Introducing the Course on the Gospel of John

Is there in John, and by extension in Genesis, the notion that evil (in the form of darkness and chaos) precedes and enters into creation from its inception, or is John foreclosing this “narrative gap” to locate the origin of evil subsequent to creation? This is not an academic question, as the Gnostics and their predecessors (to say nothing of present-day Gnostics) find in Genesis and John a cosmic dualism, in which light and darkness are engaged in an ongoing ontological struggle. Philo, for example, presumes that chaos, emptiness, and darkness were there from before creation, and so too in some modern interpreters of John, these nothings are not among the things that come into being as these are over and against being.[1] These are of the nothing and non-being, such that one could say (and mean something very different than John) that “Nothing came into being apart from the Logos.” The Nothing of creation ex nihilo that is, is assigned an actual reality as a counter force over and against God and creation.

Is it the case that there was a preexistent evil resistance to creation and this is represented by darkness?  Or is the darkness subsequent to creation and accounted for within the parameters of the story (the story of creation or the story of the Gospel)? Is sin and evil something we can locate, name, and identify, along with its defeat or is the battle between light and darkness of such proportions that we are mere pawns in a game in which we cannot know from whence it came or where it is going? The answer to this question divides the Christian world (roughly between East and West) but it also amounts to two readings of John. The basic contention is whether John is a text that accords with the Platonic tradition (identity through difference, the necessity of a dualism)[2] or is John, in taking up the Logos (a key Greek philosophic term), describing an understanding over and against the Greeks and the Gnostics?

There is no part of the Christian enterprise that is not affected by how we conceive the Logos, as it is the abstraction of the Logos (conceived as the preexistent Christ and reduced to something like a first principle) which accounts for or accords with the mystification of sin, the turn to apologetics, the focus on an abstract atonement theory, the privileging of the law, the turn to nominalism, and the basic tenor of Western theology.

This understanding begins with a separation within the Word – separating the Logos from the “word of the cross,” making a division between the word and work of Christ. The nominalist positing of an empty sign or the disconnect between word and action or between words and ultimate reality, or the gap posed between God and creation flow out of this separation. For example, Luther and Calvin could not conceive of first order participation in the divine nature, as man is totally depraved and justification is outward (legally imputed) and there is no real participation in divine life. But the nominalist/Protestant inspired devolution from Hegel, to Kant, to Marx, to Nietzsche, is not simply a modern dilemma but is the condition addressed by Christ.

The incarnate identity in the New Testament and early church is pictured as definitively established in the cross. The presumption in John and among the early church fathers was not that this identity was some pre-incarnate form of the Logos.

John opens his depiction of recreation with the (Genesis) light personified in Christ and with the confirmation of creation ex nihilo through Christ but also with the resistant chaos of darkness threatening: “All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:3-5). The darkness does not overtake, grasp, overpower, or vanquish the light but the very existence of the penetrating light relativizes the darkness.

As in Genesis, the chaos of the waters and the darkness of night, is not a residue of the nothingness from out of which things were made but is a condition existing within creation. The “formless and void” condition and the “darkness over the surface of the deep” is limited by the light (1:2-4) and in the midst of the waters, atmosphere is formed creating a vertical space, and land is formed holding back the waters, creating a horizontal space (1:6-10). In John, Jesus’ movement between heaven and earth is on the order of the creation of an atmosphere in which heaven and earth meet as the life and breath of God are readily available in this joining. So too in John, the darkness can be named, comprehended, grasped, and is even overpowered in the culminating “it is finished” which sums up creation and recreation.

It is not that darkness takes on substance in John or that the dualism between light and dark are affirmed. Rather, John is depicting a decisive defeat of the darkness, and not a battle between two equal and opposite forces or the balancing out of the powers. The cure of the human disease is not, as it is for the Gnostics, in reconciling light and darkness and seeking a middle way of harmony between these opposed pairs. The Star Wars “dark” and “light” sides of the Force typify this Gnostic sort of dualism, in which evil is pictured as a competing reality with the good. In this world, good and evil or life and death constitute a “reality” of struggling between opposed pairs. As the Stranger describes in Plato’s Sophist:

Whereas we have not merely shown that things that are not, are, but we have brought to light the real character of “not being.”  We have shown that the nature of the Different has existence and is parceled out over the whole field of existent things with reference to one another; and of every part of it that is set in contrast to “that which is” we have dared to say that precisely that is really “that which is not.” . . . [We have proved] that the Kinds blend with one another; that Existence and Difference pervade them all, and pervade one another, that Difference. . . by partaking of Existence, is by virtue of that participation, but on the other hand is not that Existence of which it partakes, but is different; and since it is different from Existence . . . quite clearly it must be possible that it should be a thing that is not (Sophist 258-259).[3]

In other words, the nothing and nonexistent competes with and participates in being. Where a dualism is posited, reality and truth are not to be found on one side of the duality, as the dualism constitutes the existence (with the lie, in Plato’s description, having its own reality and substance necessary to the truth).  Life, peace, goodness, and light, do not survive, either conceptually or as lived possibilities, when paired with death, violence, evil, and darkness. Where life is gained through death, where peace is the end product of war, where goodness is the counter to evil, and where light is apprehended through the darkness, the oppositional reality infects both poles of the duality.  The lie resides not in one of the opposed pairs but in the opposition itself.  This system, what John will call the cosmos of darkness, does not present a true picture of alienation, rather it is a system of alienation in which the seeming route to overcoming alienation enacts it.  John’s Gospel opposes this proto-Gnostic tendency, not because it is the peculiar sin of his day, but because this identity through difference is the universal form of sin.

The illusion or lie is to imagine that difference is definitive and that existence and non-existence and the endless differences of the world constitute the world. Simply stated, the human failing is to confuse reality with unreality, setting up an antagonistic struggle to the death.  Life is consumed in an agonistic striving toward balance, but the illusion – producing suffering and death, is that engaging the struggle more intensely is the means of resolving the struggle. This peace through war or life through death antagonism not only misconstrues the power and substance of war and death but loses life and peace in the process. 

 John’s Gospel, defines the cosmos of darkness through a series of oppositional dualities which are precisely not dualisms, as John will reduce and collapse one pole of the opposed pairs. Hierarchy, law, and sacrifice are aimed at warding off chaos through maintaining a rigid balance, while in John, the Logos explodes this cosmos of darkness in that the light will penetrate and expose the darkness, life will defeat death, heaven will come to earth, and the children of the Devil will become the children of God. The evil, fleshly, world below is not an enduring autonomous reality but is exposed and defeated so that the apparent dualisms are exposed as mere oppositional dualities (and not equal and opposite dualisms).

Just as darkness in the original creation is an absence of light, so too in John, the darkness is a negation of the Light and belief is an apprehension of the Light. The Light is not only apprehended through belief but by this means “you may become sons of Light” (12:35-36). It is not that the darkness is a definitive direction or quality (a definitive counterforce) or a necessary ingredient of its opposite. As Jesus describes it, walking in the darkness apart from the Light will allow the darkness to “overtake you” as “he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes.” On the other hand, walking in the Light is to imitate Jesus and walk so as to avoid the darkness.

 As James Alison describes it, there are no secret deals, no dark blood-letting, no prior chaos with which God has to deal.[4] God has spoken definitively and finally in the word of the cross. “It is finished” (John 19:30); the Spirit is given and recreation has commenced. Any social or religious order founded upon seeking God in chaos is directly refuted by this God who speaks directly and clearly into the world in the word of the cross, the Logos of God.

(Register for the upcoming Class on the Gospel of John starting May 9th here: https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings)


[1] For example Jonathan A. Draper, “Darkness as Non-Being and the Origin of Evil in John’s Gospel” Darkness_as_Non-Being_and_the_Origin_of_Evil_in_Jo.pdf William Lane Craig, as one of the key promoters of the kalām cosmological argument, posits this gap in God as existing between “His timeless intention to create a world with a beginning, and His power to produce such a result.” The distinction is between “His causal power in order for the universe to be created” and “God’s timeless intention to create a temporal world” (fashioned of the same stuff as Augustinian/Calvinist sovereignty). Causal forces exist in time (this side of the nothing in creation ex nihilo) and exist over and against the eternal (prior to nothing) and so the thought (which is eternal), and “God’s undertaking to create” (which has a definitive beginning), must be differentiated. What is differentiated and divided is the nothing, prior to which God only intends to create and after and out of which he creates. (“Must the Beginning of the Universe Have a Personal Cause?: A Rejoinder,” forthcoming in Faith and Philosophy. Quoted from Wes Morrison, “A Critical Examination of the Kalam Cosmological Argument,” accessed at https://spot.colorado.edu/~morristo/kalam-not.pdf) God’s undertaking is the very first event God causes, which posits the same sort of infinite regress the argument rejects. The kalām argument depends on there not being an actually existing series of objects or discrete entities (an infinite library or infinite rooms in a hotel reduces to contradiction as subtraction or addition to either will not register) reduces to a logical contradiction. Yet Craig needs this same discretion to exist in the mind of God so he does not simply fall back on an unreasonable eternity. He insists on this element of the argument to preserve the argument from the unreason it repudiates and builds upon.

