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Part 23

21 Jul 2021

John 1:1-3

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. and without him was not anything made that was made.

Now, there are a number of things that I want to point out from this opening statement in the Gospel of John. Firstly, this isn’t the way we are used to talking in modern english, so this seems a bit clunky to our eye. It’s tricky to read and to understand. It needs some time and careful thought to unpack; just saying.

One of the things that we might miss from this passage is just how confronting this statement would have been in the time when it was written. It opens ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Now, most of the philosophies and religions of the day would have expected the statement to read something like ‘In the beginning was matter’, the stuff of the material universe, but no, John is saying that in the beginning, before the stuff of the material universe came to exist, was the Word. The Word was before matter, before the material universe.

The Word is primary, material things are secondary.

What does John mean by ‘the Word’? 

Well, John originally wrote his book in Greek, and the word translated into English as ‘Word’ is the Greek word ‘logos’. It’s a word that still has some currency for us today because it forms the basis of many words that we use, such as logic, or to mean ‘to study' or ‘the study of’ as in meteorology - the study of weather; the ‘ology’ part comes from the Greek word ‘logos’.

At the time John wrote, the word ‘logos’ would’ve been familiar to many of the Greek philosophers, and particularly to a group known as the Stoics. To them logos meant something along the lines of ‘the defining principle’ - it was the one idea that defined, made sense of, and bound together all of life. So, for John, before any of the material universe came to exist there was the Word, the Logos, the defining principle and idea that binds together and makes sense of everything else.

Ok, so does that mean that the whole material universe was created by an idea? No, because John uses personal pronouns in reference to ‘the Word’. John says of the word that ‘He was in the beginning’ and that “All things were made through Him”.

This use of the personal pronouns ‘He’ and ‘Him’ shows that the Word is not a what but a who. The Word is not an impersonal force, thought, or idea, but a person.

So what can we draw from this so far? Well, earlier I made the statement that Word is primary, material things are secondary, now we can take that statement one step further. Because the Word is a person that existed before the material stuff of the universe, we can rightly say that personhood is primary and matter secondary.

Persons are primary, material things are secondary. Now that is a huge statement!

Oh if only in our day we could grasp the true significance of these passages of scripture. In a world where we spend so much of our time, energy, financial and mental resources pursuing material things for our acceptance, credibility, status, comfort, self esteem and such, treating material things as if they were primary. The word of God is telling us that to pursue these things as if primary is to put the cart before the horse.

Persons are primary and material things secondary.

We invariably live with a set of priorities for our lives. As such, in prioritising our time, money, and other resources, we will sacrifice whatever we see as of secondary importance on the alter of that which we see as being of first importance. What that means in our world is that we are constantly sacrificing people and relationships with those people, on the alter in our pursuit of material comfort, riches, and status.

The Word of God stands as a stark warning to us, a solemn reminder that material things are not primary, persons are. As such we would do well to reprioritise our time in pursuit of that which is truely of primary importance.

But we’re not through yet. John then goes on to tell us that, not only was the Word God, but that the Word was with God, the Word both was with God and at the same time also was God.

Now hang on a minute here. How can the Word both be God and be with God at the same time? What’s that supposed to mean?

It means that for the Christian faith we believe that God has revealed Himself to humanity as a relational being. That at the core of who God is, there is a relationship of persons. 

For the Christian, God isn’t simply an idea but a personal being, and not simply a personal being in the way that we are persons, but that, as the ultimate personal being, God exists as a community of persons within the one God where the Father, the Son and the Spirit all share in a loving communal relationship of persons, but that they together are to be understood as one essential being; three persons but one God.

How Can God be Both One and Three???

The idea that God exists as an eternal relationship of three persons has come to be known as the Trinity. But how should we understand this? How are we to make any sense of such a notion? How can three persons be one God? Is it even possible to make sense of this in any meaningful way?

You will probably have heard of the author C.S Lewis. He is best known, I suppose, for his book ‘The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and the rest of the ‘Chronicles of Narnia’, however, he was also a committed Christian and philosopher who wrote and spoke a great deal about Christianity and why he believed Jesus to be God.

In pages 161-162 of his book ‘Mere Christianity’ Lewis says this about the Trinity.

“You know that in space you can move in three ways - to the left or right, backwards or forwards, up and down. Every direction is either one of these or a compromise between them. They are called  the three Dimensions. Now notice this. If you are using only one dimension, you could draw only a straight line. If you are using two, you could draw a figure: say, a square. And a square is made up of four straight lines. Now a step further. If you have three dimensions, you can then build what we call a solid body: say, a cube - a thing like a dice or a lump of sugar. And a cube is made up of six squares.

