John 9: 1-41

We’re all familiar with the aphorism that declares: There are none so blind as those who will not see. In Germany, they have a saying: Love is not blind, it merely does not see[1]. In both cases, a distinction is drawn between “blindness” and “not seeing”: whereas “blindness” is something that happens to us that is not of our own making, “not seeing” is only ever something we do to ourselves. Indeed, the implication is that the “blind” can, in many ways, “see” perfectly well; being blind has nothing to do with not being able to “see” the reality by which we are confronted. On the other hand, we can be perfectly capable of “seeing” what is in front of us, only to be “blind” to its reality, so that, for whatever reason, we choose to pretend that what is before us does not actually exist.

This distinction between “seeing” and “not seeing” is one of the great narrative themes that runs throughout the Gospel According to John. For John, one of the great lessons of Jesus’ ministry was that humanity has a great capacity to ignore – indeed, to not even recognize – the great truths that stand before it. At the same time, however, recognition of these truths can come from some of the most unlikely quarters: those whom conventional wisdom assumes to be incapable of seeing often those whose perception is the most trustworthy.

For the author of John, this was not merely a matter of adopting an oppositionist attitude for the sake of having an argument. For John, being wilfully incapable of seeing the truth was so often a case of being “blinded” by our preconceptions and assumptions: because we think we know what truth is and “looks like”, when that truth appears to us in a guise that lies outside our pre-constructed paradigms, we simply don’t see it for what it is. Indeed, when that truth calls us out of those paradigms, when it challenges our preconceptions and invites us to consider matters in a new light, we often react with suspicion or even hostility. None of us likes to think that we are wrong, or that our framework for understanding truth is misguided: and so our “blind spots” are often associated with our deepest fears and our greatest sensitivities about what is – and isn’t – truth.

John is often described as the most “mystical” of the Gospel authors, and there are two examples from Christian mysticism that illustrate the point I am making. The first resides in what is called apophatic theology. This term, which comes from the Greek word apophasis, meaning “denial”[2], approaches an understanding of God from what cannot be said about or applied to God. In other words, instead of saying “God is…”, apophatic theology declares what God “is not”; and it is only when one has run out of things to say that God is not that one comes to a true understanding of the identity of God.

It may come as a surprise to many, but apophatic theology is as ancient as Christianity itself. And yet the truth is, we are so used to saying “God is Love” or “God is Almighty” that in many cases we have lost sight of this ancient tradition and the truth that it teaches us: namely, that the language and symbols we use are strictly limited by their human context. Much as the laws of physics break down at the event horizon of a black hole, so our language’s usefulness breaks down as we approach the mystery of God in God’s own being. Indeed, the limitedness of our language and symbolism poses a great danger: far too often they are appropriated to make claims about God, or provide justifications for those making such claims, which have no place in Christian life and practice. Far too often, our language and symbols are more about our blind spots and bigotries than they are about God and faith. And so apophatic theology warns us to never fall into the trap of thinking we can adequately speak about God: for while God might indeed be love, this is not love as humans understand it.

The second example comes from a medieval text known as The Cloud of Unknowing. Composed sometime in the fourteenth century, probably by an English priest who was also a Carthusian monk[3], The Cloud of Unknowing draws on another ancient Christian tradition known as the via negativa, which is Latin for “Way of Negation”. The central thrust of the via negativa is that God is utterly transcendent and unknowable; and yet, as part of the paradoxical mystery that is God in God’s own being, humans can achieve a mystical union with God through the process of “unknowing” – that is, getting rid of all our preconceptions and assumptions that arise from both our experienced and our intellectual knowledge[4]. It is only once we have achieved this condition of “unknowing”, of having stripped ourselves of all “earthly” knowledge – that we can come to know God. In the tradition of the via negativa, knowing only comes through “unlearning”; God’s presence only occurs within the total absence of all else.

The point being that what often gets in our way of understanding God are the very obstacles we place in our way: in this instance, all the concepts and intellectual and emotional constructions that, while useful for our human existence, are severely limited when it comes to knowing God. So if we conceive of God as a king, or an all-powerful ruler, or a judge, and we apply to God all the human associations and conceptions which these analogies imply, then we are going to end up with a severely distorted image of God: a God who is not motivated by the divine love that enables the transcendent to join us in our human life in the person of Jesus, but a God who replicates the all-too-human behaviour of the pitiless tyrant, the school-yard bully, or the merciless jurist. Our hymns and our prayers are full of images and conceptions of God, as are the catechisms through which we educate people into faith; but we must always be aware that these images and conceptions are strictly provisional, and must never be taken at a narrow face value.