[2] See for example, Plato’s description of the status of a lie and of difference in the Sophist.

[3] F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge: The Theaetetus and the Sophist of Plato translated with a running commentary (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1935), 294-296. Quoted in Draper.

[4] See chapter 4 of James Alison’s, On Being Liked, (Herder & Herder, April 1, 2004).

The Semiotics of Church

In Plato’s dialogue Phaedrus, Plato presumes writing is a step removed from meaning in that the memory and mind of the reader are disengaged and that the sign system, the dead letter, absorbs the living word of speech. Plato notes that writing is offered as a remedy (a pharmakon) by the Egyptian god of writing but the word contains a warning in its three possible meanings: remedy, poison, and scapegoat. Perhaps in the pharmakon reside the very origins of meaning with the remedy to the poison summed up in the scapegoat (the problem of violence overcome in scapegoating violence). Plato privileges speech over writing, but Derrida notes that Socrates would counteract the pharmakon of writing with the knowledge “graven in the soul.” In other words, Socrates is offering another pharmakon to counteract the pharmakon and he can do this as poison and its cure are always contained in the sign system – whether of writing or speech. Meaning arises in this medium of signs through what Derrida calls différance, in that the play of the differences (soul/ body, good/ evil, inside/ outside, memory/ forgetfulness, speech/ writing, etc.) playing off of one another, not simply as opposites but as a point of comparison, is the resource of the dialectics of meaning.

René Girard, in appreciation of Derrida’s analysis, connects the pharmakon to a prior original violence (the scapegoat, like the pharmakon, contains both the poison of violence and the cure). The surrogate victim or scapegoat symbolically bears all the weight of evil (the chaos of total violence) and its cure – the sacred – in which the victim becomes the god. According to Girard, the invocation of the sign of this event – the original signification – opens up the symbolic space giving rise to human language and society.

To describe the process in biblical terms is to posit an even more ancient origin, prior to Derrida’s identity through difference and Girard’s scapegoating mechanism, or prior to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and prior to the first murder and the first city. Two signs and two symbolic orders are represented by two trees in the Garden of Eden. The first tree contains life as the sign of God’s presence. It is under the sign of this tree that the ordering and naming activity of Adam, in what is sometimes described as the role of co-creator, is carried out. In this differentiating there is not an identity through a violent difference, as all difference (male/female, and the difference of the creatures from one another) are part of a unity of life and creation.

One can project forward and recognize unity, nonviolence, peace, and love are part of this original creative Logos (the semiotics of Adam) restored in the church. That is, the semiotics of the Logos will bring about an end to meaning built upon difference (light/dark, life/death, Jew/Gentile, etc.). The sign of the tree of life restored in the future kingdom brings about a unified humanity – “the healing of the nations.” The curse of death and violence are undone under the sign of this tree (Revelation 22:3-4). In Paul’s depiction, this unified humanity is represented by Jew/Gentile unity which comes about in a new mode of doing identity in the church. No longer do the binaries of Jew/Gentile, slave/free, or male/female serve as a mode of doing identity through difference, but in the church, there is unity that contains these differences (as in the first and final appearance of the tree of life).

The tree of the knowledge of good and evil, as Derrida noted, is the original sign of the semiotic order of identity through difference. This system of signs is deadly in that it becomes its own origin of meaning, the first foundationalism, which cuts off from the meaning contained in the semiotics of life. Here in the biblical picture, as Girard recognizes, there is a sign system of death in which the first city arises from the original murder (Cain kills Abel and founds a city). The cultures of death are built upon a meaning and power of death established through violent and sacred difference – sacrifice or founding murder.

