Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Of Cosmos and Cosmetics: "The World" in John

I tried to give this post a better and more entertaining title, but it didn't take.  Truly, there are never enough puns for all the tasks for which we require them.

Much is frequently made, even by Biblical scholars of some repute, of the purported presence of "Dualism" in the Johannine literature of the Holy Scriptures (that is: the Gospel of John, 1, 2, and 3 John, and the black sheep Revelation).  Now, admittedly, "Dualism" in the context of religious and literary studies is a very vague term indeed, and can mean anything from a full-blown cosmology in which opposite Good and Evil deities divide the world between them (as with the Manichees, the Cathari, etc) to a perceived overuse of the number two (as with certain descriptions of the Gospel of Matthew).  In this context, being called Dualist may not be anything particularly worrying.  Nevertheless, scholarly treatment of John's writings has frequently used this perceived dualism as a stick with which to discredit his "brand" of Christianity as sectarian, exclusivist, Puritan, or even proto-Gnostic.  John, certain people accuse, is obsessed with rigid divisions between darkness and light, above and below, the church and the world, children of God and children of the Devil, to such an extent that his belief-system may be safely dismissed by all forward-thinking and progressive persons as sadly reflective of a regrettably intolerant mileu, and certainly not something to be unquestioningly or uncritically applied to the complexities and ambiguities of the modern world, which science has so definitively shown to be incapable of simple, definitive...
Ahem. Sorry.  Slipped into my "progressive 19th century Biblical scholar" voice for a second there.  You get the idea.

Now, responding to such charges is obviously a vast topic, especially since the terms under discussion are so vague and so ambiguous.  To give John's doctrines on all of the multivarious topics that fall under the heading of "Dualism" would take a great deal of time, and no doubt I will come back to the issue in future posts.  For this post, however, I will merely provide a brief exploration of John's use of a single word, the way in which I think this should be understood, and the implications for his theology.

This word is usually translated into English as "the world," and it forms a key part of John's theology.  However, John's use of this term is often seen to be confusing, or even contradictory.  Namely, there are verses in John's corpus that speak of the world as essentially evil, opposed to the will of God, denounced by Jesus, and brought to judgment by God, a thing to be avoided, rejected, and opposed by the believer.  In 1 John, we are told to "love not the world, nor the things which are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in himFor all that is in the world is the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, which is not of the Father but is of the world.  And the world passes away, and the lust thereof." (1 John 2:15-17) and also that the Christian has, through his belief in Christ, "overcome the world" (1 John 5:4), and many other similar sayings.  On the other hand, most famously in John 3:16, but also elsewhere, we are told that God loves the world, God created the world through his Word, Christ "takes away the sin of the world," and in 1 John we are told that "the Father has sent his Son to be the savior of the world" (1 John 4:14).

But what is the world, anyway?  What is it about the world that allows Jesus to speak of it in such a manner, condemning it while at the same time saving it?

To start with, the english used here is somewhat deceptive.  "World" in modern English is a very confusing word indeed, with the ability to mean many different things: namely, the universe as a whole, the planet Earth, a subset of the planet Earth, the human race, any of those things at a particular state ("the world of the late Cretaceous"), or more figuratively any given collection of things (as in "the world of plants," "the world of opera," etc).  Essentially, though, the world in modern English generally conveys the sense of a certain totality of stuff, a universal grouping of many individual "things" with commonalities into some kind of categorical whole.  Thus, in the context of the Bible, it is natural for people to read the phrase "the world" as essentially meaning "everything" or at least "the human race," meaning by this merely the collection of either all individual things in existence or at least all individual members of the species homo sapiens.  The etymology of the English "world" underscores this, coming essentially from a word for an "age" of men, a totality of things within a given expanse of time--similar in many ways to the Greek "aeon."  Thus, the world to the modern reader is essentially an abstraction, a categorical bringing together of a vast number of varied and individual things and people.

With this in mind, John's use of the term comes off as very odd indeed.  How can Jesus come to save the world, and yet later on declare that he will not even pray for it, but only for those people he has taken from the world?  To the modern reader, this signifies Jesus arbitrarily removing a few people from the category of "everything" and then casually damning everything and everyone else.  Likewise, the idea of Jesus "taking away the sin of the world" sound simply insane; how can a vast, unconnected collection of things or people have "sin"?  Isn't this simply a ludicrous example of anthropomorphism, a strange and hopefully metaphorical application of human characteristics to an abstract concept?  Or perhaps John is just being a little facetious, and what he really means by "sin" in this case is just what we think he means by "world"; a categorical collection of all the sins committed by all rational beings (this kind of thinking is frequently expressed in the (mis)translation of this passage as "take away the sins of the world").

