“So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.”
It may seem odd to reflect on those words of Jesus from Saint John Chapter 17 using words from Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, but there is a reason for doing so.
In the play, the character Guildenstern reflects on the human tendency to rationalise away the unexpected:
A man breaking his journey between one place and another at a third place of no name, character, population or significance, sees a unicorn cross his path and disappear. That in itself is startling, but there are precedents for mystical encounters of various kinds, or to be less extreme, a choice of persuasions to put it down to fancy; until – “My God,” says the second man, “I must be dreaming, I thought I saw a unicorn.” At which point, a dimension is added that makes the experience as alarming as it will ever be. A third witness, you understand, adds no further dimension but only spreads it thinner, and a fourth thinner still, and the more witnesses there are, the thinner it gets and the more reasonable it becomes until it is as thin as reality, the name we give to the common experience… “Look, look” recites the crowd. “A horse with an arrow in its forehead! It must have been mistaken for a deer.”
Stoppard suggests that the more familiar a story becomes, the more the story is reduced to something that is rational and commonplace.
Bible scholars suggest that the four gospels were written in the order Mark, Matthew, Luke, John. The writings of Saint Mark are the least sophisticated of the four, while those of Saint John have a high degree of theological and philosophical complexity. Does that order accord with the human experience identified by Tom Stoppard, where the radical claims in any story are slowly reduced to the everyday and the ordinary?
The radical liberal English bishop John Robinson argued for the priority of Saint John, he believed its far-reaching claims about the cosmic significance of Jesus came from the early times of the church, and that the other gospels, with their less far-reaching theological claims, came later.
One does not need to concur with the ideas of Bishop Robinson to see logic in such argument. The extraordinary becomes the ordinary, the cosmic becomes Earthly. It is the process of a unicorn becoming a horse.
Whether or not John is the first or the fourth gospel written, the downplaying of the significance of Jesus facilitated the rise in the power of the church. The church developed its own rules on how people were to achieve salvation, and they did not have the simplicity of what Jesus taught his disciples in Saint John.
“And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent,” said Jesus.
“No, no, no,” said the church, “this cannot be so, salvation cannot be so simple.”
For the church, eternal life could only be mediated through adherence to church teachings, through acceptance of sacraments controlled by the church, through submission to disciplines imposed by the church.
Whether Saint John was first or fourth, Christians need a sense of the radical, cosmic Jesus, who speaks to them in straightforward terms, otherwise the claims he makes are lost in a tangle of theology. It is too easy to turn a unicorn into a horse.