That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. – 1 John 1:1-3
The church I attend is completing a study of the book of 1 John. As the first several verses of scripture were read at the start of the study, I immediately noticed something I had never seen before: the concern with the aesthetic rooted in the opening of 1 John. John starts his epistle with an emphasis on, “that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched.” He goes on to note soon after, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard.” As we continued the study, this emphasis on the aesthetic continued and expanded. Now that we are about to finish, I decided that I had to take some time to begin to sketch out some observations and throw it out there to see if other folks see it, or if they see my observations as a scriptural distortion. I want to argue that I perceive John laying the theological groundwork for the fundamental importance of the aesthetic in both Christian theological discourse and in Christian devotional practice, experience, and expression. However, before I dive into why I perceive this fundamental importance of the aesthetic in 1 John, I suppose I should take some time to highlight the manner in which I am employing the word aesthetic here.
The difficulty in conversing about the aesthetic is that it carries in it a wide range of meanings. American Catholic theologian Richard Veladesau does a good job of parsing out the semantic range of the word aesthetic. He notes that the aesthetic can be understood as the practice of art, or theory about art. It can refer to symbol, feeling, beauty, taste, and imagination. It could also refer to a philosophy of beauty, the experience of sensible perception, or the active appreciation of beauty. Thus writing and speaking about the aesthetic can at times be a challenge; partially because even when focusing on one aspect of the aesthetic, one can tend to dip toes into its other meanings. At any rate, in relation to 1 John, I am employing the notion of the aesthetic specifically in terms of sensible perception and the experience of sensible perception. John, it seems to me, is particularly attentive to the senses of his readers. He is attentive both to the materiality of the reader, who is making use of their senses, and he is attentive to the materiality of the object sensed.
This materiality seems to be of particular importance to John, because it is also embedded as a theme in his Gospel. It raises the question as to why. Why would materiality be of such importance to John? Authors often have a conversation partner in mind when they write. So who is on the other end of John’s conversation here? To answer that question we will have to offer a little context. While there exists significant disagreement among scholars, many believe the text of 1 John was written late in the 1st century and that it was written to counter Gnostic tendencies that had arisen with in the church broadly, but had perhaps also emerged specifically in the church at Ephesus, where John served as an elder in his later years. Stated simply Gnostics believed, among other things, that spirit represented the supreme reality and that matter was fundamentally flawed, for complex reasons that I will not do justice to here. Thus, they emphasized the importance of spiritual knowledge and believed that the material world was created to deceive and distract humanity from a truth that was fundamentally non-material and could not be expressed materially. Therefore, John’s emphasis on the material is an effort to critique and correct the presence of these extra-biblical Gnostic commitments present in the Christian practices and doctrine at the time of his writing. (I must note that my intention here is not to create a straw man of Gnosticism in my brevity. I simply intend to highlight why John might be motivated to include such a strong emphasis on materiality and the senses in his epistle.) At any rate, let me highlight a few examples from the text of the epistle in order to chat through them (though the emphasis is embedded in John’s argument throughout the book)
I’m going to start in 1 John chapter 2:7,8. John writes, “Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard. Yet I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and in you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining” (NIV). Here, I want to note that even here as John speaks of the true light shining that he is speaking of truth that is available to the senses; that in this case can be seen. The word translated as shines here is the Greek word φαίνω (phaino). It literally means to bring to light, or cause to appear. It refers literally to the appearance of a person or a thing. Here the true light is made visible. This meaning bears out as we have incorporated its root into various English words. For example, this Greek word is the root of the English word phenomenon (which is something visible and presented to the eye for observation) and epiphany (the appearance or manifestation of something).I take note of it here because the new command that is given is rooted in the presence and the embodiment of Jesus. John says the truth is seen in him. The light is already shining. It is visible and available to the senses. And its truth is also seen in you and in me. We participate in shining the light that Jesus shone. Our actions make love visible the same way Jesus made it visible, because love is fundamentally aesthetic. It must be visible and available to the senses. That’s its nature. That is how love operates. Love must eventually reveal itself through our actions. John goes on in the verses that immediately follow to describe the particulars of how this love (and its lack) appears when it is enacted by Christian bodies.
In verses 9 and 10 John writes, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble.” I want to note here that, particularly in light of what I just argued regarding the nature of love, the Christian who loves their brother or sister lives in the light. They are embedded in and participating in the light John said was already shining through Christ and subsequently through us. In the context of John’s concern for our obedience, John seems to be suggesting that a significant portion of enacting our obedience to God is accomplished when we love our brothers and sisters in Christ. We are enacting our love for God through our acts of love and service for one another. Think about it, how are we to love God as God has loved us? How do we love God as being we cannot see? By loving one another. In fact John goes on to write in chapter 4 verse 20 that, “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” Loving brothers and sisters in Christ specifically and people broadly appears for John to be fundamental to our enactment of our love for God.