Do you see the point? A world of one dimension would be a straight line. In a two-dimensional world, you still get straight lines, but many lines make one figure. In a three-dimensional world, you still get figures but many figures make one solid body. In other words, as you advance to more real and more complicated levels, you do not leave behind you the things you found on the simpler levels: you still have them, but combined in new ways - in ways you could not imagine if you knew only the simpler levels.

Now the Christian account of God involves just the same principle. The human level is a simple, rather empty level. On the human level one person is one being, and any two persons are two seperate beings - just as, in two dimensions (say on a flat sheet of paper) one square is one figure, and any two squares are seperate figures. On the Divine level you still find personalities; but up there you find them combined in new ways which, we who do not live on that level, cannot imagine. In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube.”

What Lewis is suggesting here is that as you take a simple line from one dimension into a higher dimension, you add complexity.  In one dimension you have a simple line but as you move it into a second dimension you add complexity, you can draw a square. You don’t lose the line, greater complexity is added to the line. 

As you add complexity you get greater definition, like adding more pixels to a digital image. With greater complexity you see more clearly, what you are looking at becomes more real not less. So as you move from one dimension to two you add complexity and get closer to true reality. As you move from two dimensions to three, adding complexity, you can now build a cube. You don’t lose the square but instead you get a better understanding of the square as it becomes more solid, more real.

Well what if we thought about personhood in the same way? What if we took a person up a dimension, the same as taking a square from two dimensions to three. What if, in this higher dimension, that person was unbound from time and space, had infinite knowledge, and was eternal: not just an infinite being, but an infinite person. 

According to Christian thought, on this level we would encounter a more complex understanding of personhood without losing what we had at the lower dimensions. Our understanding of personhood has gained complexity and definition. It is closer to true reality as we see that, on this highest of levels, personhood entails relationship, not between two individual beings, as we do at this lower level, but as essential to the very essence of God’s character and nature, to who He is. A being who is not simply one person but who’s essence exists as three persons in an analogous way to the cube consisting of six squares while remaining one solid body. Just as many squares make up one cube, in the Trinity, three persons are eternally united as one being.

This is who Christians believe God to be, how we believe God has revealed Himself to us in history and in Scripture.

What’s Your Point?

The Christian understanding of who God is has huge implications for everything. It underpins the way Christians see, not only the world, but all of reality and our place in it.

Think about it. What John is telling us in these opening lines of his book is that before anything else had come to exist, there existed a relationship of persons. He is telling us that personhood precedes matter. Personhood is primary to reality, matter is secondary.

Now let that sink in for a minute because that should shock you. It should go against just about everything that you have heard about the nature of reality.

You see, the idea that is promoted in our culture is that persons emerged only after the matter of the universe came into existence. For our modern secular culture matter is primary and personhood secondary.

The Christian view of God, and as a result all of reality, is precisely the opposite to that of our modern culture. It is the polar opposite and the complete reverse.

But let’s tease this out a little further.

Because God exists prior to the material reality of this universe, He then, is the foundation of true reality. Because God is the foundation of all reality and God is a relational being, then all of reality is relational at its core. 

For the Christian faith reality is relational because it is grounded and founded in the very being of the relational God. In other words, relationship is central to reality.

Think of the implications of that! For the atheist thinker, relationship is purely about survival, it’s functional, or to put it another way, relationship is about social utility, it serves the purpose of helping a species, in this instance human beings, to survive; strength in numbers and all that.

That answer seems incredibly shallow to me, perhaps you feel the same way yourself.

Relationship is about much more than increasing our chances of survival. There’s something intrinsically relational about human beings, something not simply about our survival, but more about the nature of who and what we are.

We all need, desire, crave, and long for relationships, deep relationships, meaningful relationships, relationships that go beyond mere function, but instead get down to the core of our being. Relationships in which we can express the fullness of who and what we are. Relationships where we can share our hopes and our dreams, our fears and anxieties, where we can share our successes our inspiration and passions, and mourn our failures and frailties, where we can open ourselves up to being known deeply and where we can in return have the privilege and pleasure of deeply knowing another.

This is far more than social utility, it get’s down to the level of the deepest roots of what we are, to the level of our spirit or soul.

