The Life that is the Light of all Mankind

Dear Friends,

I have been thinking about John 1:9 for several days.  

Whenever I consider religious claims from the point of view of an outsider, I hear their claims as one listens to the local weather report.   E.g. “It’s cold with a 60% chance of precipitation. “The forecast may be true but everyone rightly assumes that the prediction applies only to the local region. One never thinks of a local report as applicable to a whole continent. What’s true in the Buddhist system of thought may not be true in the Muslim world view. 

Here in John 1:9, we have an unashamedly bold and inclusive statement: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world”.  What does that claim assert? 

1) That there is a true light. Given the Hebrew background, this should be interpreted as the knowledge of the Way of the LORD, his Torah.  For the Jews say that the Torah is the light of the world and by it a person may find illumination to walk the path of life without stumbling – to direct a person in time of doubt and difficulty and a comfort in time of fear and distress–the Way of Righteousness. (Psa 119:105)  People of every age assume they already have the light, that they inherently know the difference between right and wrong,  good and evil, the way of conflict and the way of peace. But history reveals how great is the darkness that we take for light.  Have we not been the most certain of ourselves at those very times when we were in the greatest error? We think of the great certainty with which slaveowners exploited slaves, or in which previous generations went to war to ‘defend’ their country, or persecuted those of another ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation-all of which appear so shameful in hindsight.  What scripture says is that our cultures are normally in a state of darkness and we need the light as we need nothing else.  When the light is finally followed, it leads to goodness and peace. 

 2) There exists a light that is universal to all people… Jew, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist … there is a way of righteousness that calls to every human being in every time and place. 

Political correctness now insists on pluralism-that what is true for me need not be true for you.  Yet it also insists on being inclusive; that no group of people should be cut off from privileges that another group enjoys. 

Well it can’t go both ways-  To include everyone in privilege is to include everyone in responsibility. John’s claim is just that.  The Logos is that life that is the light of all mankind, and to that light every man and woman is called to respond. I have heard Jews, Muslims, and Hindus all tell of how Christ  is the fulfillment of their greatest aspirations to purity, truth and the knowledge of God. When a Christian says that Jesus is my God,  he ought not be saying that he has exclusive claim on God, but rather that God has an exclusive claim on him

3) That light was coming into the world as a person.  Philosophers love to speak of ideas.  Hebrews will speak of light as the metaphor for Truth, revelation, and salvation. Because the light became a human, we know that revelation, Truth, and salvation are not abstract ideas.   His life and conversation  reveal the anguish and affection of that One for whom the Old Testament prophets spoke.  His love of his disciples and acceptance of outcasts are God’s love enacted.   His living and dying and rising again are the salvation of the world. 

Psa 36:9 says “For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.”  

My friends, as you grow and see the larger world, and shed the cultural enclave of our homes and church community , look for the Light that is still as fresh and as transformative as ever. 

Grace and Peace, 


What ‘The Word’ Meant to the Hebrews

The Hebrew word for ‘word’ is transliterated, dabar. Dabar is word-act.  It is the thing, the matter, the issue.

Men’s solemn words such as promises and blessings cannot be retracted. We remember the story of Jacob’s deception.  Pretending to be his brother Esau, he deceived his father Isaac into giving him the blessing of the firstborn. Once spoken, the word of blessing could not be retracted, despite the pleading of Esau.  Gen 27:37,38

In the Jewish mind, there is a 1:1 correlation between word and the reality to which it refers. The Hebrew bible begins with the Holy One calling light into existence.  Isaiah understands the transforming power of the divine word…

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,and do not return to it without watering the earth  and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.       Isa 55:10,11

Jeremiah asks rhetorically,  Is not my word like fire, and says the LORD, like a hammer which breaks the rocks in pieces?  Jer 23:29

Barclay raises another important development into the understanding of the word of God.  Hebrew was no longer  spoken at the time of Jesus.  Jews of Palestine spoke Aramaic.  The translators of the Aramaic scriptures, the Targams, were fascinated with the transcendence of God.  Seeking to avoid the directness of  anthropomorphisms, they changed texts such as Deut 33:27, which speaks of God’s everlasting arms, to read,  “The eternal God is thy refuge, and by his word the world was created.”  God’s word is now as stand-in, for God’s direct activity.  The phrase, word of God is found at least 320 times in the Jonathan Targum. This periphrasis for the name of God became a widely used Jewish expression.

