JOHN 6:35, 41-51

35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” 42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” 43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. 44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. 45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. 46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. 47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. 48 I am the bread of life. 49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. 50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. 51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

Jesus was perceived as a threat to theological security by those who had anchored themselves inside the fortress of religious literalism. It may be helpful to define more carefully what we mean by this term. There is a time in psychological development when the stories of scripture and tradition are not so much interpreted as simply accepted as descriptions of the way things are, were, or will be. This is the period that James Fowler names the “mythic-literal” stage of faith.

A child must not be faulted or criticized for taking the stories literally. At this stage the imagination is just coming alive and the dividing membrane between fantasy and reality is magically flexible and porous. Religious and cultural narratives are implanting the young mind with the information, moral values, and world perspective deemed necessary to live functionally as a member of the tribe. Most importantly, they are shaping the developing personality around deep principles and universal truths.

Sometime in early adolescence the capacity for symbolic thinking is awakened, and the stories that were taken literally in childhood begin to open up to new insights and discoveries. Narrative portraits of God, for instance, can now be appreciated more as metaphors than literal descriptions, and the reality they name can be more readily acknowledged for the genuine mystery it is. It is possible at this stage for the individual to grasp and entertain such notions as ground of being, universal spirit and unconditional love in his or her contemplation of the divine mystery.

It is possible, we need to emphasize, because it is precisely at this developmental moment, on the threshold of a breakthrough to higher awareness spiritually, that the orthodoxy of anxious and dogmatic leaders slams shut the window and pulls down the shade. This is where religious literalism takes hold: It’s this way, and only this way.

Jesus was a threat to such literalism because in his teaching, his parables, his manner and his very person, he mediated a mystery that no theology can manage or contain.

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