The other “I AM” statements in John

John’s usages of “I AM” both inform and invite pondering

Through seven great “I am” metaphors, John powerfully communicated Jesus’ purpose. Jesus’ claims are readily recognizable: I am the bread of life; I am the light of the world; I am the door of the sheep, I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way, the truth and the life; and I am the true vine.

Yet, these are not his only “I am” assertions in John’s Gospel. On several other occasions Jesus simply said, “I am” without completing the predicate. Perhaps the most well-known example of these is “Before Abaham was, I am” (John 8:58).

When Jesus made this claim, the crowd’s reaction revealed they understood Jesus to be uttering blasphemy. Not only had he claimed a greater than human existence, they likely understood Jesus to be using the language of Exodus 3:14 to identify himself with God.

The crowd understood his claim. From the start of this Gospel, John had developed the theme of Jesus’ divinity (John 1:1,14,18). This phrase “I am” provided John with one more tool. And so, we find it popping up in other stories as well.

On his final night Jesus crossed the book Kidron to enter a garden. As the evening progressed he would encounter a cohort of soldiers sent to arrest him. Jesus acknowledged to them that he was ‘Jesus the Nazorean’ by simply asserting, “I am” (John 18:5). At this the whole band of soldiers, perhaps around 600, retreated and fell to the ground (John 18:6).

This powerful scene reveals the truth of Jesus’ previous claim about his authority (John 10:18). No one would take his life from him, including a whole cohort of soldiers. Rather, he would choose to lay it down.

In the original language Jesus simply pronounced two words, “I am.” Yet, our Bibles typically render this as “I am he.” They are correct in doing so because this expression can convey a simple acknowledgement. Accordingly, the man born blind said “I am” to confirm who he was (John 9:9).

John can use “I am” on Jesus’ lips with a dual function. They can serve an overt declaration of his divinity as well as identify him as the Nazorean. The lines can become blurry.

In the dialogue leading up to this claim that before Abraham was born ‘I am,’ Jesus taught the crowd: “you shall die in your sins; for unless you believe that I am, you shall die in your sins” (John 8:24). Based upon their response, the Jews clearly did not understand this as a claim to divinity (John 8:25).

While we can certainly agree that people must acknowledge Jesus is the Christ to be forgiven, did John also hint at more? Should we be surprised that commentators understand Jesus’ words in two ways, especially when Jesus’ claim parallels a similar claim by God? Isaiah 43:10?

Stepping backward through the Gospel we arrive at the stormy night on the Sea of Galilee. The disciples had rowed several miles into the sea when Jesus came to them walking on the water. Stepping upon the water, Jesus said, “I am. Do not be afraid (John 6:19-20).” Should we be surprised that commentators understand Jesus’ words in two ways?

Even closer to the Gospel’s beginning we encounter Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. After she revealed that she knew the Messiah was coming, Jesus responded, “I am, the one who is speaking to you” (John 4:26). Jesus clearly indicated he was the Messiah.

Is this all that John was communicating? Perhaps. And yet in view of God saying to his people, “I am the one who says” (Isaiah 52:6), perhaps an initial soft drumbeat has struck that will grow into a crescendo with a band of soldiers falling down before Jesus.

Overstatement is not good. We must be careful. Repeatedly, Jesus did identify himself as being the person in question – just as any other person would do. John also used this same phrase to reveal much more. Given the highly thematic nature of this Gospel, John’s Gospel can draw us in to ponder.

Perhaps John intended us to spend time pondering Jesus of Nazareth who looked like any other human being, but who was at the same time the Son of God. What we can be certain is that if we will believe Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, we will have life in his name.

A short handbook on love

In the English language we face a problem with the word love.

Regardless of economics, race or status, people value love and recognize love shapes what is good and true. However, in the English language we face a problem. We use love so broadly it looses clarity. I love ice cream. I love my dog. I love my spouse. I love my friends. Continue reading “A short handbook on love”

Are we special?

Science and probability point toward a Creator.

The phrase “Copernicus principle” was invented to suggest the earth and the life upon it are common, occupying no significant status in the cosmos. Today this viewpoint dominates among scientists.

Later, Brandon Carter coined the term “anthropic principle” when asking why everything is just right at this time and place to support intelligent life capable of studying the universe.

So what conditions are just right? Fred Hoyle’s classic comment summarized what was known at that time, “A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super intellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as with chemistry and biology, and that there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature.”

In the following years, the evidence has continued to grow. The cover jacket of Caleb Scharf’s 2014 book explains, “recent evidence challenges the Copernican Principle, hinting that we do in fact live in a special place, at a special time, as the product of a chain of unlikely events.” Why then does he and others shrug off the accumulating evidence that both our universe and our planet are very special places that were intentionally fine tuned for intelligent life?