Finally, Jewish wisdom literature personified wisdom. In Proverbs 8, she is spoken of as the chief architect, the master craftsman joyfully working with the God as he fashions the world, and one who delighting in and seeking the welfare of the children of men.

Barclay summarizes:  “So when John was searching for a way in which he could commend Christianity he found in his own faith and in the record of his own people the idea of the word, the ordinary word which is in itself not merely a sound, but a dynamic thing, the word of God by which God created the world, the word of the Targums which expressed the very idea of the action of God, the wisdom of the Wisdom Literature which was the eternal creative and illuminating power of God. So John said: “If you wish to see that word of God, if you wish to see the creative power of God, if you wish to see that word which brought the world into existence and which gives light and life to every man, look at Jesus Christ. In him the word of God came among you.””

What ‘The Word’ Meant to Greeks

Barclay tells us that John’s gospel was written in Ephesus around A.D. 100 and addressed to Hellenistic audience.  How would he announce the coming of Messiah and translate his identity and mission into the thought world of his Greek readers?  660 years before John, an Ephesian philosopher named Heraclitus gave us the famous image of flux – that one can’t step into the same river twice,  since the river will have changed in the mean time. (Yes Disney’s Pochohantas studied philosophy too.  Haven’t you have experienced that sense of anticipation as you came home to reconnect with your friends, only to realize with some sadness perhaps, that each one has moved on with life and warm memories of happy times cannot be relived.)

Was all of life in a chaotic state of flux in which one can have no root?  Or was there something that gave continuity to the changing elements of the universe? Hereclitis said that the something was the Logos, the principle of order that underlies the physical universe.  More than that, it is the pattern that guides the unfolding of world events.  The logos is the purpose, plan, and design controlling nature and history.  “The Logos was nothing less than the mind of God controlling the world and every man in it. ”  The idea was a hit with the Stoics.  The logos must be the principle that guides the stars in their path in the sky, the tides in their ebb and flow, and the pattern of the seasons.

But Barclay reminds us of yet another seminal thinker. Philo was the famous philosopher of Alexandria who sought to harmonize the wisdom of the Jews and the Greeks. Steeped in the knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures and the greatness of Greek thought, Philo knew and loved the Logos, the Word, the reason of God. It was the tiller by which God piloted the universe, the trademark with which the creation is stamped.  The human mind was imprinted with the Logos, giving us the faculty of reason.  It was the intermediary between the world and its Maker, “the priest who set the soul before God.”

“So John came to the Greeks and said: For centuries you have been thinking and writing and dreaming about the Logos (Greek #3056), the power which made the world, the power which keeps the order of the world, the power by which men think and reason and know, the power by which men come into contact with God. Jesus is that Logos come down to earth.” “The word,” said John, “became flesh.” We could put it another way–“The Mind of God became a person.”


The Light Shines in the Darkness

The following is a condensed version of Barclay’s Daily Study Bible 

1:9 He was the real light, who, in his coming into the world, gives light to every man.

(i)  He dispelled the shadows of doubt.  One of the Greeks said, “It is difficult to find out about God, and when you have found out about him it is impossible to tell anyone else about him.”  In the coming of Jesus,  people saw God in full display – the “radiance of his glory, the exact representation of his being. ”  Heb 1:3

(ii) He dispelled the shadows of despair.  Seneca said that people are aware of their helplessness.  “They hate their sins but cannot leave them.” Unable to improve ourselves or better our world, we live in the pessimism of despair. Jesus came with more than knowledge- he embodies the power to transform.  The darkness of pessimism and despair was gone for ever.

