May 12, 2013
The Gospel of John drives me nuts. Its circular logic completely confounds me, with my left-brain, linear thinking. Take, for example, the following verse from this week’s Gospel reading: “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:21). HUH?? If I were to translate that sentence into a Venn diagram, it would turn out looking like a pretzel. And if my faith depends upon me understanding that statement, I am well and truly screwed.
The phrase “It’s a Mystery” comes to mind. I heard this phrase often in my Catholic girlhood when I would ask too many questions in Sunday school (which I often did). “It’s a Mystery”: kind of like the Virgin Birth, Transsubstantiation and whether or not nuns had legs. “It’s a Mystery” usually translated into “It’s None of your Business. Now be Quiet.”
The verses after Verse 21 do not get much better:The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (vv.22-23).
I think I need an Advil.
Consequently, I found it helpful to consult Zen Buddhism about the problem of John. Zen Buddhism has a treasure-trove of koans, which are basically philosophical statements, questions, or stories that make no rational sense. Koans include sentences such as the famous “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Here are some other koans:When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer. “Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer. “Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.” At these words Banzan became enlightened. One day Subhuti, a disciple of the Buddha, was sitting under a tree in a mood of sublime emptiness. Flowers began to fall about him. “We are praising you for your discourse on emptiness,” the gods whispered to him. “But I have not spoken of emptiness,” said Subhuti. “You have not spoken of emptiness, we have not heard emptiness,” responded the gods. “This is the true emptiness.” And blossoms showered upon Subhuti as rain.
The purpose of koans is not to be understood or solved like a puzzle (although many Zen students have probably spent many centuries trying to do just this). The purpose of koans is to transform the individual by shaking him/her out of his/her linear, logical, dual (this-or-that) thinking. Koans do this by presenting images that are fundamentally confounding (and sometimes downright offensive) to the rational mind. The disciple becomes consumed by the koan, going into a state called the Great Doubt, which one Zen master described as being “like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you can’t”.
It seems that the Gospel of John, in many of its sections, attempts to do the same thing. While John was not a Buddhist (at least, not consciously), the Gospel attributed to him exhibits the same kind of non-dual, non-linear logic that produces red-hot, iron ball-like confusion. Zen masters would say that this is actually a good thing. It is a sign that the deluded, dual, linear mind is starting to lose its grip. While the end of the Gospel of John may not be enlightenment (in the Buddhist sense), I think the Gospel is trying to produce a metanoia (or transformation) of belief that leaves the individual with a sense of his/her complete embeddedness and enmeshment in God and Jesus Christ “that they may become completely one” (or whole).
While I cannot say that this insight has left me enlightened or transformed (at least, not consciously), it has made my headache slightly more understandable. When I obtain metanoia, you will be the first to know.