Sunday, 14 September 2008

A Commentary upon John 1:1

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

Or, in Luther's phrasing, which is in fact the phrasing of the original Greek (ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος), "Im Anfang war das Wort, und das Wort war bei Gott, und Gott war das Wort."

I have often asked myself if there is, in actuality, a God. I told my fiance that my problem was that I only believed half of the Shahaddah; I believed Mohammed was the Prophet, but I wasn't sure that there was an Allah for him to be the prophet of. By this I meant simply that I believe in principles which I found the Koran to embody, but wasn't wholly willing to attribute them to a personal creator deity. Of the existence of these principles, however, I have never doubted. Truth, beauty, goodness--these are constant. Nothing which lacks one can possess either of the others. They would exist even if nothing else did. If nothing existed, it would still be true that nothing existed; this fact, by virtue of its being true, would be beautiful, and therefore good. Yes, in these principles my belief had always been unshaken.

So we return to John, and we recall that John was, whoever he was, probably writing between the years 90 and 100. The expulsion of the Christians from the synagogues is already a theme in his work, and he is expecting a substantially Greek, if not mostly Greek, audience. The Greeks, of course, came from a vey different spiritual background than the Jews. The Greeks turned to their philosophers, rather than their priests, for answers to questions about the origins of the world and the meaning of life, and many were devotees after some fashion of the Prime Mover of Aristotle's works, or the One mentioned by Plato. These were remote, non-personal concepts of divinity, without personality or interest in human affairs, and the anthropomorphisized Yahweh likely seemed ridiculous to many. (See Karen Armstrong's "A History of God" for an excellent discussion of this.) John foresses that objection, and heads it off at the pass. "God was the Word" he says, but of course not saying 'word' but rather 'logos'.

Logos is a complex word, carrying in ancient Greek the basic meaning of something said, but secondary meanings also of reason and intelligence. Aristotle used it in discussing rhetoric as one of the techniques of persuasion, specifically the one that demonstrated a claim from facts--the truth. It had a long history in the hands of Heraclitus and the Stoics also, referring to the essential animating principles of the universe. The fact that some Chinese translations use 道 'tao' sheds some light on this understanding. John wrote that verse for me. He wrote it for all of us who, raised in the traditions of Western thought, greet with a disbelieving smirk tales of divine personalities who stoop to notice the little things we do. John wanted us to understand that we should not take the story he was about to tell as a simplistic fairy tale about a man living on a cloud with a big, white beard. Rather, we should understand that the anthropomorphisms of the Jewish tradition were simply his culture's way of expressing what we are used to thinking of as abstract principles after the Platonic fashion.

Many of us today have trouble believing in God because we just don't feel that there is somebody looking over our shoulder. But if we read the prophets, or the Gospels, or the Koran again carefully, and we take John's advice, we will find that we can readily substitute 'Word' for 'God' and do no violence to their poetry--or their wisdom. I don't believe in the God of most evangelical American preachers, or the Taliban, or even those harmless folks who pray that God will balance their cheque book or bring them a new tricycle for Christmas. I do believe, however, like John, in the Word. And there is no God but the Word.

1 comment:

Summer said...

some people think that eating psychadellic mushrooms produced the ability for complex language in humans. Other people think it was evolution. Why worship the word instead of the things that brought it about? Why do you think it matters more to worship the word than to worship that which wrought it?