(iii) His coming diespelled the darkness of death. “The ancient world feared death. At the best, death was annihilation and the soul of man shuddered at the thought. At the worst, it was torture by whatever gods there be and the soul of man was afraid. But Jesus by his coming, by his life, his death, his Resurrection showed that death was only the way to a larger life.”

Barclay writes, ” The ancient world was exclusive. The Jew hated the Gentile and held that Gentiles were created for no other purpose than to be fuel for the fires of hell.”  [My comment: now to be sure Gentiles, especially Christian Gentiles have reciprocated by enacting their hostility against Jews for millennia afterward.] Isaiah saw that Israel’s destiny was to be a light to the Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6Isaiah 49:6) but that was a destiny which Israel had always definitely refused. The Greek world never dreamed that knowledge was for every man. The Roman world looked down on the barbarians, the lesser breeds without the law. But Jesus came to be a light to every man. Only the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has a heart big enough to hold all the world.”

Big Life Decisions are Made Day to Day

Most of life experience has pressed upon me the awareness that it is day to day habit that shapes a person’s life. How so? For close to thirty years, I have been working as a dentist for people struggling with psychiatric and addictions problems. The key link between these disorders and the health of the teeth is the fact that there can be long periods over which the motivation for daily brushing disappears.

Now cleaning our teeth is a routine task that most people take for granted; a single instance of brushing requires only a modest amount of willpower to execute.  But just think about why you do it. With due respect, my guess is that you, my reader aren’t motivated to clean your teeth to prevent pain or disease. You will probably feel no discomfort if you fail to clean your teeth… probably not for months.  Most of us learned to brush in order to please our parents or caregivers. After a while the habit became internalized.

Amidst the disruption of a major psychotic episode or a depressive illness, or an addiction, the delicate systems of internal rewards, routines, and self-care are interrupted for weeks or months on end. And whereas one may bathe or shave some time later with no residual effect, tooth decay or loss of supporting bone leave their permanent mark on the teeth. That is why the condition of the teeth, and the history of their treatment are like an archaeological record of ups and downs of a person’s life– recording periods of emotional disruption severe enough to suspend oral self-care for several weeks or months on end.

Once a person feels better, he usually wants to chew better, feel better, or look better.  If  one is attached to our hospital and on the road to recovery, he is sent to see me or one of my colleagues. You would think that the biggest challenge is to restore a devastated mouth to full esthetic function on a shoestring budget—but it isn’t. The greatest challenge is in fact to help the person find the motivation to begin and maintain the habit of daily brushing after the evening meal. (I never say before bed anymore because most people are too tired by then and can’t muster the willpower required.) Without the cleaning and the decision to abstain from the daily sipping of sugar in any form (tea, coffee, soft drinks), all restorative dentistry is completely futile. Over thirty years, there is no fact that has been branded itself into my professional psyche more deeply that that.

So perhaps you, my reader can understand why I attach so much weight to the importance of small daily decisions.  Daily choices, once rewarded and reinforced, have a way of becoming daily habits until they become ways of life that completely determine how we look, feel, and function.  Once ingrained, the best efforts of well intentioned care providers can do little to alter the course if the early decision was poorly made.  This is for me a rich theme to mine and it touches on my other areas of interest: relationships, spirituality, education, and counseling,–which I would like to explore in subsequent posts.

Reflections on Polkinghorne’s essay

So Finely Tuned A Universe

Does the Universe Need God?

I have always appreciated the ability of great thinkers to see patterns that lie behind a multitude of details. Landmark discoveries are the result of imaginative brooding.  From such effort, people discern the deep, subtle patterns that run through the natural world.  John Polkinghorne discerns two patterns in the universe that ought to make any thoughtful person, whether theist or atheist marvel. First, that the patterns consistently followed by nature are describable by natural laws that are comprehensible to the human mind. At first, this did not strike me as very outstanding, since the brain of any child can model the rules of any language in which the child is raised.  We are capable of modelling all kinds of patterns of thought,  and all sorts of hypotheses about the universe, not just the ones that turn out to be correct, and we hone them until we get it right.  However, as I thought about it, it is marvellous that the ones that turn out to be true have a quality of simplicity and beauty.  (I’m sure that my knowledge of mathematics does not allow me to comment on their beauty but I’ve heard enough mathematicians and physicists quoted to know that there is a general consenus that this is so. )