Ultimately, if we wish to make sense of John's thinking within this framework, we are forced to go to absurd lengths of interpretation, skating between the two obviously contradictory poses of saving "everything" and condemning "everything" and trying to somehow jam them together into a larger whole.  Many of these attempts end up by either portraying John as the most rank dualist, with literally two completely separate "everythings" with two contradictory origins and two natures battling each other, or else melt into gooey universalism, in which we dismiss all condemnatory language and embrace only the reality that Christ literally saves "everything."  And then, of course, drunk with the plausibility of our hypotheses, we must immediately find that the passages opposing us are in fact a late interpolation imposed on the work by its redactors, and not at all in keeping with the elevated moral ideals of the teacher in question, whose enlightened and progressive mentality...

Ack!  I hate it when a 19th century Biblical scholar gets stuck in my throat.  I'll have that taste in my mouth all day now.

However, all of this, as we shall see, rests essentially on the taking of the modern word "world," with its implications of categorical collection, as an accurate translation of the Greek: and this is simply not so.  As I have said, there does in fact exist a Greek word with a similar meaning to the etymological one of "world": "aeon," which means merely a very long period of time, an "age," and is in fact used in the New Testament and often translated into English as "world" (as in the Great Commission, in which Jesus literally promises to be with his disciples "until the ending of the aeon" (Matthew 28:20).  However, even this Greek word is far too bound up with time to match up with the modern "world," which has been around for so long that it, like an unwanted houseguest, has almost entirely lost its sense of time.  However, in any case, the word "aeon" is NOT the word John uses for "the world" in his works.  Instead, John uses a word with rather different connotations: ho kosmos.

Now, the modern word "cosmos" has essentially been assimilated by the modern "world," at least in everyday speech, and so has about the same connotations for the modern reader.  However, in the original Greek, "ho kosmos" has some rather interesting and unique connotations.  This word is derived from the wonderful verb "kosmeo," from which we get not only the vaunted Cosmos of which Carl Sagan was so fond, but also the wondrous and truly Cosmic science of Cosmetics*.

Cosmetics is, of course, the science of arranging hair, ordering it towards its function of being pretty and making its owner look nice, ruling its unruly tangles with the steely combs of knowledge, and adorning it with pretty bows and such.  It is, likewise, intimately bound up with "ho kosmon," the cosmetician, without which it, as a science, would not exist.  As a matter of a fact, the word "kosmeo" means essentially "to arrange, to order, to rule, to adorn," and one of its denotations is in fact the arranging of hair, clothing, and face in pleasing patterns.  Likewise, "ho kosmos" can also mean a particular arrangement of hair or clothing, the pattern which the cosmetician puts into effect on the hair of her customer.

Thus, we can now understand what John meant by it all.  Of course he wasn't referring to "the world" at all!  He was just talking about hairstyles!  You see, all the Romans' hair was simply dreadful until Jesus came along and introduced the Mullet into 1st century Israel, starting a haircare movement that has lasted until the present da...

Yeah, not really; though that would make for an amusing story (is there Bible fanfiction?  Um...actually, I really don't want to know).  As we've seen, though, the words "kosmeo" and "kosmos" have broader meanings than just haircare, though that does make for a useful example for our purposes.  For the Greeks, the "kosmos" merely meant any "order" or "arrangement"; not only a hairstyle, but also a formation of soldiers, the form of rule for a city or a country, and so on and so forth.  These "orderings" are based essentially upon teleology, the idea of the end or purpose of a given thing and its consequent ordering towards various other things; thus, because an army is ordered towards a given purpose, it is a certain kind of kosmos with certain features, and because a Mullet is ordered towards a certain purposes, it is a certain kind of kosmos with certain features, and so on and so forth.  Within such an ordering, each part plays a role in fulfilling the purpose of the whole by fulfilling its own individual purpose.  Such a "kosmos" can be envisioned as a web of orderings rather like a human body, with each part or organ ordered towards certain other organs which are ordered towards certain other organs, the heart pumping blood to convey oxygen from the lungs to the various organs to allow them to perform their own functions, together fulfilling their ultimate purpose of keeping the human person in question alive and allowing him to do the hokey-pokey backwards while juggling ashtrays and gargling Dr. Pepper.  The word in the exact way John uses it, though, is derived, like so many good things, from the Greek philosophers.  Basically, after no doubt meditating for several days on the mystical value of the equation "2+2," some Pythagorean philosophers had the idea of applying this idea of a "kosmos" to what we would call "the world" as a whole, understanding it not as a simple category for "everything" but as a complex ordering and arrangement of things with purposes and ends--and this designation stuck and was used by many other people, becoming popular and standard, until, eventually, a certain Evangelist decided to use it to convey his, essentially Jewish, ideas.  This has a number of implications that we would do well to try and understand.

