Fourth Sunday of Easter
Sharing a household with beloved in-laws who watch TV regularly and don’t hear as well as I do, I have learned to turn away from a blasting televisions, as it strives to capture my attention with its show of urgency or of overwhelming sensation. Yesterday afternoon was somewhat of an exception. When my dear mother in law instructed me in a whisper to ‘turn on the TV’—she was on the phone at the time—I felt a sense of foreboding. As I pondered the clicker, I felt caught between my habit of flatly refusing such invitations to be informed—a habit rooted in a general distrust that what the TV anchors would express as urgent truly was—and a nagging sense that I could be neglecting a civic duty by not paying attention to the story. I turned it on long enough to get the gist of what happened at the Boston marathon, before turning my attention back to playing with my five year old daughter.
Later that day, it was time to take my daughter to dance, something I value for the way it gathers parents away from our private projects, and allows us to observe and so share with the practical experience of child-rearing. As we headed to the studio, I anticipated that in the waiting room, where parents babysit their other children and chat for thirty minutes to the rhythms of the recital soundtrack, I would hear lots of talk about what happened earlier in Boston. Surprisingly, nobody mentioned it for the first twenty minutes or so—a sign perhaps of a reality alternative to that of the news media—as matters of costumes and upcoming picture-taking were talked through.
When the subject finally did come up, I noted how confident the talk was. “It was only a matter of time,” proclaimed one woman, who had just noted that they were sending in the National Guard. She then intimated that they/we had their guard up for a little while after 9/11, but then returned to a normal, lazy way of handling the business of life.
Let me speculatively draw out two assumptions that inhabit these remarks, and inform our discussion of the topic that afternoon in general. The knowing reference to the National Guard bespeaks the assumption that our nation is at war, though we sometimes forget the fact, and further that this recent phenomenon has simply revealed the underlying condition. Furthermore, I suggest that one can discern in our way of talking a “knowledge” that is underwritten by underlying laws or regularities of history. In this instance, the law of history, which allows us to speak in a matter of fact way, is that violence and war are inevitable. To reinforce this interpretation of our talk in the waiting room, I might remember the figure of the police official on TV a few hours earlier. At the climax of the news conference drama, the reporters prodded him to legitimate a certain reading of invents by introducing loaded terms. ‘Are you calling this an “attack”?’ Has this been executed by “terrorists”? In response, the official showed his bureaucratic skill by replying, with a thin veneer of impartiality, “I’ve described the facts, and I’ll let you reach your own conclusions about that.” Naturally, both reporter and viewer were tantalized. Thus, a peculiar sense of time, originating in the events of 9/11/2001, shapes an epoch in which violence or war for us is inevitable—“it was only a matter of time.”
I don’t wish to say that “war” names the only conception of history that underwrites the confidence that time, the ways of history, are within our grasp. Nor do I wish to persuade anyone reading this of a particular interpretation of “what happened in Boston.” (I sense my own habitual aversion to news sometimes leads me to the vice of refusing to feel much in the face of events like this.) I want rather to point out the way some of our scripture readings, at this time of year, portray rather the disruption of our confidence and the senses of time that buttress it. I call to witness, here, the befuddlement of the disciples as they try to interpret and respond to the presence of the resurrected Jesus. Challenging our sense-making capacities, the gospel writers portray them as asking, ‘What are we to make of this? What are we to make of ourselves in light of it?’
As Janice Love pointed out in her blog last week, the character of the encounter of Peter with Jesus is that of a re-training, or re-orienting of Peter by Jesus. There seems to be an unavoidable irony in the fact that Peter’s vocational training, though it seems to begin understandably enough with love of God, points finally to his own crucifixion-like death. He is thus directed by Jesus toward an end which, as philosophers remind us, is for any of us truly unthinkable—our own deaths!
And yet, if we are focusing on the move from certain knowledge to incomprehension, we might pause here and ask, ‘Isn’t the Gospel of John all about the splendor of truth? About light overcoming darkness?’ John begins famously by laying aside all doubt, proclaiming the truth that Jesus is the Word of God, the One through whom all things were made. (John 1:1-3) More, this is the light which enlightens, dispelling the darkness (Jn 1:5, 9). And, at the gospel’s end, John states forcefully his reason for writing: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” (Jn 20:30-31)
This week’s gospel reading and psalm, furthermore, seem to be all about comfort and confidence. While knowledge of the messiah may be blocked for the bad guys, “my sheep,” says Jesus, “hear my voice; I know them and they follow me.” (Jn 10:27) Further, “My father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (Jn 10:29-30) So, we the sheep are secure in the knowledge of Jesus, and Jesus and the father are one. Things are looking pretty good for confidence.
I recently returned from an academic conference where conceptions of time were explicitly linked to knowledge, and where we were made duly cautious of how such conceptions of time are constructed by us—therefore leading to the production of “knowledges” that are imposed upon situations and persons resistant to them. Our sense-making, one speaker intimated, can be perilous in a world where catastrophic events disrupt time and sense, leaving the neighbor whom we are called to love in the “timelessness” of trauma. In light of this, John’s injunction to believe for me is both complex and convicting. That is, in spite of the chaos and violence we bring upon each other, some of which flows from our claims to have knowledge, are we to confidently believe? This question occasions the complexity of belief as well as the convicting nature of exhortation to believe. For, I suggest, the answer is “yes.” But our belief is somehow chastened (made “complex”) by the imperative to acknowledge how our presumptuous sense-making contributes to violence. It is in such confessional acknowledgment that we take up the invitation to proclaim Jesus as the truth that enlightens us.
Indeed, I suggest that the paradox of proclaiming belief from within this condition of uncertainty and fragility is neither contradictory nor irrational. It would only appear so if we really believed that our actions could only and exclusively be our own. I suggest that certain modern psychologies give rise to this assumption, but it is finally unrealistic. It suggests that the human being is truly the “consistent animal”, the creature of self-mastery, and that Paul’s very different description of reason will—“the good that I would I do not; the evil that I would not do, that I do” (Rom 7:19)—is but an occasional aberration.
Put differently, I wish to say that perhaps we should consider that the believing John exhorts us to undertake does not originate within us. It is not our own, at least in the sense that modern psychologies have trained us to think of beliefs as our own. Rather, to believe the gospel is to receive it as gift, while offering it back to the giver and as witness among others. Believing and proclaiming. So, let us, responding to God’s word, hear John’s invitation to respond to the gospel by proclaiming with borrowed confidence the belief we are given to proclaim. Let us do so well aware of our doubt and hypocrisy and without getting stuck in them.