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The Politics of Scripture

Remembering the Good News

Following Jesus the Dao in flesh is to follow the way of liberative freedom, a freedom to embrace the openness of Jesus’s multifaceted witness instead of reductively boxing him in by way of the Logic of the One.

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own,] and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.

John 1:1-18

In her book Beyond Monotheism, Laurel Schneider deftly threads together three needles–postcoloniality, multiplicity, and process theology–in search for a “divinity beyond the Logic of the One.” The Logic of the One, which haunts tendencies towards subjugation and forcible conformation, haunts Christian theology because of its habituation in the history of Christian thought and witness. Consider how Karl Barth’s theology of the Word of God, which he intended to serve as a humbling critique of human speech about God, can oftentimes become misused by theologians as a way of harshly dismissing human speech about God that does not conform to their own. In other words, it theologically bludgeons Logics of the One other than one’s own.

The Gospel of John’s introduction to the story of Jesus’s earthly ministry is no exception to that temptation to read the Logic of the One into the passage. It is uniquely memorable insofar as it is the only one of the four Gospels to describe Jesus the Christ as the “Word” (Koine Greek: logos). Unfortunately for modern readers, logos defies neat definitions. Greek understandings of the concept include the logos as a principle, argument, thought, reason, speech, divine utterance, and others, while Jewish thought identifies logos as wisdom (sophia).

In the face of such multiplicity of rich meanings, it is tempting to allow the Logic of the One to interrupt careful and creative theological thought. One skips ahead from the meandering hymn of praise to the verbum Dei to v. 17, where the logos is firmly and ontologically defined as Jesus the Christ. That is, it is defined as the Jesus Christ that we are familiar with and comfortable in, the Jesus who challenges what we want challenged, and who embraces what we conveniently embrace. Such a theological strategy, however, as Schneider warns rightly, plays into the hands of Empire. The humbling, cosmopolitan multiplicity of the Divine gives way to a prideful uniformity of parochial and self-aggrandizing vision of divinity. A more fruitful strategy may be to dwell in the murky diversity of what logos can signify, and allow the witness of the Word of God in flesh to challenge and disrupt us.

In the Chinese translation of John 1:1, “Word” is translated as 道 (Dao, or Tao). In Japanese and Korean, the word is Do (pronounced “doe”). The Dao is the organizing principle of moral, political, and social life. It signifies a way of being, a way of conducting oneself or relating oneself to others, a way of doing things, among many other possible significations. In Chinese, to be morally upright is to understand 道德 (dao de), the “Way of Ethics.” This is not simply a matter of knowing deontological principles of right and wrong, but a recognition that a good or right action done towards someone or in a particular situation may be entirely inappropriate towards another or in other circumstances. Hence, the Way of Ethics is characterized not by rigidity or uniformity, but diversity and multiplicity. In the Way of Ethics, there are many ways of being people of good character and demonstrating it.

Indeed, such resistance to being reduced to simple definitions was foundational to the philosophy of the Dao. In the opening to the Daodejing (or, Tao Te Ching), Laozi writes (translated literally), “The Dao can be/is Dao; it’s very Dao” (Ch. 1). In other words, the Dao cannot be contained or defined; a neat definition of the Dao is not truly the Dao. And yet, while the Dao cannot be defined, it can still be concretely realized. The resistance to clear-cut definitions and concrete realization persists throughout the Daodejing. It is perhaps human nature – or the wages of original sin for Augustinian readers – for us to separate humanity into the elect or unelect, the elite or dregs, the saved or the damned. Wisely and instructively, Laozi reminds readers that avoiding the valuing of people based on ability (or other differences, one might argue) also avoids strife and dissension (Ch. 3). Such wisdom is critical for our times. How often do we regard the theological Other as less than human and, therefore, conveying dehumanizing speech and actions to them as justifiable?

