by Ronald Goetz
Dr. Goetz, a Century editor at large, holds the Niebuhr distinguished chair of theology and ethics at Elmhurst College in Elmhurst, Illinois.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 7, 1988, p. 1118. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
An Advent meditation in which Goetz explores the abstract and paradoxical account of the advent of Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospel of John.
The true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world. He was in the world . . . yet the world knew him not. . . But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God [John 1:9-13].
In contrast to Matthew and Luke, who play the storytellers, charming us at Christmas with tales about angels and shepherds, a virgin birth in a stable, a villain named Herod and heroes like the Magi, John plays the theologian, starting off with a dazzling conundrum: the light by which everyone sees came into the world, yet the world didn’t see it.
We ought to be careful not to fall asleep on this text and piously nod our slumbering holiday approval, for John’s words bristle with oddities. After all, how could the very light that enlightens everyone, all men and all women, come into the world and not be recognized? Shouldn’t someone have noticed?
Today a growing number of people claim that there is no light — not from within us and especially not from beyond us. For them, all “light-talk” is a delusion, exposed as such by the fact that the very light that is supposed to exist in us all has been seen by no one.
The more idealistic among us may also raise critical eyebrows over John’s claim. Many still cling to the belief that the light of a divinity is in us all — a certain spark of God’s own life — which, by means of direct introspection, one can detect. Indeed, the very order of nature, like the radiance of our souls, reveals the light of divine reason in us all.
So it would seem that if the light of the world became particularly intensified in a single human life, in the man Jesus, then many in the world surely would have recognized that light. The intensification of the same light that permeates all things might well leave us blinded by its brilliance, but it could hardly be said to have come into the world unperceived. Thus, once again, but on very opposite grounds, the Johannine claim that “the light that enlightens every man has come into the world” might be adjudged a delusion — exposed as such by the myriad of spiritually enlightened observers who testify to having seen nothing in terms of light emanating from Christianity to warrant such a claim.
It is useless to defend the Johannine proclamation against such onslaughts by insisting that sin has so blinded the world that it cannot see the light. For if this were what John meant, surely he would have said so. Not that John was indifferent to or naïve about the reality of sin, nor that we would want to deny that human sin is a factor in the apparent paradox he presents. Nevertheless, it is clear from the whole Johannine context that the evangelist is not emphasizing that the light came into the world to demonstrate the world’s blindness. It is John who said that “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3: 17). And to force John’s Gospel into a reading whereby humanity is denigrated in order to build up God would merely add fuel to the protests of both our nihilistic and our idealistic fellow creatures. Would not such a reading confirm their suspicion that Christianity thrives on shame and guilt?
John does not let up in his penchant for paradox. After observing that not only his own world but “his own people” failed to receive the true light, he suddenly turns and salutes “all who receive [the light], who believed in his name,” to whom “he gave power to become children of God.” Is this turnabout not doubly baffling? For not only must we wrestle with the paradox of the world’s light shining unnoticed, but we are confronted by the seemingly contradictory assertion that though the “world” (presumably everybody) knew him not, nevertheless some received the light, some “believed in his name” and became “children of God” — not of their own fleshly will but by the power of God. Are we therefore to conclude that although none of us can, naturally and spontaneously, see the light for what it is, God elects a few who are able to see? Such a predestinarian reading would ultimately violate John’s larger intention. But the fact that it even suggests itself underscores our central question as to how John can claim that the light of the world came into the world unperceived.
The difficulty of discerning a systematic consistency in John is less a function of some fundamental confusion in his thought than of his remarkable mirroring of the way in which we all must hold our faith. The poet Robert Frost once observed that “heaven gives its glimpses only to those not in position to look too close,” as when one sees a flower from the window of a speeding train. One sees, responds and is profoundly affected. Nevertheless, one cannot answer questions as to the variety of the briefly seen flower; one only knows that one saw its beauty. Like such fleeting visions, God’s revelation cannot be inerrantly recorded, processed or made serviceable. Yet in faith we “see” that it is the most real and abiding thing we possess.
There is more to an infant’s pathetic cry in a cold, dark stable than meets the eye, and sometimes we are even privileged to see that something more. John, in his paradoxical insistence that the world cannot see the light which supposedly enlightens it, would not, I think, deny that even the unknowing, seemingly uncaring world sees glimpses of light — as in the case of our annual philistine rush to the crèche of neon and plastic. Despite the self-indulgence and crassness of the season, are there not moments when even the worldliest of the world’s worldly show signs of having glimpsed a flickering of light that they perhaps can barely make out, but which they secretly hope reflects the reality of their own best selves?
The Christ child was born, came to maturity, was crucified, resurrected and ascended. He did not leave behind a solid body of certainties for us to base our lives on, but what he did give — memories and promises and his spirit — is enough. It would be truly horrendous to be in the hands of an all-intrusive God who never left us alone, and who, when it came time to send his messiah, sent one who ruled the earth like some heavenly Mussolini. In the very unobtrusiveness of the light of Christ, God honors our finite freedom.
As we in our various ways all know, the existential cost of such freedom is high. Certainly part of that cost is the frequent feeling that heaven has turned its back on us and that all our buoyant talk about our freedom is simply another way of admitting that we have been left orphaned in the world. Yet Christmas exposes the potential for self-pity in such feelings — exposes it as the infantile regression it is. We are in fact no more orphaned in the world than was the son of God when he left heaven and came to earth. There is always light enough for both God’s will and human destiny to get themselves accomplished. The infant Christ was not blinded by his birth. He saw in the faces of his parents, the shepherds and the Magi — and perhaps even the beasts of the stable — the light of life and freedom that is God’s light. Indeed, he saw the image of himself in us. We take our darkness far too seriously, perhaps, when it is something an infant can see through.