They regard this evidence as merely a posteriori reasoning. This is significant because statistical probability rejects the ability of a posterori reasoning to provide credible conclusions. That is, one can not allow the result after the fact to infuse significance into the process and its result. To illustrate why, statisticians will tell an improbable story.

Imagine that a guy named Tom missed work due to illness. While at home he happened to enter and win a TV contest giving him a free baseball ticket. Now imagine a whole succession of further improbable circumstances culminating in a record-shattering-home-run baseball falling into Tom’s soda drink as he walked back to his stadium seat.

Tom might reason, “the odds against all of these things happening is just too great! There must be special significance behind catching this ball.”

Contrary to Tom’s feelings, he was just lucky. Why? Although catching that ball was improbable, any series of events could have led to this result. Tom can not legitimately attach significance after the fact to the process or result of catching that ball.

While statisticians are right in identifying Tom’s experiences as nothing more than incidental events of what happened, this story can be categorically different from whether our universe’s characteristics are statistically significant or not. Two strings of letters can illustrate the difference. Imagine each sequence contains two million letters drawn from the English alphabet grouped into varying lengths.

The first example is filled with nonsensical character groupings. Although the probability of this particular arrangement for two million letters is vanishingly small, this improbability holds no statistical meaning. Any random string of two million characters would produce the same type of result – nonsense.

To claim that this particular arrangement is significant would require starting with the result. That is, after encountering this particular arrangement someone then argues backwards for this arrangement to be statistically meaningful. This is not permitted.

Now consider the second sequence of two million letters contains flawless fluent English communication. It too is equally as improbable as the first one. However, this time the improbability of this arrangement is statistically significant!

We accurately detect that this second example is not a haphazard assemblage. Why? Because it conforms to a pre-existing standard, namely language. Not any highly improbably arrangement will produce this type of result! In this case, we start with language to evaluate whether probability suggests a particular letter arrangement could exist without authorship. For it to exist without authorship would be vanishingly small.

To equate the fine-tuning evident in the universe as being the same type of meaningless evidence as Tom catching that special baseball or a haphazard arrangement of 2 million characters involves making a false metaphor. The fine-tuning of the universe is not like the highly improbable but random arrangement of letters. Not any random assemblage of principles and characteristics will produce life. The fine-tuning of the universe and the earth is based, not upon just any set of characteristics, but rather on an a priori set of necessary conditions set on a razor’s edge enabling intelligent life. This type of result is categorically different than a non-sensical string of 2 million characters.

Scharf acknowledges that:

“if this is the one and only universe, with no universe before or after it, that raises the uncomfortable question of why it turned out this way: suitable for life”/1.

Why is this question uncomfortable?

When open-mindedness drives our inquiry, then just as we conclude the second letter arrangement revealing fluent English is significant, so too our universe and earth corresponding to a pre-existing set of narrowly defined requirements for intelligent life cannot be dismissed as a posteriori reasoning. Rather, for it to exist without a Creator is vanishingly small.

1/ Scharf, The Copernicus Complex: Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities, (Scientific American, 2015) pp. 31-32.

The anthropic principle

What should be make of our earth’s and universe’s special status?

For those possessing a keen mind, whenever someone even partially misrepresents a concept, such missteps can sully the remainder of the discussion. It would seem this has occurred for some regarding the Anthropic Principle.

Hopefully, the following somewhat brief overview can sidestep those abuses while still providing a challenging consideration on the other.

In reaction to the Copernican Principle, namely the notion that humanity does not occupy any privileged position in the universe, Brandon Carter in 1973 coined Anthropic Principle. Carter’s intent was to argue that our position, while not central, was indeed privileged to some extent.

After all, for there to be life capable of observing the universe, all of the necessary conditions for such intelligent life would need to be present at the same place and time. Yet such conditions do not exist for all places and all times. Accordingly, our location must be a special spot enjoying all of the necessary conditions, whatever those might be.

Over the years, research has continued to reveal an increasing number of physical parameters required for intelligent life such as our own. At the same time, often these goldilocks zones necessary for life are very small in contrast to the wide range of possibilities.

As originally intended, the Anthropic Principle simply forces acknowledgement of a tautology: The conditions we experience must support life capable of observing the universe. Furthermore, since most locations in our universe cannot support intelligent life, we do occupy a special set of circumstances, even though they may not center us geographically.

The Anthropic Principle was not crafted to promote any theistic implications.

Nevertheless, it is always fair game to probe the data asking what does this mean? What do we make of the fact that the various fundamental laws of physics are each perfectly situated on their own razor’s edge enabling us to be here now? Furthermore our type of galaxy, and our placement within our galaxy, and our type of sun, and our location within our solar system, and our distance from our sun, and our type of planet, and the size of our moon, and so forth are all within the desired and specific goldilocks zones. This is not only a worthy question, but one demanding a reasonable answer.

