We had a long flight ahead of us. My wife and I had been in Jerusalem for a week in conversations with the staff of St. George’s College as we weighed the pros and cons of my accepting an appointment there as dean. We labored our way through the lengthy, tedious and occasionally offensive security check that was designed to provoke everyone and expose the guilty. And then we had made our way to the plane, wading through the heat and humidity that reminds visitors to Tel Aviv that they are in the Mediterranean.
Dropping into our seats we looked forward to a bit of rest and a respite from the deliberations that had absorbed both our time and our energy for almost a week. Unfortunately the computers at TWA had crashed and the careful calculations of baggage weight, passengers and fuel that insure that planes can leave ben Gurion’s rather shorter runway were being made slowly by hand.
In the meantime a loud dispute broke out in one part of the passenger cabin and a young, earnest conservative Jew began to regale our part of the cabin with painful details about the calculations that the airline was forced to make.
I was teaching New Testament studies at the time and without a clerical collar, I prayed that careful attention to in-flight movies, food and the papers I needed to grade would help me to avoid a thirteen hour-long conversation with the young man who was sitting across the aisle from me.
For most of the flight the strategy worked, but then, over New England as the plane began to make its descent into New York’s JFK International, he caught my eye. Glancing at my students’ papers he asked, “What are you doing?”
“Grading papers,” I responded, attempting to keep my answer to a minimum, inviting as little further conversation as possible.
“What do you teach?”
“College,” I answered.
“Religious studies,” I answered, truthfully and evasively at the same time.
“What field? Which specialization?”
Surrendering, I told the rest of the truth. “New Testament—Second Testament studies.”
And then came the subject I had feared for 12 of the 13 hours we had been in the air. “You know, I’ve never been able to take Christianity seriously. It’s just too inconsistent.”
At this point I knew what was expected. The gauntlet had been thrown, the challenge was clear. Instead, I responded, “You know, a number of years ago I read Max Kadushin’s The Rabbinic Mind, and Kadushin makes the same point about Jewish thought. It really raises the question as to whether human notions of logical consistency are a valid measure of religious faith at all.”
We descended into New York airspace in silence.
In some ways, the debates of John’s day were not dramatically different. The heyday of mass conversions from Judaism to Christianity had passed, and Christians throughout the Mediterranean had continued to worship in the synagogues dotted across the Greco-Roman world. But in A.D. 70 with the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, Judaism faced the specter of possible extinction. Like other religions, in the face of that prospect, Judaism became “more rigidly orthodox.” At the heart of the attempt to marshal its forces, the Law and obedience to it became the rallying point for the faithful. Teachers of the Law grew in importance and became the primary leaders of the community. Judaism had embarked on a process of redefining itself.
Tensions grew between the Jews and Jewish Christians and throughout the eighties there were organized attempts to drive the Christians out of the synagogue. For example, the Shemoneh Esreh or Eighteen Benedictions, a prayer widely used in the synagogues, included a twelfth prayer that pronounced a curse on Christians and other heretics, forcing Christians to curse their own faith if they worshiped there. Then in 90 the Rabbi Gamaliel II, president of the Rabbinic assembly in Jamnia, began using formal excommunication as a weapon. Christians were forced to consider how they themselves would define their own faith and were often tempted to defect, returning to the religion that had so profoundly shaped their lives. Still very closely allied with their Jewish roots, it was almost as easy to see their belief in Christ as apostasy as it was to see their new faith as loyalty to God in the face of persecution.
In response to these events, John tells the story of Jesus, sketching a picture in which the Word becomes flesh and replaces both Judaism and its institutions. Then in quick succession, he layers metaphor on metaphor to describe the significance of Jesus’ ministry. In what Jerome Neyrey describes as “an ideology of revolt,” the Johannine Jesus is said to possess power shared only with God. The images not only define the authentic messianic shepherd, they also identify the marks of the authentic sheep. The true sheep hear his voice; are called and known by the shepherd; and they follow because they hear his voice (An Ideology of Revolt, John’s Christology in Social-Scientific Perspective, 68).