And hence we come back to the theme of “seeing” and “not seeing” that runs through John. For the author of this Gospel, “not seeing” was not a matter of blindness; rather, it was a matter of deliberately obscuring one’s vision because of the refusal to relinquish one’s cherished assumptions and preconceptions. It was the lack of vision that arose precisely because one was held captive by one’s bigotries and preferences, by the limitations of language and symbol and concept and knowledge that deceive us into thinking we know what the truth “looks like”, when all along we are seeing only the mirror image of our own lack of insight.

And in today’s reading from John, we have in the person of the man born blind the quintessential figure of difference between “seeing” and “not seeing” – and not just because of the contrast between his reaction and that of the Pharisees, but because of the assumptions we load onto this difference of reaction, and how we are identified and located in this story.

It’s a bit like the story of the prodigal son. All too often, we identify ourselves with the older, righteous son, with the son who does the right thing by the Father, while “sinners” and those with whom we do not identify are located in the person of the selfish, feckless younger son. But in doing so, we are blind to the reality that the older son is, in his own way, as bad as the younger: for in the self-consciousness of his righteousness, in his awareness of injustice and the sense of entitlement this engenders in him, he becomes bitter and inflexible and ungracious; he is unable to see that what marks out the shape of righteousness is not adherence to the rules or compliance with the expectations of others, but love. It is love that enables the Father to both forgive the younger son and assure the older son of his inheritance. It is love that draws the Father out of the house on both occasions in order to meet the thoughtless, insensitive younger son, and the stiff-necked, righteously indignant older son in the spaces which they occupy.

And so in today’s reading, the figure of the blind man who, unlike the Pharisees, “sees” Jesus for who he is, is not to be taken as symbolising perfect faith, or those who believe in God despite the mockeries of the world or the inability to “prove” God’s existence. Likewise, the Pharisees are not to be understood as either the practitioners of other faiths who refuse to convert, or those who mock the notion of God and refuse to become “believers”. It is not the case that “believers” are the people who “see” while non-believers or those who believe differently are the “blind”. To assume this is arrogance of the highest order: and yet how often is this passage treated in exactly this fashion, a construction that gets in the way of a fuller understanding?

Because what today’s reading tells us is not that humanity divides into “blind men” or “Pharisees”, depending on whether they do or don’t believe, but that the whole of humanity must strive to become the blind man, who sees, not by the power of his own undertakings, but by the love of God that reaches out to him in his own context. Moreover, we must become like the blind man who, from his own thirst for truth, is prepared to ask questions and seek after answers: questions and answers that do not try and affirm his own pre-determined position and “correctness”, but which are responses in faith and openness to the love of God and to the possibility of God in human life. The Pharisees question the blind man because they are convinced they know the truth and are seeking either answers which confirm this assumption, or which furnish evidence of Jesus’ untruthfulness. But the blind man questions Jesus from his position of “unknowing”, from his position of not saying what God or truth are, in order to seek out both truth and God. The fact that the blind man repeatedly says “I do not know” or words to similar effect in today’s reading demonstrates his position of openness: a position of trust and hope that enables him to see precisely because he is not blinded by the baggage of his own assumptions and pre-conceived ideas.

In France they have a saying: When a blind person carries the banner, woe to those who follow[5]. Today’s reading from John is a warning to not follow the banner of our presumption and preconceptions; because to do so is to follow a truly blind person into disaster. Rather, we are called by our faith to follow a path of precariousness and vulnerability, of unknowing trust and hope that invests, not in our own assumptions of correctness, but in the faithful love of God that reaches out to us all, so that we may all of us truly see.

[1] Crystal, David (ed.), As They Say In Zanzibar: Proverbial Wisdom From Around The World. London: HarperCollins, 2006, p.386

[2] Stevenson, Angus (ed.) Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: Volume 1 A-M. Sixth Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.99; see also Lee, Dorothy, Flesh And Glory: Symbolism, Gender, and Theology in the Gospel of John. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, p.27-8

[3] Spearing, A. C. (trans.), The Cloud of Unknowing. Penguin Books: Harmondsworth, 2001, p.x

[4] Ibid., p.xvii

[5] Crystal, David (ed.), op. cit., p.53

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