While the Dao cannot be defined, it can still be concretely realized. To value the Other, to convey due respect to others, is to act in accordance to the Dao. Certainly, what this means exactly will vary according to the circumstances. One can argue that universally, Christians are called to respect the politicians whom we have elected, but to confuse respect with unyielding and uncritical obedience (or disobedience) militates against that respect. Approaching politicians with constructive engagement or critical and righteous disobedience are both ways of acting according to the Dao. Under the uniforming vision of Empire, “the way” follows the reductionist logic of “you’re either with me or against me.” It is ideological fundamentalism, be it from the right or left of the political spectrum. But when considered more accurately, the Dao is an invitation to freedom; this is not the freedom to do as one desires but the freedom to think and act carefully in accordance to what is good and just. The Way of the Logos/Dao is the way of harmony, even in the midst of considerable and even irreconcilable differences.

But here is where Christian tradition does not mesh seamlessly with Daoist thought. Into this picture steps Jesus the Christ, whom John ontologically identifies as the Dao made human. As the Dao incarnate, Jesus reveals a God who does not merely do as he desired, but as a God who reconciles and organizes all peoples to be free to exercise righteousness and justice. This is exactly what “frees” Christians in the law. It “frees” Christians not in the sense that the law no longer applies, as if the law of Moses were obsolete or irrelevant. It “frees” Christians to embody the character that forms the foundation of God’s law. This is the freedom that bids Jesus to say, two chapters later, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,” and that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn it but to save the world through him” (3:16-17). Freedom in the law is not about self-righteous condemnations where one puts down the different Other because they are not one with the Self, but about salvific liberation, a liberation that frees one to see, as Emmanuel Levinas put it, the “face of the Other” and, in doing so, participate in lifting them up. 

Such a witness is not an abstraction, but is concretely realized in the witness of Jesus the Christ. John (and the other Gospel writers) was not shy in highlighting Jesus’s ministry of healing and reconciliation to the outcasts of society. Jesus communicated and enjoyed fellowship with the impure Samaritans (Jn. 4: 1-26), healed the sick even on the Sabbath (5: 1-29), and fed the five thousand (6:1-15). Luke had a particularly offensive account where Jesus–the Jesus who was supposed to be in solidarity with the poor–openly fellowshipped with Zacchaeus the tax collector, one who collected taxes to fund the Roman Imperial machine and “collected” more on top of that to line his own pockets (19:1-10). Such communication, healing, and feeding were not merely therapeutic, but genuinely included these people within the orbit of God’s people.

Contrary to the unifying and harmonious vision of the Dao, Jesus’s witness as the Dao incarnate was not one of supreme harmony in which everyone lived in an abrasion-free society. Daoist and Confucian visions of harmonious society, in practice, were contingent on everyone in society meekly fitting into social-economic classes and castes, while acting appropriately between them. Christians make the same error by fitting Jesus’s witness into one’s own self-aggrandizing agenda. Just as the Dao resists a reductive definition which, in turn, opens people to the different ways in which it is concretized, so an expansive and challenging vision of Jesus’s witness attunes us to how, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins puts it, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”

One way that such openness can be encouraged comes through the work of the late Johann Baptist Metz, who connects the logic of righteous, just, and liberative freedom to the dangerous memory of Jesus’s suffering, death, and resurrection.  Metz makes this connection because Christians readily focus on the optimism of the resurrection and conveniently forget (or ignore?) that the significance of the resurrection is contingent on the weight of Jesus’s suffering and death. The dangerous memory for Christians is that the Way to the Light and to Life winds through suffering. 

This is why following Jesus the Dao in flesh is to follow the way of liberative freedom, a freedom to embrace the openness of Jesus’s multifaceted witness instead of reductively boxing him in by way of the Logic of the One.  The latter tempts us to leave the inconvenient parts of Christ’s witness out so we can capitalize on worshipping a less demanding God. In other words, we cherry-pick God’s law so it conforms to our conveniences. The former, however, challenges us to deconstruct our conveniences and our expectations so we can rise to follow Jesus, the Incarnate Way. It challenges us to make room for the prostitute, the Samaritan, the corrupt taxpayer, and many others on the various margins of society. This is the good news that John heralds, and the dangerous good news that we, as Christians, remember in this Christmas season.

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