I remember as a young person at university going along to film evenings in one of the lecture theatres – one of those deeply tiered rooms where the lecturer occupied a little space right down at the bottom with a screen and white-board, and stairs coming down each side of the room from the doorways at the very top. An excellent arrangement, as I remember, for launching anonymous paper planes and other highly academic practices. Students being perennially poor, cheap movies were quite a drawcard, and the auditorium was always packed. One evening, though, I remember the main entertainment was not actually the movie itself. For whatever reason, the lights went down and the movie started early. For the next ten minutes or so, we were treated to the antics of latecomers entering at the top of the stairs, finding themselves in what must have seemed like total darkness and trying to feel their way down to a seat. Some of them even turned around and came down backwards. Naturally, we who had got there early could see perfectly well, our eyes had adjusted to the darkness. Probably most of the latecomers assumed the movie was a comedy, but it wasn’t. We were just laughing at them.
Some animals, of course, have eyes that naturally function better in the darkness, and we call them nocturnal. Human beings generally do better in the daylight, though our eyes manage to adjust if we just wait a minute or two before trying to walk down the steps in a darkened lecture theatre.
So, in his letter written around the end of the first or the beginning of the second century to a community of Christians who see themselves in the tradition of the fourth Gospel, the anonymous writer of the first letter of John – who we might call the Elder – doesn’t mince words. You’re trying, he suggests, to live like nocturnal Christians. You might even have got so used to living in the darkness that you don’t even realise how funny it looks. ‘Jesus is light’, he tells them, ‘and you can’t call yourself a Christian if you’re living in the darkness’. It’s a theme the Elder picks up from the opening lines of the fourth Gospel itself, the first few verses in which Jesus is introduced as the light that shines in the darkness, the light that no darkness can overcome. It means there’s a clear choice, and a clear differentiation. But where in John’s Gospel the theme of light and darkness has a setting that’s cosmic in scale, the Word of God lighting up creation itself, here the Elder applies it in a way that’s both more personal and less comfortable: to the Church, to men and women who claim to be followers of Christ.
Scholars are pretty clear that the so-called letters of John are closely related to the fourth Gospel, and the writer clearly knows the Gospel intimately, but there’s no indication that they are written by the same person or under the same circumstances. What we do know is that the epistles of John were written for a community that is in a state of flux, a community that has encountered some opposition, a community that has become inward-looking and seems to be in danger of losing its way. The letter is written at a time when what we might think of as the basics of our faith are still up for grabs, still being argued about. A time when what we know as the doctrine of the Trinity was still undreamed-of, the mystery of who Jesus was, and the question of how Christians should live, were still being argued about.
And in this community one of the strongest challenges came from a movement that we call Gnosticism. Gnostic Christians had no trouble seeing Jesus as divine, they just couldn’t accept that he was really human. They couldn’t see how Jesus, being fully God, could suffer and die, so they came up with various explanations. One idea was that Jesus just appeared to be human, a sort of divine hologram – another explanation was that Jesus might originally have been human but that God’s Holy Spirit took over his body like something out of Dr Who when he was baptised, and then left him again just before he was strung up on the cross. Which when you really think about it, doesn’t make the Holy Spirit look very ethical.
This, of course, was all part of the creative mix of ideas and theories by which the early Church had to evolve, and we really shouldn’t feel too superior when we look back at some of the whackier alternatives. But where Gnosticism really became dangerous to the Christian community, was because it seemed to say that the material world and the spiritual world were totally separate. That God just operated, so to speak, on the spiritual level, and the physical world didn’t really matter that much. That was a recipe for disaster, firstly because it meant that Gnostic Christians could ignore the political and social realities of the world around them. Anglicare wouldn’t have got much support from them, for example. Gnostic Christians tended to fall into two camps – there were the otherworldly variety, the navel-gazing variety, and there were the variety who thought that if the spiritual world was all that really mattered then actually they could pretty much do whatever they wanted in the material world. Life for this brand of Gnostic Christian was a party. It’s hard to know which variety of Gnostic the letter-writer has most in mind when he talks about so-called Christians living in darkness, but it’s not hard to see that this little section about light and darkness has got a lot to say to us too, when he equates living in the light to truth, and living in the darkness to self-deception.
Have you ever noticed how the most fashionable cafes always have the lights down low? Low-voltage down-lights, candles on every table – very romantic – though the cynic in me thinks that might just be because most of us look better by candlelight, because our wrinkles and imperfections aren’t quite so obvious. One of the wonders of the rectory, incidentally, is that there’s this extra light switch in the ensuite bathroom. Make the mistake of switching that one on and you see yourself for exactly what you are, 500 watts or so of absolute truth. Needless to say I generally don’t go for that one.
The point is that we can delude ourselves into thinking we’re nearly perfect – so long as we stay in the dark long enough. Like people raised in a culture where the accepted response to violence is to retaliate with more violence. Or the idea that the tragedy of displaced people, of millions of men and women and children fleeing from conflict and violence in their own countries, that that problem doesn’t exist just so long as we have really really strong border protection policies and they don’t arrive on our doorstep. When we live in the darkness we can become so convinced that we’re right that we can’t see any other possibilities. We certainly can’t recognise the truth. This can be true not just for individual men and women but for entire nations.
We all have our blind spots. I like to think of myself as a compassionate person, yet I react unsympathetically to the person with a history of drug abuse whose behaviour is uncomfortably ‘in your face’. I don’t think I’m racist, but I catch myself making assumptions about people on the basis of their ethnic origin. I get angry about the environmental vandalism of big business, but don’t ask me to switch the air conditioner off in the height of summer.
This is the uncomfortable bit, because the Elder is not talking to Pharisees or people who have rejected Jesus, he is talking to us, to Christians who think they’ve got a few things worked out. And he says, ‘if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves’. This is a bit confronting. I read the other day about a survey – carried out, of course, in America but it’s probably just as true here. Fully 98% of Christians believed in what they called ‘personal sin’ but over a third said that they themselves – even though from time to time they made mistakes – were not sinful. The anonymous letter-writer, the Elder, begs to differ.
Nineteenth-century theologian Soren Kirkegaard, identifies the root of humankind’s rejection of the gospel in our almost infinite capacity for kidding ourselves, our inability to accept that our own point of view is not absolute. From the perspective of the Epistle of John, this is dangerous nonsense, in a universe that is not morally neutral, sin is real and it is toxic – and we desperately need to acknowledge our own share in it.
And yet this is not bad news – the Elder’s message on the contrary is entirely positive. Because, he tells us, the initiative has already been taken by God, that Jesus’ sacrificial self-giving does for us what we can’t manage for ourselves, switches on the lights for us, allows us to see the truth of our own lives in relation to God and to the world around us, and resets our moral compass. Jesus’ self-giving love sets the 500 watt standard, flicks the little-used switch for us, allows us to sees God as God is and we ourselves as we are.
Which, disorienting as it is when you don’t expect it, especially at 6am, is actually good news.