We see the world in metaphors. Faced with the vast, chaotic, incomprehensible alienness that is life, we seek to impose order onto it. We try to make connections, we search for patterns: the only way to make life navigable is to impose some sort of order onto the chaos. Whenever we are faced with the unfamiliar, we employ the familiar as a lens through which to interpret it. We use one picture to help us make sense of another. We can never experience life as it is, only as we construct it.
Language is one of these constructs: what is a word but a metaphor with a socially agreed signification? Language may provide the broad parameters of the form by which to understand what is signified, but it never offers the substance. Our imaginations do that. That is why we can so easily misunderstand what other people say, even when they communicate in our language: words, as metaphors, are messy and nebulous, and open to interpretation. When I hear the word “dog”, I may well picture the Chihuahua that bit me when I was a small boy, while you will picture the Rottweiler that was your close childhood companion. The word “dog” will carry different emotional and conceptual significances for each of us, and thus no two people will experience the same dog in the same way: we can only experience the dog through the filters of our metaphors. If a word as concrete as “dog” can carry such disparate meanings, how much more unlikely is it, then, that we will arrive at a common understanding of a word that conveys an abstract concept, like “love”? Or, Logos.
There seems to me to be a growing realisation among Christians across all denominations, both at a scholarly and at a popular level, that the Christian theology that has prevailed since the Reformation, and which currently underpins the God concepts in most Western churches, is deeply flawed and ultimately unsustainable. There is a recognition that our God concepts are metaphors, and that our theologies too often lead us to mistake the metaphors for that which they attempt to signify. It is increasingly clear that because our God concepts are metaphors of our own devising, we have a responsibility to habitually interrogate their veracity, to make ourselves aware of the limitations of the metaphors we employ and continually strive to refine or even redefine them.
This interrogation of existing God metaphors, and the redefinition of them, is central to what the writer of the fourth Gospel is doing. This becomes evident when, instead of a decontextualised reading that holds that this is God’s word, written by God through a man, and which consequently speaks universally and clearly to all people in all times and all places, we critically engage with the text:
In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. 4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— 13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1-5, 9- 14)
Last time, we looked at the origins of the term Logos, which for hundreds of years has been mistakenly understood through the translation “Word”, but which actually has its origins in the writings of Heraclitus, and would more accurately be translated as “the structuring principle of reality”. We saw that for Heraclitus, this structuring principle was violence: for Heraclitus it was conflict that brought order to the chaos (a deeply insightful observation on mimetic rivalry). If we assume that the allusion to Heraclitus served as a metaphor for the writer, by which he hoped we would come to an understanding of something unfamiliar, we need to unpack the ways in which the metaphor illumines the gospel writer’s subject matter: Jesus. Last time I suggested that the writer uses it to contrast Heraclitus’s violence-centred Logos with what he sees as God’s Peace-centred Logos in Jesus.
I do think there is more to the writer’s decision to use Heraclitus than merely an academic contrast. Heraclitus’s logos could not be understood in merely intellectual terms. There was a deep experiential component to the understanding too. I think this is also very much present in the gospel writer’s Logos. For the writer of the fourth gospel, faith is not simply a creed that requires intellectual assent; it is a way of being in the world that emulates Jesus.
To strengthen this reading of the metaphor, we will now look at the other allusions present in the gospel-writer’s introduction. The first 18 verses of the fourth gospel are rich in allusions to concepts that his Jewish readership would have understood well. And even though the writer had no intention of trying to reach a 21st Century post-Enlightenment and postmodern audience (which is the ludicrous assumption we implicitly make when we read the text without attempting to contextualise it – the habit of Evangelical and Protestant Christianity), some of the allusions should still be abundantly clear to us millennia later.
When the writer opens with “In the beginning…” and makes reference to ‘light’ and ‘darkness’ and creation, he is inviting a comparison to the book of Genesis. That seems obvious. Where we go wrong, though, is in making the assumption that the writer is endorsing the Genesis account. The writer of the fourth gospel is not trying to show us how Jesus fits into the Creation story; he is inviting us to think about the Creation in new ways, in the light of Jesus. The question we need to be asking is this: how do we understand what the “structuring principle of reality” is in terms of the Genesis story? And how is the Logos of Jesus different (in other words, why does the writer contrast them at all)? We have already seen that the writer alludes to Heraclitus to stress the ways in which the Jesus Logos is different. We can, I think, assume the same is true for the Genesis allusion. We are trying to understand the new in light of the old, and the gospel writers and Paul frequently stress the inadequacy of the old and the necessity of the new. A frequent refrain is the replacement of the old Adam with the new Adam, the becoming of a “new creation”, of finding “new wineskins” for the “new wine”, which the old wineskins cannot contain. So how does the new differ from the old? Getting a handle on that will give you a road into the gospel message, and to this end the gospel writer‘s allusions are most illuminating.
In Jewish thinking, this “structuring principle of reality” is commonly conceptualised as “Wisdom”. Consider the following passage from the apocryphal book of Wisdom of Solomon:
“For in her [Wisdom] is the spirit of understanding: holy, one, manifold, subtile, eloquent, active, undefiled, sure, sweet, loving that which is good, quick, which nothing hindereth, beneficent, gentle, kind, steadfast, assured, secure, having all power, overseeing all things, and containing all spirits, intelligible, pure, subtile. For wisdom is more active than all active things: and reacheth everywhere by reason of her purity. For she is a vapour of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her. For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness. And being but one, she can do all things: and remaining in herself the same, she reneweth all things, and through nations conveyeth herself into holy souls, she maketh the friends of God and prophets. For God loveth none but him that dwelleth with wisdom. For she is more beautiful than the sun, and above all the order of the stars: being compared with the light, she is found before it. For after this cometh night, but no evil can overcome wisdom.