What is the possibility that even a modest list of these necessary goldilocks zones would converge at a particular place and a particular time? Calculations reveal that the improbability is staggering!  Dare we say impossible under blind conditions?

So what explanation possesses the power to account for not only a moderate list of necessary parameters, but for every single requirement we currently know, as well as those yet to be discovered, to be perfectly aligned for intelligent life to be here now?

Physics cannot provide a self-organizational answer, because the laws of physics are themselves exquisitely fine-tuned. Something beyond mere laws appears to be required. If physical principles can not account for this, then might these fine-tuned aspects be the work of a Fine Tuner?

Some fight this implication by positing non-falsifiable and hence metaphysical reasoning to dismiss the accumulating weight of the scientific evidence.

“Scientists and philosophers sometimes discuss what are called ‘anthropic principles’ …. we do not currently have good explanations for why the physical parameters of the universe are what they are. So the question stands out: Why did our universe turn out to be so suitable for life at all? Isn’t that incredibly unlikely?

Like many scientists, I grow uncomfortable when faced with these questions. We are determined to try to overcome any prejudice that we are ‘special’ in any way. Just as Copernicus proposed that Earth is not at the center of the solar system, we are not central to the universe. … One possible solution to the discomfort of assigning ourselves a special status hinges on a conceptual and physical picture of nature that allows for multiple realities or multiple universes.” Scientific American, August 2012, p. 37.

The attempt to reduce the absurd odds for our existence by postulating that we are merely one of many universes or realities reveals a mindset committed a priori to philosophic naturalism regardless where the evidence might lead.

In his book, A Fortunate Universe, astrophysicist Geraint Lewis after surveying the incredible evidence of fine-tuning plays the same card.

“Maybe the problem is that we are treating this Universe as unique, and maybe fine-tuning is not such a problem if we just step back a bit. What if the process that gave birth to the Universe churned out many more?” Geraint and Lewis (Cambridge: 2016), p. 297.

Later in this book, fellow astrophysicist Luke Barnes cut to the chase with two ideas:

“Is what you can imagine a guide to what is absolutely possible?” (p. 333); and

“Theism’s rival is naturalism, not science, and theism offers an explanation where naturalism offers none” (p. 336).

The poetic language of the Psalmist reveals the other possible path people can take. We can marvel about God’s concern for humanity in such a vast universe.

“O LORD, our Lord, … you reveal your majesty in the heavens above! …When I look up at the heavens, which your fingers made, and see the moon and stars, which you set in place, of what importance is the human race, that you should notice them? … (Yet) You grant mankind honor and majesty.” Psalm 8:1,3,4,5 NET

More literary keys for interpreting Revelation (Pt. 2)

What would happen if we would allow Revelation’s literary genre as well as both the immediate and greater contexts of its texts to guide our understanding of John’s Revelation? What would we learn? Picking up from last week’s suggestions, here are some more principles for creating a literary sensitive framework for understanding this book. Continue reading “More literary keys for interpreting Revelation (Pt. 2)”

Interpreting Revelation: some keys for building a framework (1)

John’s Revelation has spawned a plethora of understandings.

From the sensational to the enigmatic, John’s Revelation has spawned a plethora of understandings. Yet many of these possess a commonality. Often the interpretation is the result of imposing upon the text a non-literary filter foreign to the text. Such filters might be one’s confident expectation that Revelation describes _______ or perhaps it consists of a grid that assumes a map metaphor outlining church history.

Filters will produce a message. But is the understood message what the author intended?

What if we were to allow the genre of Revelation to suggest how we interpret it? What if we took seriously its own words? Let me suggest where such an exploration would take us. Continue reading “Interpreting Revelation: some keys for building a framework (1)”

Romans 1-3: Not ashamed

Why did Paul write that he was not ashamed of the gospel?

Pride turning to shame is not rare. Consider the young person who is proud of his or her school project until seeing the outstanding accomplishments of others. Or reflect upon how the boldness of worshipping together on Sunday morning might disintegrate later in the week into shame when surrounded by hostile scoffers. Continue reading “Romans 1-3: Not ashamed”

Romans 1-3: A Non-Lutheran Reading

Another reading of the text, framed by the text, exists.

Today the Lutheran tradition shapes the pew’s predominant perspective of Romans. This tradition asserts Romans 1:16-17 informs us that the gospel reveals God gives righteousness on the basis of faith. However, another reading of the text, framed by the text, exists. Continue reading “Romans 1-3: A Non-Lutheran Reading”