in place of Isaac, Abraham named the place “The Lord will provide”. (The author of Hebrews says that Abraham figured that even if he ended up sacrificing Isaac, God could raise Isaac from the dead and still fulfill his promise to Abraham of having descendents through Isaac- Heb. 11:17-19).

    So, God does not ask us to have the sort of “blind faith” I alluded to as the first interpretation of “faith in the unknown”. The idea, I think, is that God has demonstrated his faithfulness and his trustworthiness time and time again. if we truly believe that God is essentially good, omniscient, omnipotent, and that he has our best interests at heart (Jeremiah 29:11), then we have good reason to trust him. You say: “when I consider how this metaphor could be used to generate logically consistent operating principles in other spheres of human interactions with each other, again, I just get uneasy”. I can’t but agree. But the reason for this is that humans are not entirely trustworthy- we screw up, we cheat, we lie, we are tempted to break promises, etc. But the same worries don’t apply to faith in God.

    Anyway, I’m sorry that this turned out to be so long-winded. And, I know it’s just a reflection on a very small part of your post. I don’t mean this to be taken as any sort of lecture (I esteem your intelligence too highly for that), but just as a thought that was provoked by one of your thoughts. I’d love to talk more about this with you.

    • C.M.Marcous said

      Dan, Dan, Dan— you are too awesome!!! I can’t handle it. Costa Rica is going to be nothing but amazing conversation, and ongoing adventure, under the rain–and alongside the finest of company. =-)

      Thank you for (1) taking the time to read my ‘stream-of-consciousness’ style of prose (which I concede is not the most conducive style to facilitating others’ analytic assessment of points) and (2) offering such a thoughtful and thought-provoking response to help me more adequately contextualize my concerns surrounding the story of Abraham and Isaac. I do appreciate that latter characterization of ‘faith in the unknown’ you proffered. In fact, it is well in line with my own intuition. The tension that remains for me may be better illustrated through this statement: If it was Abraham sacrificing himself at God’s command, the story may never have caused me hesitation. I could comprehend it under the subset of the following principle: Every individual ought to be able to enact their own free will to determine how best to bring themselves closer to God and discern his purpose for them. He is not, however, asked to sacrifice himself, but another free individual (Isaac) that I want to assume is of equal worth to himself and with equal right for consideration over his own fate. The context of Abraham’s ongoing relationship and dialogue with God helps illuminate why Abraham could make such an incredibly challenging decision with some degree of confidence. I also think if someone (anyone) alleged God spoke to them directly, and told them to merck their son (or any other living entity) we would freak. Is this contrasting response based entirely on the premise that one individual’s perspective (and account of their relationship with God) was documented and remains in biblical scripture to modern times, and the others’ are not? How do we discern these actions? Should we assume that task beyond us? Also, what if Abraham asked God to explain his rationale for requesting Abraham to violently terminate a human life prior to agreeing to take such an action? Is that the ‘biting from the tree of Knowledge’ bit the got Eve her rap sheet? Why is their a tension in desiring a capacity to engage in free and open dialogue with our creator? To ask that he facilitate our understanding of his commands before we jump on board with them? I understand (advocate) utilizing faith and creative imagination to construct a bridge, but largely at the very brink of the limitations of human reason (when we actually feel the finiteness of our own rational capacity to apprehend). Would it have been damning for Abraham to ask God to help him understand? If he did, and God said to simply trust in him that it is beyond Abraham’s capacity to understand, would that response satiate my unease? I’m not sure. I’m just thinking aloud and am by no means intending to make you address that stream of questions I just blubbered off. We do, after all, have Costa Rica for that.

      • Dan Miller said

        You raise a lot of good questions, and I don’t think that there’s an easy (and satisfying) answer to any of them.
        I have inchoate thoughts on some of what you’ve said, but I’ll sit on ’em til we talk in person.

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