In other words, the polemical nature of the metaphor is inescapable, it is the language of conflict. And in an age when we have attempted to be both tolerant and open, the words of the good shepherd may actually have an edge to them that makes us more than a bit uncomfortable. For if it is the stuff of in-flight controversies, it is also the stuff of far deeper ethnic and religious strife.
Having said that, however, there is a spiritual dynamic imbedded in the metaphor of sheep and shepherd that we would do well to explore. In our rationalistic and scientific culture, there is a level at which we have neglected the significance of choice in broaching and deepening the pilgrimage of faith. Forever skeptical, we await the evidence that will justify believing. Yet, truth be told, some of life’s most important realities, perhaps even the most important of life’s realities, are those that we must choose to acknowledge and nurture: realities that cannot be quantified; realities that require faith—not as the response to irrefutable proof (which is not faith at all)—but those that require faith as the door that opens those realities to us. The love of God is among those transcendent and life-giving realities for which there is no “proof” in any final and scientific sense. There is only the confirmation that lies in learning to hear the shepherd’s voice.
The largest obstacle that we face in coming to grips with this challenge is all around us in the highly polarized religious and intellectual climate in which live. The demonstrable benefits of the life that modern science has helped to give us argues for the rational. The ultimately barren nature of an existence shaped entirely by what can be scientifically demonstrated argues for a set of values that has its roots in the spiritual. Pulled first one way and then another by the prophets of things rational and the prophets of matters spiritual, most of us (I suspect) try simply to avoid being embarrassed by giving ourselves too completely to one point of view or the other.
Certainly this is, in part, what has taken its toll on the shape of the church’s life. Prepared to sell our souls for the credibility of the larger world around us, the American mainline church gave itself wholeheartedly to the psychiatric substitutes for spiritual counseling only to be embarrassed slowly by the extent to which the larger society finally concluded that—notwithstanding the benefits of psychology—there was still something to be said for the spiritual.
So now we have begun to make those first choices that familiarize us anew with the Shepherd’s voice, but much of what counts for spirituality is marked by a massive over-correction. And much of what is being written now is so deeply and perversely anti-intellectual—as well as anti-theological—that it hints at a kind of new “Dark Age” rather than a “New Age.” Ancient mystics talked about a cloud of unknowing, an experience of awe in the presence of the Great Shepherd of the Sheep that was beyond words. Many of today’s savants seem to be the advocates of a cloud and of unknowing, but it is difficult to know whether the Great Shepherd of the Sheep is the author of either one or whether it is simply the logical, absurd conclusion of the baby-boomer quest in which, having searched for ourselves, that is—in fact—all we have managed to find!
In this respect, the shape of John’s Gospel—however strident it may seem to modern ears—provides a much needed corrective. There is a holistic character to the language of John’s Gospel that speaks to the false dichotomies that characterize the modern life of faith. It engages the mind and it engages the metaphor. It links theology with language about the profound unity to be found in the relationship of sheep and Shepherd. It speaks of a faith that holds certain things to be true, but it reminds us that those truths cannot be grasped by simply believing in a set of propositions. Instead, the evangelist reminds us that faith is also, quite simply, the act of trusting. And even when words fail completely to exhaust the reality that is God, John is in no doubt about God’s identity: the Word, the Bread, the Way, the Life, the Truth—the Great Shepherd of the Sheep—these are simply the overlapping metaphors that help to describe the destiny of believers whose every fiber—intellectual, spiritual, emotional and physical—is the gift of God. And because they are true sheep, because they actively listen for the Shepherd, they hear his voice.
Ultimately it should not surprise us to discover that the gracious relationship that we enjoy with that Shepherd is neither completely consistent nor the creation of our own spiritual quest. Nor should we be surprised that it will not yield completely to a conversation 9,000 feet above the ground or 90 feet below the ceiling of a Gothic cathedral. For arising out of both “radical freedom” and “extraordinary grace,” faith is finally the work of the Great Shepherd (James W. Fowler, Stages of Faith, The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning, 302-3).