People are fictions. What I mean is this: we never relate to people as they are; we relate to versions of those people from the stories we tell ourselves about them. The more time we spend with people, the more closely our narratives may align with the people themselves, but even then our narratives will be deeply subjective and incomplete. This is because our interactions with narratives are always and inevitably interpretive: we assign meaning to other people’s words and actions, meanings that are rooted in our own experiences, fears and desires. In much the same way, we attempt (often unconsciously) to influence the narratives that others form about us. We reveal certain information about ourselves publicly while concealing other information; we emphasise certain characteristics and downplay others to shape the narratives of ourselves that others construct. People are fictions and they relate as fictions.
Because our identities are formed through imitation – forged from the perceived desires of others, we even relate to ourselves as fictions. Others’ stories about us shape our sense of self, even as our narratives about them will be instrumental in the selves they perceive.
The roles we believe ourselves to play, and the roles that we believe others play in whatever our version of the grand narrative is, determine the nature of the relationships we form. And human stories tend to have heroes and villains. The stories we tell are remarkably predictable: at the end, the heroes vanquish the villains and restore order. More often than not people cast themselves if not as heroes, then at least on the side of good. They know they are on the side of good because they have the blessing of the higher power – whether in the form of God, human rights, political ideology, science and logic, is immaterial as they all ultimately perform the same function. And that function is to justify the vanquishing of the villains. Our story-telling creates victims. Our story-telling also conceals the fact that they are victims by calling the victimisation “justice”.
Thus religion (and its offspring, culture) become the sociological mechanisms by which we maintain order and social cohesion (the good) through the expulsion of the villain. They are the stories that we believe will lead us to a happily ever after. But our relationship with the gods is, in nature, identical to our relationships with other people: based on fictions. It can be no other way. Just as we relate not to other people, but to our own fictions about them, so our relationships with the gods are given shape by our fictions about them. If our gods behave suspiciously like us, it is because we have shaped them in our likeness. They demand blood-justice because that is what we will have them do. If they are capricious and patriarchal and fickle and cruel, it is because we ourselves are. Any revelation of a god is simultaneously a revelation of humanity.
And so finally, I come to the point in this series where anthropology and theology collide. This twofold revelation, through Jesus, is what we Christians have come to know as the gospel. Essentially what this revelation does, is to recast our narrative about God and, in so doing, it also recasts our narratives about one another. Theology and anthropology are intertwined: a shift in perspective on one domain creates a shift in perspective in the other.
Today I want to explore that recasting as it plays out in a particular story in John’s gospel – the healing of the man born blind. The story begins when the disciples ask Jesus about a man who was blind from birth: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is a story of exclusion. How should this blindness be framed in our narratives? Who, the disciples want to know, is the legitimate scapegoat? How do we go about justifying this exclusion? Implicit in the question is the assumption that the exclusion is, in fact, justified – we are the good guys, that much is clear, but who has angered God? Who is the villain? Jesus’s response – which is as much in his actions as in his words – reframes the matter: Jesus does not accuse anyone, but simply states that it is so that the work of God may be revealed in him, and he proceeds to heal the blindness.
I am going to spell out the first point I wish to draw: the work of God, Jesus’s response implies, lies not in ascertaining who is guilty, but in finding opportunities to bring healing and to reintegrate the man into the community; God’s work involves finding ways to bring people in to the group, not in finding excuses for keeping them out. It is work that throughout his life will put a target on Jesus because he finds reasons to include Romans, Samaritans, tax-collectors – all of the community’s scapegoats – into the definition of ‘children of God’.
But the Pharisees persist in their exclusion of the man. They insult him, threaten him, and expel him from the synagogue. The man himself, however, through this act of inclusion, is able to recognise the revelation of God. The writer concludes the story by having Jesus state: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
And in that statement it becomes clear to us that this is intended as an everyman story. The fact that the man was blind from birth, the writer suggests, can be taken to imply that humans have – since the beginning – been blind to the work of God. This interpretation is reinforced throughout the gospel of John through the metaphor of Jesus being the light of the world, which the world’s darkness cannot see.
