God is not an idea

“The Word became flesh.” Ever heard that phrase? I wasn’t aware of how explosive it felt to the original readers of the Gospel of John until I did some digging recently.

feet child grass nature

For the Greeks, especially the Stoics, logos (word) was a loaded term. It was the divine principle that governed the world; the agent of creation and integrating personality that holds together a harmonious universe. A divine universe, actually, not in the sense of God as a person but as a force that pervades everything.

Take, for instance, the witness of two major stoics: Cicero and Marcus Aurelius.

Epicurus may even brag … but nothing is more perfect than the world… The world is a living being, equipped with conscience, intelligence and rationality… The world must be wise and the nature that holds everything together must excel in the perfection of reason [logos]; so the world is God and is held together by a divine nature.

You were born as a part. You’ll vanish into what generated you, or, you’ll be absorbed for transformation in its generating reason.

For the Stoics, then, the good life was life in harmony with logos, this divine rationality. Luc Ferry calls it an impersonal and anonymous doctrine of salvation: when we die, we become a fragment of the universe. Death is a transition of a state of personhood and conscience to a state where we lose all individuality.

Can you glimpse the scandal that John’s words brought to their first audiences?

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

What? The logos is a person? More than that, he became man and lived among us? Luc Ferry, a major French philosopher, describes this seismic shift:

The logos, which for the Stoics coincided with the impersonal, harmonious and divine structure of the whole cosmos, for the Christians will coincide with a single person, Christ. An anonymous and blind doctrine of salvation gave way to the promise that we will be saved not only by a person, but by Christ as a person…

That’s a profound worldview shift. God becomes not an abstract force but a loving person; he is known not through knowledge (though it includes knowledge) but personal trust. Love becomes therefore the supreme virtue; hope, to join the inclusive community of love God is forming around himself.

“The Word became flesh.” It’s a major challenge for those of us who would prefer a vague divinity we can shape and mold in our image and likeness. According to the Christian faith, God is not an idea. Or concept. Or system of doctrines. Or a force. Or a body of knowledge. He’s a person who revealed himself. He’s not an intellectual exercise but someone we can know and relate to.

How marvelous. How scary.

René Breuel


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