There is a little verse right at the start of the 4th Gospel that in English says “In the beginning was the Word”. In a literal sense its wrong. For words, including the written words in the Bible, are descriptors, describing or pointing to an object, action, experience or feeling. Words are signposts. And signposts are different from what is signified, and what is signified predates signposts.
In case you are wondering whether I’m going to preach on semiotics and post-modern critical theory rest assured I’m not. But you are welcome to read further. I just want to say something about what in Christianity the word ‘Word’ might be pointing to; which then leads us to ponder the point of religious language. We might conclude that it would be better to use words less and silence more, use talking devices less and paint brushes more, and unclutter our lives of all that distracts us from the deep wisdom of G_d.
Edwin Muir once wrote:
The Word made flesh here is made word again
A word made word in flourish and arrogant crook.
See there King Calvin with his iron pen,
And God three angry letters in a book,
And there the logical hook
On which the Mystery is impaled and bent
Into an ideological argument.
Muir is critiquing the Protestant love affair with ‘the Word’ as literal words. For by some twist of fate the pre-existent ‘Word’ – whatever that might be (and we’ll take a look into that cave shortly) – was taken as four letters on a page, or more precisely the 783,137 words in an old KJV bible. The Bible was elevated to a quasi-divine status, and used to deliver a prescribed packaged God and a prescribed packaged way of being Christian. And the Mystery of the unfathomable Divine was ‘impaled and bent’.
Of course there were/are some good things about that Protestant love affair with the Bible. A repository of stories, not all bad, entered our common culture. The value of literacy and education for all, regardless of age, race, creed, or gender, is something that we Presbyterians still cherish. It is sometimes forgotten the role that missionaries had in putting indigenous languages into written form and thus later helping the survival of those languages. The encouragement for each believer to read the Bible for him or herself, inevitably led to the questioning of ecclesial authority, which our denomination has usually seen as a good thing.
But as Muir’s poem points out the ‘Word of God’ is not letters on a page. The letters on a page are simply like a window which can be opened into a vista we might not have seen before. ‘Love your neighbour’ for example is simply 18 letters and 2 spaces. It becomes ‘Word of God’ when it is put, or incarnated, into action. The idea of loving one’s neighbour is ‘Word of God’ not when it is read or affirmed, but when it is lived. The ‘Word’ has to become a living breathing act.
So, to get the implications of this, it’s not what we say or profess that ultimately matters, but what we do. It’s not adhering to a creed, or professing our faith in the Bible or Jesus that really matters, but how we live. The one who might have multiple doubts and disbelief about doctrine, but is kind to strangers, is a living ‘Word of God’ – even, especially, if they don’t think about themselves in that way.
This reminds me of a story. Stories are verbal paintings, where the hearer chooses the colours and fills in where there are gaps.
Once upon a time there was a woman, Sophia, who received a call from God to translate, print, and distribute throughout her country the ‘Word of God’. Sophia was from a poor farming village and was daunted by the amount of money she would have to raise for this project. Nevertheless she trusted in her call and set to work.
Sophia travelled the length of her country collecting, or rather begging, for funds. It proved a long and difficult task for though a few people gave generously most could only spare her a pittance. But gradually over 15 years the money began to accumulate.
Shortly before the plans to buy a printing press could be realised a dreadful flood devastated the countryside destroying many people’s homes and livelihood. Sophia spent all the money she had collected for her God-given project on helping those affected by the flood.
Sophia was undeterred and once again resumed the long and difficult task of raising funds for the ‘Word of God’. Slowly and surely the money needed began to accumulate again. Nine more years had passed.
Then an epidemic spread over all the country, so Sophia again gave away all she collected to help the suffering.
When the epidemic had abated Sophia set out for the third time to raise funds and many years later she successfully reached her target, and the Word of God was translated, printed, and distributed across the land. This project had taken her 35 years.
In her country it is said to this day that Sophia had actually accomplished her task of translating and distributing the ‘Word of God’ three times during those 35 years rather than simply once – the first two being more beautiful and radiant than the last.
