The last time I substitute taught Gospel Doctrine, I got to teach John’s epistles that he wrote to the believers in his soon-to-disband Johannine community while he was living in Ephesus. His community was divided, something we are also experiencing within our Mormon congregations in the wake of the policy change toward homosexuals and their children.
Among John’s followers, there were traditional Christian believers as well as emerging Gnostics. The Gnostics developed several different theories about Jesus, particularly focused on Jesus not being truly human. These differences in belief began to split the community into different schools of thought. John’s advice to them all was to strip away their self-deception and focus on love for each other because that’s what God was really all about. He spent very little time talking about their pet theories and the nature of God and more time focused on detailing the ways in which people deceive themselves into thinking they are righteous when they are really forgetting the most basic Christian imperative: to love one another.
Divine & Human
There were some competing theories about the balance of human and divine within Jesus among those in the Johannine community. Marcionism theorized that Christ could not physically suffer because he wasn’t human. He didn’t have a body, but was a phantom. Another theory was that Jesus was a man but Christ was a separate entity, a spirit that entered his body at baptism and then abandoned him on the cross. This view is shared in the Gnostic work The Gospel of Judas in which Judas reports that Jesus has taken him into His confidence, asking Judas to kill him: “For you will sacrifice the man that clothes me.” He is describing his humanity as easily discarded, like clothing he can put on and take off, a temporary illusion.
Let’s take a closer look at the Gnostic movement from a more modern parallel. At heart, the Gnostics were wrestling with the idea of Jesus being both divine and human. All Christians struggle to understand what the Book of Mormon calls “the condescension of God.” In some ways, it’s a chicken and egg question; which came first: Jesus’ divinity or His humanity? And which takes precedence? Is it a 50/50 balance or what?
The reason there is a natural tension between the divine and human aspects of Jesus is simple. If He’s not human, He can’t succor. If He’s not divine, He can’t save.
Another relevant question is whether Jesus was descending to become human or whether he was ascending to become divine. The concept of condescension is the former, someone who was divine and became human to sacrifice Himself for humans. As it says in John “the Word was made flesh.” Eastern religions, by contrast, focus on the process of enlightenment or becoming. In Buddhism, one can ascend toward the level of enlightenment in which one becomes a Boddhisattva or savior. From wikipedia:
A bodhisattva is one who has a determination to free sentient beings from samsara and its cycle of death, rebirth and suffering.
This can be done in one of three ways: by seeking buddhahood to help others, by aspiring to help others achieve buddhahood, or by aspiring to delay one’s own buddhahood until all sentient beings achieve it.
Within Christianity, though, assuming that Jesus was divine and became human the question remains how do we as followers go from human to being divine? How do we accomplish the difficult task of “be ye therefore perfect”? And can we ever rise above our humanity to become divine?
Behind these questions is a bigger question, whether we are different from Jesus by degree or in kind. And this is one reason many Christian sects consider Mormons to be not Christian, because we believe we are only different from Jesus in degree, not in kind. We believe that we can achieve divinity.
John warns in 2 John 1:7 that those who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh are “anti-Christ.” Although he doesn’t dwell on these doctrinal differences, he does consider the view that Jesus wasn’t human to be heretical and dangerous.
This tension between divinity and humanity is also evident when we talk about the fallen nature of man. In some views, man is so fallen, so carnal and devilish, that there is essentially nothing redeemable about us. The atonement redeems us from the depths of depravity of the human condition. And yet in other views, also scriptural, man has the spark of divinity within. We are literally sons and daughters of God, in God’s image. Those who speak with disdain for humanity, who see our depravity as more prevalent than our divinity are still seemingly at odds, at least philosophically, with those who view human potential optimistically.
John focuses his writing on how we as Christians deceive ourselves, and how we use that self-deception to justify not loving each other. He says that if we really knew God, we would see through these deceptions, and we would love others because that is what God is and what God does. He uses a set of contrasting parallels to make his points:
- Walking in darkness vs. walking in light (1 John 1: 5-7). The problem, as Plato pointed out, is that we don’t perceive that we are in darkness until we step out of the cave in which we dwell, into the light.
