Although five books of the New Testament have traditionally been attributed to the apostle John, modern scholarship has identified two of these works as most likely bearing John’s direct imprint: The Gospel of John and The First Letter of John.
The Gospel begins with some of the most famous lines in all of Christian scripture:
“In the beginning was the Word (logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came to be through him and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life…and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1: 1 – 5)
John’s Letter, almost certainly written after the Gospel, elucidates the somewhat enigmatic words of the earlier document:
“What was from the beginning…concerns the Word of life…eternal life…” (I John 1: 1 – 2)
“We know that we have passed from death to life because we love our brothers. Whoever does not love remains in death.” (I John 3: 14)
“…Everyone who loves is begotten by God…for God is love.” (I John 4: 7b – 8)
“God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him.” (I John 4: 16b)
These are certainly strange sounding words to our modern ears, especially if we’re not familiar with theological ‘lingo’. But in fact, John is stating a doctrine that is as ancient as Anaximander (Pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, 5th Century BCE) and as modern as Martin Buber (Jewish theologian and existentialist philosopher, 20th Century CE).
The Word (logos) of John’s Gospel pre-existed (logically, not temporally) all things. It was with God and it was God. All things came to be through the Word and nothing came to be without it. And what came to be was life that darkness has not overcome.
John’s Letter makes clear that the Word of the Gospel is the Word of life and that life is eternal life. John’s life does not sound much like life as we ordinarily imagine it. In out view, an organism is born, lives out its days and dies. Darkness most certainly overcomes it…every time! But not so the life which comes to be through the Word! What’s the difference?
“We have passed from death to life because we love our brothers (and) whoever does not love remains in death.” Typically, we think of death as something that comes after life; but John reverses that order. We pass from death to life. Death is the state of non-being that precedes, rather than succeeds, life.
We all think we understand the process by which what is alive dies but what is the process by which what is not alive comes to be? According to John, we pass from death to life through love, the love we have for “our brothers”. Whoever does not love remains in death. So love is the generative force that brings life out of death!
Of course, we’re not talking here about procreation. We are not concerned with birth or death as biological processes; those are mere details, accidents. We are concerned with life and death as ontological processes.
We read in the Gospel that “without him (the Word) nothing came to be (and) what came to be through him was life…” So the Word and our love for our brothers must be one and the same. That makes sense because “the Word was God,” and “everyone who loves is begotten by God…for God is love.”
In Wayne’s world, we’re born, we love, we die. In John’s world, we love and live eternally. Everything is upside down. In Wayne’s world, we are the ‘subjects’ and love is the ‘accident’; in John’s world, love (God, the Word) is the subject and we are the accidents. In Wayne’s world, events move in time from life to death; in John’s world, things move outside of time from death to life.
Why outside of time? Two reasons: first because time does not ‘begin’ until something comes to be and nothing comes to be except through love; but what comes to be through love is eternal life. So in John’s world, there is no place for time. Being and eternity are one.
But there is an even more profound reason. Many modern cosmologists understand time as the difference in duration between events. The earth revolves once around the sun while it rotates 365.25 times around its axis. The ratio of these cycles (and all other cycles) is what we experience as ‘time’.
Time is related to entropy. Any closed system tends toward ever greater disorder. Time is a way to measure the difference between higher order states and lower order states. In a certain universe of discourse, death is the ultimate state of disorder so, of course, temporal events move from life toward death.
Love, on the other hand, is not an event; it is a state of being. Of course, we may experience falling in and out of love (accidents) but the love itself is not a process. Many people talk of love as “timeless”; they feel sure that the love relation they have with another being will survive death, darkness and the grave. We call such people mystics, or poets, or maniacs. But what if they are experiencing something real and stating something true, even though they may lack the conceptual framework to express it clearly?
In Wayne’s world, beings exist apart from their relations. They enter into various relationships but they understand themselves as independent of those relationships. For them, relationships constitute events. They use the relative durations of these relationships, these events to measure time. Wayne’s world is an entropic world. Entities degrade; they pass from higher order states to lower order states. Relationships burn bright and then flame out. Time is the central organizing principle of all that is.
What about John’s world? There being arises out of relation, out of love. There are no entities apart from the relations between them (logos). According to John, whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him. The relation and the ‘relata’ (the things related) are inseparable. The relation constitutes the relata and the relata constitute the relation. There are no moving pieces, there are no events, there are no closed systems, there is no duration, there is no time, there is no entropy.
This is not to say that Wayne’s world is an illusion; it’s real enough alright. But it includes a way of looking at the world that seems commonsensical but in fact makes no sense at all. If time is the organizing principle of the world and if all things pass away in time, then does anything really ever exist at all? In Wayne’s world, death is the great eraser. Life and death work the way Penelope does in Homer’s Odyssey. By day, she weaves but by night she unravels.
Recently, my granddaughter said something that caused me to see this more clearly than ever before. We were standing on the eastern bank of the Delaware River, looking across at the City of Philadelphia. I said, “A few hundred years ago, an Indian princess might have stood in this same spot, waiting for her dad to canoe her across the river.”
Rebecca surprised me, “I’m glad I’m not her!”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because she’s dead now and I’d rather be alive than dead!”
