The Johannine writings are distinctive among the writings of the New Testament in that they are so radically polarized in how the present the conflict between the church and the world. John’s whole thought world is one of binaries: life and death, love and hate, truth and lies, above and below, heaven and earth. This has been one of the reasons that the Johannine corpus has been subject to quite a bit of disdain. Clearly, it seems, John’s pure world of clear opposition between good and evil, church and world, must be an oversimplification, reflecting a sort of paleofundamentalism that must be qualified by other, more nuanced segments of the New Testament.
I would question this way of evaluating the Johannine writings. By contrast, I suggest that the very disambiguity of the Johnannine thought world is precisely what it has to offer the church. The problem with the church is generally not that it is too stark in how it views its life vis a vis the world, but that it is too nuanced. We are far more apt to strive for ambiguity, pluriformity, measure, and moderation in how we understand ourselves in relation to the pressing issues of our world. We crave ironic, tragic, and ambiguous ways of reading our world because it allows us to moderate any sort of ethical rigor that we might detect the gospel imposing on us. All too often our declarations about the ambiguities of being a disciple in a “complex” world are ways of simply making disobedience palatable and normal.
Bonhoeffer saw this perfectly in his book, Discipleship, which argued in no uncertain terms that we strive for ambiguity precisely to avoid questions of obedience. This is a message that continues to need to be heard. The Johannine word is always and ever relevant to a church that strives to have the demands of the Word against it eased into a sort of ambiguous tension–which is simply an elaborate way of dissolving any such tensions. We need to be told, not that there are countless “options” for our lives in Christ which may have their pros and cons, but that more often than not, our choices are between truth and lies, life and death. Our cravings for the comforts of ambiguity and complexity mask a perverse dodge that seeks to avoid asking the hard questions, presented so vividly in John’s gospel. What would it mean for us if we were willing to view the decisions we make about where to live, how to live, and who to live with as decisions either for life or for death? What if we permitted ourselves to embrace that kind of Johannine seriousness in attempting to morally navigate our Christian lives?