Thus, for John, "ho kosmos" is not simply, as "the world" is for us, a categorical word embracing "everything," a mere arbitrary collection of atomized individuals shoved into a category.  Instead, it is in a real and not merely in a mental sense a single thing, a vast ordering with a single, ultimate purpose: to, essentially, glorify God and faithfully honor him and convey the truth about him.  Within this vast ordering, each individual part is not related to other parts as one atomized individual to another, but as various ordered parts to other parts--related, in other words, not as a random collection of blocks sitting on a floor, but as a massive tower, with each individual brick and strut and girder and flying buttress supported by other parts and in turn supporting other pieces of the puzzle, together allowing the tower to fulfill its function.  For John, this "kosmos" goes down as far down as the smallest speck of dust, and as far up as the world as a whole--and the two are intimately connected, so that what affects one affects also the other.

This "kosmos," too, is intimately bound up with its "ho kosmon," its orderer, who is also its creator--indeed, for John, the two statements are essentially the same.  To exist is to exist as something, according to a kosmos, and as part of one.  Thus, without God, without the orderer, there can be no creation, and no existence.  As the prologue of John's Gospel dramatically tells us, it is God who, by his Divine, Eternal Logos (Word or Reason), creates and orders all things; all things are through, and according to, the Word, and thus according to order, reason, and arrangement.  In the beginning, already God existed perfectly and eternally in himself according to his own perfect being and wisdom; and it is according to these principles that the world exists, by participation, as it were. The world is not merely "panta," everything, but, through God, "ho kosmos," the ordering.  God is thus the ruler of the kosmos (which can also, as we have seen, mean rule in a political sense) directing all things to their ends according to his divine plan--he is also, to those living in it, in a sense their father, their originator and orderer, the sharer of his own reason and existence with them.

In this kosmos, however, all is not peachy: there is sin, "hamartia," darkness to the Light of God.  Human beings, creatures of order and reason, are committing sin, and by doing so, they are breaking and marring the essential ordering of themselves, and the kosmos as a whole.  This sin is one sense merely a "missing of the mark," as Aristotle would have it, a fulfilling of purpose in an incorrect or wrongheaded way, leading to the entire kosmos "missing the mark" and "sinning," as it were; but it is also much more than this.  Human beings are, in fact, becoming alternate creators, alternate arrangers of things: they are taking things, and arranging them, and themselves, differently, according to a different plan, a different "kosmos."  This "kosmos" has as its ruler, originator, and arranger not God, the creator of all, but rather the Devil, who, we are told, was a liar and a sinner "from the beginning"--not, now, the beginning of everything, but rather the beginning of this new kosmos, the kosmos ordered according to the principles derived from the Devil and his existence.  This kosmos is based upon lies, cheating, murder, theft, fornication, exploitation, and, in general, sin; the creations of the Devil.  More than this, though, this kosmos is based essentially on pride, on the placing of merely human or "creaturely" desires, needs, and reason at the center of things, above the divine principles by which the world is ordered.

Thus, upon looking at "the world," we can in one sense see two different orderings, two different kosmoses at work: at the same time, there is simply the kosmos that forms the very existence of all things, without which they could not exist for a moment, which exists and is good and serves the purposes of God, and yet which exists in a state of "sin," of missing the mark of all that it was meant to be; and also there is the kosmos of the Devil and of sinful humanity, which is simply the kosmos of sin, the deliberate imposition of a corrupt plan onto the world, which for Jews of Jesus' day could be seen quite clearly in the brutal society of the Roman Empire with its massive population of abused slaves, its idolatrous cults, and its "deified" Emperors, and for Jesus and his disciples also in the corrupt institutions and doctrines of the Pharisees and the "chief priests," whom Jesus declares to be "children of the Devil" (that is, members of his "kosmos" and followers of his principles).  This latter "kosmos" has its origin in the rational, creative nature of people and of angelic intelligences--thus, it is completely subordinate to and based upon to the kosmos created by God, which underlays the essences of all things, including rational creatures.