Let’s take a look at an example of this acted out. In his gospel, John writes, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34 NIV). Immediately preceding the declaration of that commandment Jesus washed the disciples’ feet in the upper room on the night before his crucifixion. In vs. 12-14 of John 13 Jesus says to them, “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.’ Jesus acted out his love with his body as an example of the love and service that he expected from his disciples all the way down to us. If we ever find ourselves asking questions like, well, how are we to love one another? What does that look like? The answer comes back, serving each other like this. How do I love? Treat each other as Jesus did when he washed his disciples’ feet. Jesus made God’s love for humanity particular and visible; enacting that love through a simple act of service. Jesus’ love was aesthetic.
Now God’s love for us goes far beyond washing our feet. Jesus is the full enactment of the new commandment. Jesus left intimate fellowship with the Father to enter into a sin-afflicted world as a servant. He was obedient in love to the Father, offering the grace of God to all, serving and loving all, person by person. He was obedient in love even to his death on the cross. All expressions of God’s love for us manifested and made present for us through Jesus’ body. I argue that for John to “live in the light” is to make the beauty and light of God’s love visible through our acts and through our bodies.
The flip side of that coin however is the notion that anyone who hates his or her brother is still in darkness. To draw this out, I want to spend some time talking about darkness and hate in that order. Historically speaking, Christian theology has generally held that darkness is not a thing in and of itself. It does not have a presence or mass. It is simply the absence of light. Interestingly in the both the Old and New Testaments, darkness is probably the most uniformly negative word that exists. It is used to picture ignorance, folly, the mind unilluminated by divine revelation, falsehood, and actions that represent the all that light is not. Now if darkness represents an absence of light, then it also represents the absence of the priorities and the effect of God’s presence.
John writes that, “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness.” To harbor or enact hatred for a brother and sister, for John is to engage in acts that proclaim and spread the absence of light; that proclaim and spread the absence of God’s priorities and the life giving effect of God’s presence. For John anyone who hates a brother and sister is in the darkness because their actions hide the goodness, truth and beauty of God’s love and make present that which Jesus came to redeem us from.
Parallel to that, I would argue that this pervading of darkness through our actions is not limited to hate as we understand it. In English, hate is a very strong word. We typically reserve it for the greatest expression of animosity we can think of. I would argue that limited meaning of hate is not what John intends when he wrote this. The Greek word for hate here is μισέω (miseo). And it does mean “to hate” in Greek; however, depending on how it is used, it can carry other shades of meaning as well, particularly in extra-biblical Greek literature. It can carry in it the notion of to detest, but also to love less, or esteem less. However it can instantiate even finer gradations – to slight (or throw shade), to disregard and to feel indifference. Thus, I would argue given the potential breadth in the word μισέω, any of these expressions of animosity represent a distortion of the light Jesus asks us to shine. If we are to shine the light of God’s love for our brothers and sisters through our actions, with our bodies, then even our slighting of our brothers and sisters represents a distortion of what we are called to. Treating our brothers and sisters in Christ with hate; whether we detest them or simply think less of them finds us enacting a caricature of Jesus and smudging and skewing the beauty, truth and goodness of God. To hate a brother and sister not only finds us acting in darkness. It also finds us spreading that darkness; and even worse, we often represent that darkness as if it were the light. For John, hate is as aesthetic as love.
Let us briefly look at one other passage in I John in an attempt to further my argument. We will spend some time with 1 John 3:12-18. Here John writes,
Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (NIV).
John starts here by writing about Cain and contrasting Cain with Abel. Note that the contrast John draws here is not between good and evil, but between evil and righteousness. This comparison between evil and righteous is not rooted in abstraction the way “good and evil” can be. It is fundamentally rooted in Cain and Abel’s actions. Cain is evil because he acts evilly; he murders his brother. Abel is righteous because he acts rightly and justly. Important here is the recognition that the Greek word we translate as righteousness, δίκαιος, (dikaios) carries in it notions of both rightness and justice. To be righteous, and this extends from the Jewish tradition, is to act rightly and justly. Take note, one’s rightness and justice is associated with one’s actions. I want to suggest that some approaches to popular Protestant theology can obscure our understanding of righteousness at times. This is because we often understand righteousness as something that is attributed to us as a result of our faith in Christ. We believe that when we place our faith in Christ that the Father looks at us and instead of seeing our sin and unrighteousness, or unjust and wrong actions, God instead sees Christ’s righteousness. We are told that righteous is not something we can be or enact. We are warned against works righteousness (people trying their best to try to be good enough for God) because we cannot be good enough for God, again because of our sin and our unrighteousness. What we often miss in our working out of the meaning of the profound grace of God is that the righteousness that is attributed to us exists because of the right and just actions of Jesus. Righteousness can be attributed to us because of Jesus’ actions. This is because righteousness and justice must fundamentally be understood as actions. Righteousness is a description of the manner in which one acts. We understand God as righteous because God’s actions are good, upright and just. In fact, because this is the manner in which God consistently acts, we understand God to be the measure of all that is righteous, all that is good, upright and just. Therefore, because righteousness is an action, and must therefore be performed with the body, and available to the senses of others, righteousness is also fundamentally aesthetic.