- Denying vs. admitting we are sinners (1 John 1: 8-10). He states in 1 John 2: 1-2 that the atonement only applies to us when we admit we are sinners. Denying we are sinners is the purview of the self-righteous. Church is full of sinners because we are all sinners. Either we admit we are or we hide and justify our sins.
- Keeping the commandments vs. not keeping them (1 John 2: 3-6). Being a disciple means doing what Jesus taught. John doesn’t detail what the commandments are, but he points to the fact that disciples follow Jesus’ teachings.
- Love God vs. hating one’s brother (1 John 2: 9-11). It’s not possible to do both, according to John. It’s easy to say we don’t hate others, but whenever we justify our actions in terms of protecting ourselves from others, we are slipping into that territory.
- Denying vs. admitting that Jesus came in the flesh (1 John 2: 22-23). When we deny Jesus was human, we deny His ability to relate to humanity, to really redeem us, and our own potential to become like Him. We minimize our own potential as well as His sacrifice.
- Loving others in word vs. loving them in deed (1 John 3: 17-18). It’s easy to say we love others, but acting based on that love is much more difficult. It’s easier to write a check to charity than it is to serve in person. It’s easier to give someone $5 than to take them into our home and give them a meal and a shower. Our fear of exposure, of risk, of harm, or of being taken advantage of gets in the way of loving as Christ would.
John elaborated in 1 John 4 that if we don’t love each other, we don’t know God. It’s not possible to love God while hating others. Some theorize that this is because we are denying the atonement if we don’t love our fellow men since Jesus died for all of humanity.
Why is it so easy to deceive ourselves? I’m reminded of Kathryn Schulz’s excellent book Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error in which she explains:
Sincere denial is also known as self-deception; it entails keeping a truth from ourselves that we cannot bear to know. How we are able to perpetrate a deception against ourselves is a longstanding mystery of psychology and philosophy.
Why would we subconsciously want to deceive ourselves? The stakes are simply too high. As she states:
Our beliefs are inextricable from our identities, our communities, and our overall sense of security and happiness. No wonder, then, that any major assault on our beliefs represents a trauma in its own right–one that can arouse denial just as swiftly as any other upsetting event.
Questioning our beliefs, including our self-deceptions, puts our very identity–our belief that we are honest, true, good, righteous–in doubt. That’s some scary stuff.
Fear vs. Love
One of my favorite verses is 1 John 4: 18: “Perfect love casteth out fear.” This implies that when we react to our fears, whether those fears are founded or not, we reduce our ability to feel love. Fear and love are incompatible in the same way some say that doubt and faith are incompatible. When we fear, we instinctively draw inward, we focus on our own survival, and we have a heightened perception of external threats that can cause us to lash out at others from a motive of self-preservation, to avoid harm. This is a very human response to feeling fear, the fight or flight response. The greater the fear, the more it makes it impossible to love others. Our focus on self blinds us to the harm that may be done to others.
While Donnie Darko argues that life isn’t that simple (and it isn’t!) fear does take precedence over other emotions. We only love when we transcend our fears, when we set aside our need for self-preservation. After all, isn’t that what Jesus did to the point that he could even ignore the actual harms being done to him and forgive his killers as they killed him? Now that’s love.
Because we are all human, we all struggle with the need to protect ourselves from real or imagined harm, and that fear of harm clouds our ability to love others and to achieve our divine potential. John wisely saw that this is a human trait that we as people need to overcome regardless of the nature of the arguments that divide us.
Thoughts to consider:
- Do we as Mormons feel more comfortable seeing Jesus as human or divine? How do we balance both aspects?
- If we view Jesus as descending to become human and us as needing to ascend toward the divine how does his example actually show us the way? Does it?
- What evidence do you see of these types of self-deceptions in yourself or others? Are these examples still true today?
- How are our interactions with others fraught with fear rather than motivated by love? How does fear enter into our family relationships? How do we learn to let go of it?
 When I first read that I thought “Jesus had a valet?”