What Jesus’s statement also suggests is that the act of judgment is the healing act itself. It is this act of inclusion, this rejection of the scapegoating of the blind man and the reintegration of him into society that this healing enables, that reveals that it is those who claim to be able to know the will of God who are, in fact, blind to the revelation of God, as evidenced by their persistence in exclusionary ethics. Jesus’s inclusive ethic is the judgement of God, because it is this inclusivity that exposes the scapegoating mechanism that drives the political and religious systems of Jesus’s society as being contrary to God’s will. It is a concrete illustration of the principle that the writer has already stated is at the heart of his gospel message: “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1 :5).
Do you see what a radical statement this writer is making? The Jewish metanarrative of the time had (to simplify it) at its heart an expectation that God would act to vindicate the persecuted righteous ones. They understood the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of God as a process whereby the wicked would get what was coming to them, and the down-trodden people of God – the forces of good, in other words – would ultimately be avenged. But the judgement of God, as revealed in Jesus, is neither accusatory nor retributive. The Jews had always seen themselves as the victims whom God would vindicate, but here God’s vindication of the victim takes the form of reintegration, not retribution. Simply by including the marginalised into society, Jesus antagonises those whose mechanism for creating a just society relies on exclusion.
In this vein, the resurrection of Jesus is God’s judgment on the world. The Jewish understanding of the final Resurrection was, as I have already stated, that God would ultimately vindicate the persecuted Israel. The early followers of Jesus understood his resurrection as the initiation of this final resurrection in the here and now. In the Jewish story, the Resurrection is an act of both judgment and vindication. Except in this resurrection of Jesus, this day of judgment, there is no vengeance. Jesus (and thus God) comes as the vindicated, forgiving victim. After all, in God there is no darkness at all. And in this act of forgiveness, forgiveness for murdering God – in which we are all portrayed as complicit in the gospel (if we are all the man born blind we are also all the Pharisees)- judgment is passed on a world that can only achieve peace through violence, through crucifying even God. Those whose stories of God depend on exclusion will be incensed, and are already shown to be blind. Thus the very act of God’s forgiveness is God’s act of judgment, and it divides those who are willing to reconcile from those who are not.
It is, I think, tragically ironic that many of the people most blind to the gospel today are Christians. Over the last two thousand years we have framed a narrative around Jesus that more or less directly contradicts the gospel message concerning him. We tell stories of a God who vindicates through fire, who rewards the righteous and smites the wicked. We have a God incapable of gratuitous forgiveness, but who requires debts to be paid in full, and in blood. We have a church where the instinctive response to any challenge to this kind of theology from within is to excommunicate.
This Christmas time, my fellow Christians, my wish for you is that you may catch even a very brief glimpse of the life-affirming potential that the gospels offer if we are willing to shift our narratives. Your relationship with God – as are all human relationships – is a fiction, based on the stories about God that have been taught to you and which you continue to tell yourself. But our stories of God, as all stories are, are incomplete. Even plainly wrong. They sell God short. They make God too much like us.
May I ask that you meditate on this core tenet of the faith: that Jesus is the full and perfect revelation of God. Jesus is not a partial representation of God or an incomplete one, but the perfect image of God because Jesus is God. This was certainly the understanding of the early church:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him” (Colossians 1: 15, 19 – my emphasis)
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3 – my emphasis)
With this as your starting point, may I encourage you to reflect on your narrative of God (and, by extension, your narrative about others) and juxtapose it with the narrative of God evident in Jesus. How do they line up? If our narrative about Jesus casts him in a vengeful, retributive, exclusionary role, it is time to rethink.
All of our relationships are fictions – we relate to others according to the stories we have framed about them, not according to who they actually are. We create heroes and villains. But Jesus, simply through his living, dying, rising, forgiving and healing, has judged those stories. There are no heroes and there are no villains; there is only an “us” and our (problematic) stories about God and each other. Fortunately, fictions can be rewritten – we can choose to relate according to a different, more inclusive story. A Jesus story. It is not a popular story, to be sure. Like the disciples, the world wants to know who to blame for the evident injustices. Whose sin is responsible for the blindness? The non-believers? The patriarchy? Religion? Capitalists? Colonialism? The Right wing? The liberal left? Who should we shun? And just as it was for the Pharisees, the idea of integrating the “sinners” into our ideas of “us” can seem intolerable.
But that is not my wish for you. My wish for you is that you will let Jesus put the clay on your eyes too, that you will see and be healed, recreated with new sight into a more inclusive story of “us”.