Through the attempted imposition of the kosmos of sin upon it, though, the kosmos as a whole has become disordered, and is thus "in sin," in the sense that the sin of mankind and of the Devil prevents the kosmos as a whole from fulfilling its purpose of manifesting the goodness of God as perfectly as it should, causing it to "miss the mark," as it were.

Thus, with this in mind, we can begin to make a little more sense of John's puzzling sayings about "the world."  God and his Word, it is clear, is the origin of the kosmos, of the fundamental ordering of the world and everything in it.  God sends his Son into the world not to condemn and destroy this kosmos, but to save it, to restore it to its full glory and to draw it to an even fuller and more perfect participation in his being.  Jesus' mission is thus to take away, in a very real way, the sin of the world, its disorder and its missing of the mark--this is accomplished by his sacrificial death as "Lamb of God," which will bring about, ultimately, an eschatological "re-ordering" or recreation of the world according to God's love and glory, creating a "new" kosmos which is really the fulfillment of the old one.  However, at the same time, there is the kosmos of the Devil to deal with--all those who act according to these principles and this ordering are part of it, and it affects and distorts human society and the kosmos as a whole, so that in a real sense "the whole kosmos is seated in wickedness" (1 John 5:19).  For his disciples and creation as a whole to be saved, they must be withdrawn from and escape this illusory kosmos, in which nothing real dwells, and which will soon pass away.  Christ's kingdom, his rule and ordering of things, is thus in a fundamental sense "not of this kosmos"; it is not based on principles from "below" (the Devil, but also merely creaturely desires and reason) but on principles from "above," the life of God himself as creator and orderer of all things.  Jesus will not pray for this kosmos because it is of its essence opposed to him and the true kosmos of the world; all those who wish to have communion with him must be saved out of this kosmos, and must reject it along with the Devil its master.  As John says, everyone who confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord, that he is, in fact, the true orderer and originator of the kosmos, that his laws and his love are the true ordering of things, has overcome the present kosmos, overcome the ordering of the Devil.  For ultimately, John says, the kosmos of the Devil seeks to deceive people into believing that it is the real and true kosmos, and that there is nothing else--to acknowledge Jesus' lordship is to reject this lie and to embrace the truth about life, the universe, and everything.  It is to reject the present human ordering of things, mired in sin, and to embrace the real, natural, and divine principles of the orderer, which are here and now visible in all things and will eventually be revealed in a fuller way in the new creation of Christ.

Thus, there are ultimately two ways of looking at "the world" that embrace and overlap each other; there is that of a single, good kosmos corrupted by disorder that must be embraced in its truth and healed of its disorder, and on the other hand there is the kosmos of the Devil, a false ordering of creation which seeks to impose itself upon all things and must be rejected and escaped from.  Both of these ideas are intimately bound up with each other, and indeed in one sense they are only two sides of the same coin.

John, in both his Gospels and his Epistles, makes use of both these ideas, in all their complexity and glory--and indeed, he derives these ideas from Jesus himself and his sayings.  For ultimately, I would argue, this same essential idea is contained also in the Synoptic Gospels, the Pauline letters, and in many places the Old Testament as well.  Indeed, I would go so far as to say that in this one word, "ho kosmos," is contained in many ways the essence of the Christian idea of the world, of sin, and of the Christian's relationship to these things.  For John to simply chop off one side of his coin (regardless of which one) and restrict himself to what appears from a modern perspective to be clearer and less confusing language would be to significantly cheapen and flatten the complexity and power of the Gospel.

Although there's more to be said, I'll stop there.
If you made it to the end of this, congratulations!  You get a brownie*!

In closing, though, allow me to quote something someone once said:

"That makes sense to me.  Does it...to you?"

*In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I do not regularly employ any technique of cosmetics, and so am probably one of the least qualified persons in the universe to discuss the topic.

*You'll have to make it yourself, though.  Sorry.

O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.  Amen.

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