Also of note, the Greek word that we translate as evil, πονηρός, (poneros) has its root in the Greek word πόνος (ponos), which translates to pain, anguish, or suffering. The understanding here is that pain, anguish and suffering are the result of evil acts. Evil is an action as righteousness is. It is an action that that instead of embodying the rightness and justice of God as righteousness does instead represents acts that result in pain, anguish and suffering. Evil here is also an action performed by the body, available to the senses, thus evil is as aesthetic as righteousness.
John uses this contrast between righteousness and evil as a springboard to highlight his expectations of Jesus’ followers. John writes in vs. 15, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.” John’s appeal to Cain’s story culminates in his juxtaposition of hate and murder. So how do we follow this line between hate and murder that John has drawn? Well we have to first acknowledge that John is not the only one to have drawn this line. Matthew records Jesus in 5:21, 22 as saying, “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’(an Aramaic term of contempt) is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell” (NIV). So John is only echoing what Jesus had taught before him. John however frames it a bit differently. So why should we not be hating or mistreating our brothers and sisters in Christ in particular (though I would argue that these principles extend to all of humanity)? I argue that hate doesn’t recognize the dignity of the one being hated as one who has also been made in the image of God and also beloved of God. To do so treats that person as something other than fully human. To do so de-humanizes them. 20th Century Dutch Reformed theologian Hans Rookmaaker argued that the reason Jesus came to Earth; that the heart of Jesus’ mission was to make us fully human; that sin itself de-humanizes us and steals our dignity as those made in the image of God. If that’s the case, that Jesus came to make us fully human, then a hateful disposition toward someone made in the image of God (note the aesthetics of that term by the way) works expressly against the work of Christ because it de-humanizes the one we hate. Now that is what hate is and its effect. However, to understand John’s argument I think we also have to talk about how hate operates.
We have to note that while John frames hate and love in stark and highly contrasted terms, hate itself is far more nuanced and slippery. Hate can be individual. It can be rooted in a grudge or a personal slight or because someone took too much food at the pot luck, or they play their music too loudly. We can hate someone because of how they laugh or how they talk or how they breathe. Hate can also be communal. We can hate as a group. Instead of me hating that person, we hate those people. Whoever the collective “we” are can hate liberals, or conservatives, or undocumented immigrants or Muslims, or those who are crude and vulgar, or Latinos, or the Italians, or the Irish. We can hate Trump voters or Biden voters. American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted that we are more likely to hate as a group than as individuals because as a group hate becomes socially acceptable among the others in the group. Important to my argument is the recognition that each of these expressions of hate, as expressions of evil, are fundamentally aesthetic, and the influence they exert is also aesthetic. As such, the influence hate exerts is not fundamentally rational, but rather represents an influence of our affections.
I argue this is why John tells us we have to be careful because all of this hate, both individual or communal, is the doorway to violence and murder. It is not necessarily a quick journey between hate and violence and murder, but it does represent the participation in a journey that leads us toward a destination that is away from Christ. We may never partake in acts of violence ourselves, or ever murder someone, but to even engage in thoughts, words and rhetoric that even looks down on or slights other individuals or groups, we are heading toward a destination that takes us away from the righteous ends we were designed for. Hate allows us to morally disengage from our actions because we are no longer measuring them by Christ’s actions. Hate dilutes our empathy for those whom God loves. For John, as a follower of Christ, there are no brothers and sisters in Christ we are allowed to hate, and I would suggest that that would extend to all. There is no “them” we as Christians are allowed to hate. Every member of “them” is a person loved by God. We, as Christ followers, should not be hating, detesting, looking down on or slighting anyone; and we know this because of the aesthetic counter example that John provides us.
