This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.
If “the world” in this text means the collection of creatures and habitats – critters, rocks, waters, trees and soils – that constitute our earth, then what we have here is in one sense quite familiar – Christian denial of the goodness of the material world. Its roots are more Greek than Hebrew, more Plato than Jesus of Nazareth, but its grip on Christian imagination over the centuries has been fierce and relentless.
But what if “the world” means something else? What if it means a collection of habits that condition how we understand the world and ourselves in the world? Is there a collection of habits so pervasive and convincing that they shape, even determine, what world we see and inhabit? Like the default settings on computers, which are in play behind the scenes unless and until we choose to change them, is there a default “world” that we call the “real” world? What shape does that world take? Is it a faithful rendering of the world, or a distortion?
Our ancestors believed that there is a collection of habits that distort and obscure the truth, and they had a name for that collection – they called it “the sin of the world”. They believed that it was persistent, resilient, and elusive. The ‘world’ constructed out of these habits is not the world called into being, blessed and redeemed by God. It is some other world entirely, a world defined primarily as a highly-contested resource depot, a world of scarcity, of uncertain access to the necessities of life, and, as a consequence, of indifference, hostility and violence among persons and societies, and of negligence towards the wellbeing of the non-human creation. It is a world defined and driven by fear, a world in which fear does not merely inform human actions, but determines them.
Just one example: For many years, the doctrine of “Mutually-Assured Destruction” formed the basis for nuclear policy in United States and the former USSR. This doctrine asserted that neither side would launch a first strike, because such a strike would lead to retaliation on such a scale as to lay waste to the instigator’s country. The proposed construction by the American military of a missile defense system (Star Wars) was, in such a delicate balance, accurately understood as a dangerous act of aggression. Because if a system like that actually worked, it would mean that the United States could launch a preemptive strike and deal with the retaliatory strike by blowing the missiles out of the air before they reached the United States. For decades, we called all of this nonsense “security”. We turned our most powerful weapons over to our fears; in fact, we built them because we were afraid. And having such weapons on all sides simply validated our fear, reinforced our conviction that fear was an accurate lens through which to see the world. It is this ‘world’ that cannot see or know the Spirit of truth.
Some, many, most of those around us will continue to live in that ‘world’. It is not our task to tell them how wrong they are, but to offer them a living alternative, a community of persons every bit as fragile and, sometimes, afraid, who nevertheless choose to live in the world in ways that embody the truth made known to us in Jesus:
that love is more powerful than death,
that we are not orphans alone in a heartless universe, but beloved children of a courageous and compassionate God,
and that our lives are safer in the wounded hands of God than in the clenched fist of the ‘world’.