No man (or woman) is an island they say. We all need each other at a very deep level, and loneliness causes great harm to us, not simply externally or in our ability to survive our external circumstances and environments, but internally at every level; in our physical life,  our mental life, our emotional life, and our spiritual life. Our current mental health and suicide crisis bares witness to this. In our increasingly isolated lives in the modern world mental health issues and suicide are ever on the rise.

One of the most common factors that leads to compromised mental health and suicidal ideas is the issue of loneliness and isolation. I would suggest that part of the reason for this epidemic in our culture is that we have put the cart before the horse. We are pursuing secondary things as if they were of first importance. As such, we are living in a way that cuts against the grain of the very nature of the God who created us, the universe in which we live, and the very nature of what we are as human beings.

Loneliness causes the fracturing of a person, not simply because we are cutting against the grain of the motivation of our DNA, but because loneliness comes when a person is fractured from the true nature of reality, which is relational. Loneliness is a symptom of being severed from the true nature of reality and, as a result, what it truly means to be human.

We crave deep relationships not simply so that we can survive the struggles of the external environments of weather, disease, predators etc, as the atheist would have us believe, but we need relationships so that we can come to terms with, to express, and to share the inner reality of who we are as persons.

What explains our deep seated need for intimate relationships that go beyond the level of utility? It seems to me that the explanation provided by the Christian faith, that personhood is prior to matter, that reality is relational at its core, and that we have been created by a relational God makes the best sense of our experience of what it means to be human.

When we experience deep relationship in community with others, we experience something of the true nature of God, reality, and the true nature of being human.

But Wait, There’s More!

Let’s go another step down this line of thought.

There’s another idea that’s primary to the Christian understanding of who God is that we need to talk about and it’s this; for the Christian, God doesn’t only exist as an eternal relationship of persons, but as an eternal loving community, an eternal loving relationship between the Father, the Son, and the Spirit.

Now, what this means is that personhood precedes matter, reality is relational at its core, community central to all of reality, and love is eternal.

That might not seem like a radical claim on the surface of it, but I want you to see that, not  only is the above statement radical, but that if you want to live in reality as I’ve described it here, then the Christian faith is the only place where this kind of reality is on offer, it is the only worldview that can logically sustain such claims.

How’s that?

Well, a former teacher of mine put it this way. In any religion, philosophy, or worldview you care to mention life comes before love. In other words, there must be a material world where personal beings have either emerged or been created in order for there to be love. Love is contingent and dependant upon the existence of the material world and upon the life found in that world.

From the point of view of the atheist, that is a given. There is nothing other than the material universe, nothing beyond nature, no super-natural realm. There can be nothing prior to a material universe.

Because this is the case, love can only emerge within the material universe as the creatures of that universe reach a point in their evolutionary development where they become capable of this thing we call love. For the atheist, life must, by definition, precede love.

But the problem for the atheist with regards to love, actually goes much deeper than this. You see, because of the atheists commitment to the idea that there is nothing other than the material universe, all of our actions as humans must be described in terms of material causes, namely DNA.

So what is love for an atheist who is thinking consistently on this subject? Well, love is a series of chemical reactions that take place which attract two opposite members of a species together for the purpose of procreation, for the propagation of their DNA. This is driven by survival of the fittest (natural selection) and social utility (to increase the survivability of the species).

For the consistent atheist, there can be no actual choice in the matter with regards to love. We love the people we do because we are ‘born this way’ our DNA chooses for us, or as Richard Dawkins puts it “DNA just is and we dance to its music”.

So what is love then? Well, love is simply chemical reactions determined by DNA driven by survival of the fittest and social utility. In other words, there is no love, there’s only lust.

The atheistic worldview inevitably reduces love to lust, and love is done away with in the process.

What a cheery thought.

I think that when we survey the world in which we live we can certainly see the consequences of following a belief system that reduces love to lust driven by DNA. I would suggest that a world without love is not worth believing in let alone actually living in, and as such, nor is the world offered us by atheism.

What about other religious worldviews, how do they conceive of love?

Let’s look at a couple quickly here.

If we take classical Buddhism, it is essentially an atheistic religion. There is no ‘god’ in classical (Theravada) Buddhism, only the impersonal nothing which is before all things. So for classical Buddhism, personhood doesn’t precede matter, nothing precedes matter; or more precisely The Nothing

In classical Buddhism the realm in which we live is ultimately an illusion, it is not real and nor are we.