Just as John employs Cain’s story to provide a narrative example of his exhortation to his readers to not hate, he goes on to employ Jesus’ story in order to offer a definition of love in a narrative form. In vs. 16 he writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.” John is arguing that the manner in which we, as followers of Christ, ought to live, ought to be imitating the example of love and grace enacted by Jesus. For John, Jesus’ love for us also carries with it a set of ethical oughts. His love represents actions that we as his disciples ought to imitate. I would argue that this is part of what John has in mind when he opens his argument in chapter 3 writing, “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!” This love ought to affect the manner in which we live, and ought be something that we share with one another and with the world around us through our actions. The expectation is that we imitate the aesthetic nature of God’s love revealed through the body and actions or Christ with our own bodies and actions.
John offers a practical example of what this type of love looks like when it is lived out. He writes in vs. 17, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” John here offers us a lesson in Christian economics, or perhaps better, Christian monetary policy. John give us a lesson in value and worth. The NIV translation does a good job translating John’s meaning here, but we miss a little something in the translation. Without getting into the details, the Greek reads literally, “Whoever might now have the goods of the world,” instead of material possessions, and that is significant, because John has already shared his thoughts on the value of the things of the world in chapter 2. There is a notion that certain types of wealth and material goods belong to this world and will pass with it. John notes that if we have these goods of the world/material possessions, that are of value and are useful, and we do not use them in service of our brothers and sisters in Christ in particular, then we misunderstand and misrepresent God’s economics so to speak. We see here in John’s example, and in Jesus’ actions, that God values the material things of the world that will pass with this world in terms of the people made in God’s image. Our culture encourages us and forms us to do the exact opposite, to value people in terms of money and material goods. In God’s economics, people are always more valuable than money and material goods; in fact they ought to be the measure of the value of those goods. Johns is arguing that if laying down one’s life is the standard of love we are being asked to imitate, then laying down our stuff in service of God’s love is an act that asks far less of us. Here John offers a basic lesson on the proper valuation of materiality, recognizing the material’s fundamental value as the creation of God and as that which we have made of creation (culture), but valuing that materiality in terms of the materially embodied and enacted love of Christ.
John ends this section exhorting, “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”; perhaps, in order to draw out what John is saying here, actions that are consistent with the truth of God’s love revealed through Jesus. Let us love with actions and enacting that truth. Love must be seen because love is aesthetic and properly values the materiality of the world in light of the incarnation.
This is just a brief engagement with some thoughts that stand out to me regarding the aesthetic in I John. I see the presence of the aesthetic as a presence throughout the entire book, particularly in John’s emphasis on the importance of the physical aspects of the incarnation, which I did not even address in my brief bit of wrestling. Take a read for yourself and note how often John appeals to the sight of his reader (his multiple references to light, the incarnation and the visible, tangible enactment of love). I would be interested in hearing what you see. I also promised that I would share why I believe this is important. Why does the presence of the aesthetic in I John matter? What does it have to do with my own faith and discipleship?
I would first suggest that this matters because it counters many popular particularly Protestant theological and devotional commitments that devalue the materiality of the world. A significant number of Protestants would argue that the unseen and the spiritual represent the highest reality. We can see this in Christian axioms such as “I’m just passing through, heaven is my home,” and in songs such as “I’ll Fly Away”:
Some glad morning when this life is over
I'll fly away
To a home on God's celestial shore
I'll fly away
I'll fly away, oh, Glory
I'll fly away
When I die, Hallelujah, by and by
I'll fly away
And while John and the other New Testament writers (and Old Testament writers for that matter) testify to the presence of an unseen reality in which God operates beyond the perception of our senses, John wants us to note that the incarnation has changed the calculus on what is and is not available to the senses. In Christ, God is available to our senses and simultaneously reveals the extent to which God values the materiality of the world and the people God created. The aesthetic matters; the materiality of the world matters because it instantiates the medium through which God chose to reveal the truth of God’s love and grace to God’s beloved (us) made in God’s image. This means our actions in the world matter to God. We may be passing through (though there’s an interesting set of conversations to be had relating to that proposition), but we are not JUST passing through. We are to be embodying and enacting the love, grace, justice and mercy of God in the world that God has made, and in the culture that we have made of that creation. John lays that responsibility on our shoulders (and our hands and feet and mouth), not as a grudging concession to our materiality, but as a participation in God’s mission and purposes in the world. The aesthetic matters because Jesus’ life and teaching reveals that things like love and righteousness must fundamentally be enacted with our bodies in order for them to be truly seen and perceived. The aesthetic matters because it matters to God.
Photo credit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_pillar#/media/File:Light_Pillars_and_Diamond_Dust_in_London_Ontario_Canada.jpg by Ray Majoran