This story poses the question: Are words written down on a page, no matter how wise or beautifully crafted, no matter who said them or wrote them, ever worthy of being called ‘Word of God’?
Which brings me back to the notion of a word bring a signpost pointing to that which is signified.
What scholars will tell us about John 1:1 [‘in the beginning was the Word’] is that the sign called ‘the Word’ points to the logos, or eternal spark of life that existed before creation, that then in John’s theology comes to be enfleshed in the man Jesus.
Many think that the writer of John’s Gospel was a Jewish mystic who drew from the Hebrew wisdom tradition. Further they say, the concept of the ‘word’ of G_d shaping and entering human life runs through all the various strands of the Jewish tradition.
In Genesis 1 the ‘word’ is given creative power to shape the world. This ‘word’ was later said to be captured in the Torah which became G_d’s instrument of light and life. But the Jews also learnt, particularly through the prophets, that G_d cannot be possessed, and the ‘word’ cannot be reduced to propositional statements.
The wisdom literature arose during the exile in Babylon and was a response to their experience of G_d’s powerlessness. Wisdom was perceived as an aspect of G_d, namely immanence – G_d with and within them. To walk in wisdom, was to walk in G_d. Wisdom was personified as a presence in all of life. In the Torah G_d’s will was proclaimed; in wisdom G_d’s life was lived. This is the context of our reading from Proverbs chapter 8.
So in Jewish thought both ‘word’ and ‘wisdom’ were pre-existent calls to life, to love, and to being fully human. The author of John 1:1-5 writes a hymn, based on the hymn of Proverbs 8. Both hymns hint at the growing awareness that God is best not considered a supernatural being up in heaven or wherever but more like a verb calling, informing and shaping us into all that we were created to be. Like John Marriott’s hymn we just sang the ‘word’ creates, brings forth ‘light’.
This then is not the Hellenistic dualism called the incarnation that has God out there sending a divine emissary in human form, but rather an early hymn to express the mystical unity that human life can have with G_d, and asserting that this was in fact the unique thing about Jesus as Nazareth. To say that ‘the word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ is to say that in the life of Jesus people saw the will of God being lived out and they heard the word of God being spoken.
The exhortation, later in John’s Gospel, to be born again (or born from above) was not to call people to a conversion experience but rather to invite people to enter a new level of consciousness where they would begin to see themselves as part of who G_d is and to experience G_d as a part of who they were.
On Tuesday evenings a group of us have been reading and discussing a book by Jack Spong called ‘Unbelievable’. In short Jack deconstructs many of the central tenets of traditional ‘orthodox’ Christianity before offering alternatives. In one part he says, “I don’t believe in the incarnation.” By incarnation he means that dualistic idea of God as a supernatural all-powerful being who dwells away from planet Earth deciding in a once-in-eternity way that humanity needs rescuing/saving and then sending his son Jesus to earth. This divine son becoming human is what has been called the incarnation.
Taken in a literal way I agree with Jack that it is nonsense. G_d is not all-powerful, not primarily off-the-planet, and not a being. Jesus did not live up in heaven with this God before being sent as an emissary to earth, being deposited in Mary’s womb and living for some 33 years before returning to home in the clouds. This up-down-up movement, developed long after Jesus’s death, I think undermines the teachings and actions of the historical Jesus.
Yet as I said to the group the other night I’ve never understood the incarnation like this. Instead incarnation I learnt was a way of saying that G_d has always been, and is continuing to be, known in our midst, in our bodies – individual, social, and political, in our world – in our fellow creatures and landscapes. It is a moving spiralling dancing creative force. The reality of G_d is not somewhere out in space, but in the life-giving energy of our loves and connections, or as I wrote in the blessing for today in our contentment, vulnerability, and wild joy.
Interestingly wisdom in the Proverbs 8 hymn is personified with feminine pronouns. And in the Greek language she is known as Sophia.