The understanding that culture is built upon a founding murder and that Christ reverses this order, is inclusive of a new order of meaning – a semiotics of life. I believe this provides the proper context for understanding Paul’s conviction that apparent dualisms (former modes of doing identity) such as death and life, present and future, height and depth, are no longer able to separate us from the love of God (Ro 8:38). Life has overcome death, Christ has filled the heights and depths (Eph 3:17), and time itself is now intersected by the eternal one. These things, taken as the foundation of an order of meaning, did indeed separate from God. Now, in Christ, they are taken up in a new order which comprehends or encompasses these differences and fills them with a love which surpasses this knowledge (Eph 3:17-19).

This is an order of meaning which confounds “the rulers of this age,” as they cannot understand it. It was, after all, in their own wisdom, their own order of meaning, that they “crucified the Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8). As Louis Berkhof has described it, the crucifixion exposes the deception behind what was presumed to be ultimate reality. The scribes were assured that the law necessitated his death; the priests crucified him to honor the temple, and the Pharisees crucified him in the name of piety. “Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are worth when called upon to do justice to the Truth Himself.  Obviously, ‘none of the rulers of this age,’ who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, ‘for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Cor 2:8).” With the crucifixion this false order of meaning is unmasked (unmasked as false absolutes and false deities) through their encounter with the Truth; they are made a public spectacle. The power of his resurrection defeats the “rule and authority, power and dominion,” of these rulers as they depended upon the power of death which he has defeated (Eph 1:20-21). Resurrection is inclusive of a new order of meaning no longer bound by the identity through difference, the lie or false wisdom which killed him.

This is why, for Paul, grace works in and through truth, as it is defeating the obstacle of meaning founded upon a lie (Col 1:6). Paul refers to this lie as “empty deceit,” which may be articulated through “philosophy” or “human traditions” (Col 2:8). These meaning systems, deployed by “the principalities and powers,” are coercive – passing judgment in regards to time (new moons and sabbaths), in regard to food and drink, through “elemental principles,” ordering life through a perishable order of meaning (Col 2:16-17).  The principles and wisdom of this world are the means by which rulers, the authorities, and the powers of this dark world, exercise their power. Theirs is a power for darkness in the two-fold sense that it obscures the truth through a lie and it deals in the darkness of death. Christ has blotted out this hostile semiotics (“handwriting of ordinances” in the KJV) which “was against us, which was contrary to us.”  “He has taken” all of this “out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” and simultaneously “He disarmed the rulers and authorities” and “made a public display of them, having triumphed over them through the cross” (Col 2:15).

Summing up Paul’s notion of the principalities and powers, operating according to a failed wisdom, a deceived philosophy, a disobedient world order ruled over by a spirit of disobedience (Eph 2:1-2), this amounts to a semiotics of death. The logic and wisdom of this world are challenged by “the manifold wisdom of God” and this wisdom, through the Church, is “made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” (Eph 3:10). The witness of the church to this alternative order of meaning continues to unmask the quasi-divine authority of those structures – those world powers, those realms of religious and ethical rules and rulers, those orders of thought that deal in oppression and death. Christ has unmasked those powers and the church (where it is truly the church) ensures, through its alternative order of meaning, that the exposure continues.1


[1] Thank you to Tim who gifted me with the book that sparked this line of thought – though I am still working through it: Virtual Christian by Anthony W. Bartlett.

Why “Walking Theology”

kierkegaard walking quote

Theology is, of course, meant to be a walking form of life, even as it is     undertaken by Jesus. The two on the road to Emmaus are not going to end up in Emmaus and Jesus is certainly not going to Emmaus. The walk and the discovery unfold together, just as being a disciple of Jesus always does. The two, at first, have a set destiny, and then the talk becomes a destiny, as Jesus explains how the narrative journey of the Old Testament is an ongoing travel narrative in which this very walk figures as explanation. When they arrive at their evenings lodging it is at once a terminal point and a reversal of their journey – as afterward they head back to Jerusalem. They have walked nowhere in particular and only thus have they discovered where they are going. This comes at the end of their walk, and the “burning” lesson of the journey sets them on the edge of recognition. It is only when the travelers sit and Jesus breaks bread that they are able to ingest the lesson of who he is. The walk and the discovery go together as journey and sustenance must. Continue reading “Why “Walking Theology””