Wow! Without realizing it, Rebecca was pointing to the scandal of privileged moments. We know from General Relativity that there are no privileged regions in spacetime. But even if there were, Rebecca’s theorem would lead to the corollary that the last sentient being in the universe was somehow the most privileged. That in turn verifies that death is indeed an eraser, that past lives are somehow unreal or at least devalued. But we know this is not true. While the content and perhaps even the quality of every life is unique, all lives are of equal value. Reductio ad absurdum. The way we look at life and death in Wayne’s world cannot be right!
John’s world is perpendicular to Wayne’s world; it is Wayne’s world rotated 90 degrees. A simple topological rotation and now everything makes sense. Wayne’s word is slave to a timeline; it is all about the past and the future. The ‘present’ is an infinitesimal point with zero content. But when that world is rotated 90 degrees around that point, everything changes. Now there is no past and no future. There is only present and presence is synonymous with eternity.
John’s writings sound very ‘early Christian’…because they are. When he speaks of the Word, he is also talking about the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God. And when John speaks of God, he is speaking of a love relation among three persons, one of whom (Holy Spirit) is relation itself.
How then can it be then that this doctrine is related to the beliefs of an ancient ‘pagan’ philosopher and a modern Jewish theologian?
We have only one extant line from Anaximander’s teaching and (translated by Martin Heidegger) it runs: “…for they let order and thereby also reck belong to one another in the surmounting of disorder.”
While logos is often correctly translated as “word”, it also has an older meaning that is more akin to “net”. In that sense, logos is not just a word but the entire grammar that gives order to the universe of words, and by extension, the pattern (net, mesh, grid) that gives order to the universe of objects and events.
Heraclitus (a contemporary of Anaximander and a king in Ephesus) used logos precisely in this sense of pattern (grid) and John (Bishop of Ephesus) undoubtedly had this sense in mind when he wrote his Gospel and subsequent Letter. The net (mesh) that is logos gives order to our world.
Order is a very important concept in ontogenesis. In Genesis, for example, we read, “…The earth was without form or shape…Then God said: Let there be light…God then separated the light from the darkness.” (Gen 1: 1 – 4)
Throughout Genesis,creation is an ordering process; so too in the Gospel of John. And so too in the teaching of Anaximander: “…for they let order and thereby also reck belong to one another in the surmounting of disorder.”
But what is this “reck”? When “they let…reck belong to one another”, they let one another live. Each term in the relation pulls back in order that the other may survive and thrive. They do this without any hint of communication or negotiation. Each term grants reck of its own free will without any expectation, or even hope, of reciprocity. The granting of reck in these circumstances is the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, the ultimate act of love. It is an existential cry for a relationship with another and it is the spontaneous letting down of one’s guard in order to let such a relationship happen, knowing that it also leaves one open to annihilation.
Consider the SETI program. We call out endlessly into deep space, hoping against hope that we will attract the attention of another intelligent being, knowing all the while that such attention could well lead to our annihilation. Yet we do not stop.
That is the situation of Anaximander’s proto-entities prior to ontogenesis. Being does not arise until two proto-beings grant each other reck without even knowing of the other’s potential existence and without any expectation of a return on their investment. Now that is love, to make yourself less merely in the blind and baseless hope that by doing so you might allow another to be. Yet according to Anaximander, this is how the world came to be.
Anaximander’s concept of ‘reck’, as explained by Heidegger, is akin to the Christian concept of agape, the love that John talks about in his writings. Agape is disinterested love; it is love freely granted with no expectation of return. It is, for example, the love that God has for the world.
We read in John’s Letter that “God is love (agape).” It is precisely that love (agape) that we have for our brothers (and they for us), the love that brings us from death to life, eternal life.
According to Anaximander, it is the mutual granting of reck that overcomes disorder and constitutes ontogenesis, creation. According to John, God is love (agape), the life giving love between us and our brothers, and God is also Word (logos), the ordering principle through which “all things came to be”. Therefore, both for John and for Anaximander, love/reck (not time) is the ordering principle of all being.
Fast forward 25 centuries! In I and Thou Martin Buber writes, perhaps intentionally sampling John’s Gospel, “In the beginning is the relation.” Buber makes it clear that this “relation” has the same ontogenetic function in his cosmology as reck does in Anaximander’s and as love (or Word) does in John’s:
“Relation is reciprocity…we live in the currents of universal reciprocity.”
“I require a You to become…”
“The present…exists only insofar as presentness, encounter, and relation exist. Only as the You becomes present does presence come into being.”
In Buber, the concept of presence parallels the concept of eternal life in John. In Wayne’s world, there is no real presence. Everything is perpetually in the process of becoming and passing away. There is past and there is future but there is no now. (But if there is no now, how can there be anything in the first place?)
We take it for granted that we live in a temporal world (Wayne’s world). We accept uncritically the idea that our existence precedes the various relationships we enter into. We are ships passing in the night, exchanging coded messages, perhaps temporarily lashing-on to one another, but ultimately going our separate ways. We measure time in terms of our endurance relative to our transitory relationships. With death, all our relations evaporate and we become nothing. Were we ever?
There is an entirely different way to interpret the exact same data. If relation precedes relata, relation per se has nothing to do with time; it just is. It is presence, it is now! I am present to others in my relation to them. Relation is presence per se and there is no relation outside of presence. But if relation is presence per se then there are no past or future relations; relation just is, outside of any timeline, outside of time itself.
We are each of us then a function of our relations; we are who and what we love and are loved by. Physical birth and physical death are accidents that happen to us but that have nothing to do with who we are. Through our relations we are always just present. This is the eternal life that John extolled; it is life that cannot be overcome by darkness.