She reacheth therefore from end to end mightily, and ordereth all things sweetly. Her have I loved, and have sought her out from my youth, and have desired to take her for my spouse, and I became a lover of her beauty. She glorifieth her nobility by being conversant with God: yea and the Lord of all things hath loved her. For it is she that teacheth the knowledge of God, and is the chooser of his works. And if riches be desired in life, what is richer than wisdom, which maketh all things?” (Wisdom of Solomon, 7:22-8:5)
“And thy wisdom with thee, which knoweth thy works, which then also was present when thou madest the world, and knew what was agreeable to thy eyes, and what was right in thy commandments. Send her out of thy holy heaven, and from the throne of thy majesty, that she may be with me, and may labour with me, that I may know what is acceptable with thee: For she knoweth and understandeth all things, and shall lead me soberly in my works, and shall preserve me by her power. So shall my works be acceptable, and I shall govern thy people justly, and shall be worthy of the throne of my father.” (Wisdom of Solomon 9:9-12)
In the Wisdom of Solomon, the writer sets up Wisdom as the light of the world that the darkness cannot overcome. Wisdom plays a pivotal role in the creation of the world and the ordering of the chaos, and it is precisely this Wisdom, which is in itself a sort of Logos, that many Jewish scholars of Jesus’s day considered to be embodied in Torah. In fact, as Michael Hardin argues, the claims that gospel writer makes about Jesus in the introduction to the fourth gospel – that everything was made through Jesus and that Jesus is the life and light of humanity – were claims that Jewish thinkers would have made about Torah.
Implicit in this comparison between the Wisdom of Solomon’s Wisdom-logos and the gospel writer’s Jesus-logos is the suggestion that the Scriptures are not the structuring principle of reality, nor are they the light and life of humanity. Jesus is. I would argue that this passage makes nonsense of the Protestant claim of the infallibility of Scripture and the belief that the Bible is equivalent to Jesus in terms of being the Word of God. This writer is suggesting that it is in the ways in which the Scriptures and Jesus are different that we find Jesus superior. We are being invited to find truth in the contrast. So how are they different? Let’s return once more to the Wisdom of Solomon:
But thou hast taught thy people by such works, that they must be just and humane, and hast made thy children to be of a good hope: because in judging thou givest place for repentance for sins. For if thou didst punish the enemies of thy servants, and that deserved to die, with so great deliberation, giving them time and place whereby they might be changed from their wickedness: with what circumspection hast thou judged thy own children, to whose parents thou hast sworn and made covenants of good promises? Therefore whereas thou chastisest us, thou scourgest our enemies very many ways, to the end that when we judge we may think on thy goodness: and when we are judged, we may hope for thy mercy.” (Wisdom of Solomon 12: 19-22)
The key difference is going to be in the way that Wisdom deals with the enemies of God, as opposed to the manner in which Jesus does. Throughout the latter chapters of Wisdom of Solomon, as illustrated in the excerpt above, Wisdom is praised for the manner in which it teaches the writer what godly living is: a way of being in the world where the enemies of God – who, in a very happy coincidence, just so happen to be the enemies of the writer too – are “wisely” judged and condemned to death and punishment, while the “children” of God live in God’s mercy.
The writer of the fourth gospel radically subverts the reader’s understanding of what it means to be “children of God”, by using the same imagery that associated with Wisdom and applying it to Jesus instead. The imagery that the fourth gospel writer uses is worth exploring. He claims that the Logos – the structuring principle of reality – is life. Not “brings life”, nor “has life”. Is life. It is easy to miss the startling claim: that which brings order to the chaos is not violence and violent judgment, as Heraclitus and Wisdom suggest, but life. And it is this life, the writer claims, that enlightens humanity.
Conceptually, what links both “life” and “light”, is that they have no direct opposites. Death cannot exist in and of itself; it is simply the absence of life. Darkness is not a reality in and of itself; it is the absence of light. Death and darkness are absences, not presences. We cannot structure anything sustainable around an absence.
This is why the structuring principle of reality cannot contain even a hint of violence. Violence and death imply an absence of life, and therefore of God’s Logos, if we follow the logic of the gospel writer. The presence of violence implies an absence of God in other words. But a world structured around sacralised violence cannot comprehend this. It must reject it, just as darkness, to continue to exist, must completely reject light. Human notions of justice and human cultural structures require legitimated violence. The Logoi of Heraclitus and Torah reinforce that. But the Logos of God, taking on flesh in the non-violent Jesus – “full of grace and truth”, came into the world created through him, but the darkness of a violent world could not comprehend the logic of non-violence and rejected him. Only those who “received him”, who rejected violent relatedness, could become children of God (and I do not think this has anything to do with getting into Heaven).
This is the theme on which the rest of the fourth gospel elaborates: if Jesus is the Logos, then the previous ways of relating to God – through the demands of covenant and sacrifice – are inadequate, tainted by darkness. If we want to know God, and live as Hens children, this is the Logos we need to embrace. And therein lies the Christian hope: if the whole trajectory of the Creation is not towards violent reciprocity but towards self-giving love and forgiveness, if peace and not violence gives order to all things, then God is not a tyrant whose wrath is to be feared, but a healer who will restore that which has been broken. And we are not trapped in this terrible cycle of violence: if we reject the Logos of the world, which orders things through bloodshed, and instead choose to relate in grace and peace, we can live as God intended.