In my continuing exploration of the work of Alexander Shaia in his book, The Hidden Power of the Gospels, I have been revisiting most recently his discussion of the Gospel of John. What moves me most deeply about his discussion is the way in which he teases out John’s beautiful and overarching image of the unity of all things as the key to the new life to which Jesus the Christ gives us access. When John speaks in his gospel of “the world”, Shaia notes that he is speaking of the illusions to which we human beings fall victim. The principal illusion is of separateness leading to division. As Shaia says,
Our untransformed ego-self will persistently try to spring traps, tempting us to perceive our world and ourselves as a series of divisions instead of an indivisible whole. It will keep asking us to separate things and to make either/or judgments. It will try to force everything into black or white.
John would urge us to enter into the life of the Spirit, or the perspective of the Christ, which sees the unity that underlies all things and recognizes that the peace which passes all understanding lies in the grace to be able to bring opposites into harmony. This spiritual vision is ultimately more a matter of the heart than of the head.
Wonderfully, Shaia points out that as John unfolds his beautiful, unitive vision, it is interrupted by glimpses of his own struggle to live into the vision he perceives. There are moments of anger in his gospel where he lashes out at “the Jews”, for example. Shaia laments the fact that in Christian history, these passages have been used as a justification for anti-Semitism. Yet, Shaia points out that John himself was a Jew, as was Jesus, and these outbursts betray an anger with Jewish teachers and leaders rather than with the Jewish people as a whole. Nevertheless, they also betray the fact that John himself is still reaching for the fullness of the unitive spiritual vision he so carefully lays out.
We certainly find ourselves living in a time when the illusion of separateness is seen as the way things truly are. The level of conflict in our public life (let alone in our private lives) is largely informed by an “us versus them” perspective that prevents us from perceiving that we are, in fact, all one. Our dualistic thinking, so deeply ingrained in us, fuels our sense that “they” are a threat to “us” or “he” is a threat to “me”, and thus I must do all I can to secure my own interests. We do not perceive that our interests are inextricably bound up with the interests of the “other”.
Recently, I heard an interview with a twenty-something man somewhere in the country about the upcoming Presidential election. He regarded himself as an Independent, aligned with neither major party. He said that sometimes he voted for Democrats and at other times he voted Republican. He wasn’t sure how he would vote this year, but allowed as how, in the end, “I gotta take care of me.” And it is precisely this preoccupation with “taking care of me” that leads us to forget that all these “me’s” are connected up.
Sadly, the state of Christianity these days is such that many Christians and churches also fail to grasp the unity to which John’s Gospel is pointing us. We fail to experience the depth of the Christ ourselves, we fall victim to illusion and dualistic thinking, and so too often we adopt a “my way is the only way to heaven” approach that serves to widen the imagined chasm between “them” and “us”. We fail to see how this approach does damage not only to others but to ourselves.
In just two weeks, Christians will begin the season of Lent, a period traditionally devoted to deeper reflection on the truths of our faith and the ways in which we are and are not living into them. Perhaps we should spend some time this Lent with John’s Gospel and with Shaia’s chapter on John’s Gospel, seeking to find again John’s grand vision and allowing him to help us meet the Christ who leads us out of illusion into the unity of the Spirit, in which we find God embracing all of us and all that is in a single, unifying love. It is, after all, as a witness to that love that Jesus came into the world as the Christ-bearer, seeking to bring into our limited human illusions the truth of eternity.