While it may not be that surprising to me that we can teach any human brain to recognize an almost infinite variety of patterns, I do marvel at the fact that true hypotheses have a quality of elegance to them that appeals to our sense of beauty.  This beauty is not the same beauty that we would find in a wilderness area where the trees, streams and mountains look gorgeous in every direction.  Rather, their beauty lies in their being able to account for so much apparent complexity in very few lines, their harmony with other theories arising from investigation in apparently unrelated areas, and their fertility – their ability to spawn new ideas about the universe. I’m told that one example of this is the beguiling simplicity of Einstein’s ten equations of General Relativity, held by some to be among the most beautiful things in the world.  So the laws of nature are not just small scale pretty, but have a quality of grandeur that makes them breathtaking.

Polkinghorne’s second pointer is the fine-tuning of the universe. I know this is a well worn subject, yet to me it is the phenomenon that inspires me to awe.  Though not without challenges, it remains the concenseus among physicists that this particular universe is an exceedingly improbable one.  (Sean)  Of course, one may argue that it is not surprising creatures who can question why they exist can only exist in a univere with a set of conditions that permitted the development of life,  we do not necessarily have the luxury of a gazillion tries and failed attempts as we have in evolutionary biology. There, we have many mutations that failed to be passed on through species that did not survive the conditions in which they emerged, leaving only the lucky few that thrive.  In the case of the universe, it has to be right from the moment of the big bang -otherwise we have no matter or stars from which the sculpting of evolution can carve its forms.

Sean suggests that the equations that may best describe the univerese lead naturally to the possibility to the emergence of multiple universes.  There is no way we are ever likely to prove or to disprove through observation, the existence of universes outside our own, but if we assume that we are here purely  by chance, we are forced into the belief in something of the order of 10 to the 10 to the 120 universes to have a likelihood of finding one that will produce, stars that could synthesize elements beyond up to Iron on the periodic table. ( Fred Hoyle did this work on carbon synthesis and here is  John commenting on his discovery)

Not to Acquire but to be Acquired

The songwriter says that in the passing of time, “I had collected many precious stones ’til I tired of them, –and I think they tired of me — some were lovely, but I was never satisfied”. All the while the sea rolled on beside me and called me to its embrace.

The parable put its finger unmistakably on a major tension in my own life.  Like a child, I had gone through life collecting little stones– the little accomplishments and honours that seemed so attractive to me at the time.   Beautiful as they were, they were only possessions.. things that I could hold in the palm of my hand.

One might wonder how someone who goes to the beach primarily to swim in the sea can first get sidetracked, then become engrossed in collecting stones.  Yet in my youth, my motto was,

“To embrace life and everything to which it called me…                                being open to all its joy, and not shrinking back from its pain.”

     But somehow along the way, perhaps only to muster the motivation to do my work, I had slipped into a difficult condition– I had come to fuel my daily effort by working for possessions that I could hold in my hand. An addict senses he is getting trapped when the effort made to get his fix is way out of proportion to the fleeting enjoyment that it brings.

  Long ago it had been made known to me, that life is not enriched by what I could acquire- rather, life is enriched by the extent to which I am acquired.   Life is not about finding precious treasure, but to be someone’s treasured possession. 


Stones and Sea

I love this painting of the monk by the sea.  It speaks to my appreciation of tranquil, deep thought. Some might find the image to be brooding and melancholic.  Paradoxically, it has been at such moments that I’ve experienced great joy and wonder.  What are the subjects of my contemplation?  This site is an invitation to enter into my thoughts.

Let me share with you something else.  The image also reminds me of a favourite song of mine– Stones and Sea.  In the beginning,
I was counting the stones on the seashore,
Looking for the precious ones…..