The ultimate aim of this worldview is to rid yourself of the delusion of your unique individuality, your person, and with it the ego and all desire. The aim is to rid yourself of yourself and become one with the nothing. No love here.

For classical Buddhism the situation is even worse than for atheism. Not only must there be life before love, there must be the illusion of life before there can be the illusion of love, all of which are ultimately nothing and are to be rejected and done away with.

How about Islam?

Here we have a different position to either atheism (religious or naturalistic) or Christianity.

In Islam, Allah is a more conventionally conceived god as opposed to the Trinitarian God of Christianity. Allah is one person and one being. This is sometimes called a monad (from the word mono meaning single or one).

But here we strike a problem. If we say that Allah loves or is loving, it raises the question of who Allah was loving before he created the world? The answer is of course either himself, which would surely seem to be narcissistic, prideful, and selfish, or no-one. 

Assuming that Allah is not some cosmic narcissist, then before he created the world he would have had no-one to love. We can only conclude then that Allah needed to have created people in order to have something to love. Again, life precedes love.

This is a major logical problem for the Islamic conception of god because it means that Allah needs (is dependant upon) the creation, and particularly human beings, in order to have something to love. As such, the Muslim conception of god renders Allah to be dependant upon his creation. He is not self sufficient, he is not complete within himself, nor is he loving at the level of his essential character and nature.

Because the Muslim conception of god is a dependant being, Allah cannot be said to be a perfect being. It is a logically flawed conception of who god is, and so for logical/philosophical reasons Islam cannot be true in any meaningful sense.

In any worldview, philosophy or religion you care to mention, life must, by definition, precede love. This means that love (if it can possibly exist at all in any meaningful way) can only begin with human beings, and anything that has a beginning is by definition finite and cannot be said to be eternal.

The Christian faith sees ultimate reality as found in the person of God. For the Christian, God is an eternal being who exists as an eternal loving relationship of persons in the community of the Trinity.

Only for the Christian faith does love precede life, and only for the Christian faith can love be said to be truly eternal.

If you want to believe that love is eternal, the Christian faith is the only game in town.

What if…?

What if the Christian understanding of God was actually true? What if it was not only true, but we actually believed it to be true? What if we not only believed it to be true but lived as if it were true because we believed it. What would that look like?

Well, imagine if you will, a people who believed and lived their entire lives in light of their belief that God exists as an eternal relationship, a loving community of persons, and that this God has created everything that has come to exist.

Imagine then that this people, as a result, believe that reality is relational at its core, that community is central to reality, and that love is eternal.

Imagine also that this people consequently believe that we as human beings desire and pursue deep meaningful relationships not because our DNA makes us do it, not because it serves some social utility, and not because in doing so we are obeying the will of a god who is, within himself, incapable of love, but because when we come into relationship with each other we come into contact with reality as it actually is, and as a result we experience something true about God and about what it means to be human.

How would such a people live their lives? What would such a people pursue in and with their lives? What would such a people prioritise in their lives? How would such a people utilise their resources? What factors would influence the decisions that they made for themselves, their families, their businesses, their communities, their politics etc?

Before we close out this instalment, I want to lay down a couple of challenges.

1) If your worldview, philosophy, or religion can’t account for relationship, community, and love in its foundations, in its first causes, then you can’t and shouldn’t expect to see relationship, community, or love in its effects; your life or the lives of those who believe as you do.

However, you do experience personally, and see in others, the drive towards relationship, community, and love but, logically speaking, it is in spite of and not because of your worldview. In fact, I would say that where you do experience these things, or desire these things, it is because you are coming into contact with reality as it actually is, and that experience of true reality serves as evidence against your worldview.

2) Now for the Christian. Are we living lives that flow from what we believe about God? Are we allowing our priorities, our pursuits, our family lives, our decisions, our whole lives in their entirety to be influenced by what we say we believe about who God is? If not, why not, because we certainly should be.

Where we see the lives of Christians not meeting the standard of what we say we believe it’s not necessarily because there’s something inherently wrong with the worldview. Quite the contrary. The Christian worldview gives a more than adequate account in its foundation for why we should want to pursue deep relationships and loving communities. The issue comes with people not living consistently in light of those foundations. That’s not to say that we don't see Christians who are consistently living in light of what we say we believe about God, but it is to say we don’t see it often enough.

If Jesus says, as He does in John 17, that the way we live together in loving communities is intended to serve as a witness to the truth of who God the Father is, and to the fact that the Father has sent the Son, then perhaps we should start listening to Him. Just a thought.

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