“...the bewilderments of the eyes are of two kinds, and arise from two causes, either from coming out of the light or from going into the light...”
― Plato, The Allegory of the Cave
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we considered the possibility that, on one level, John’s Gospel might be trying to respond to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave—a 2,400-year-old attempt to wrestle with the nature of reality. For a brief introduction to Plato’s Cave, check out this video.
If the Gospel of John is attempting to reclaim, recast, and retell Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, then this retelling contains invitations for followers of Jesus everywhere and always. These invitations that are not just limited to eyewitnesses or those living in first century Palestine. John makes that clear at the end of chapter 20 with a new and previously reserved beatitude. Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Who is that beatitude for?
Everyone in this part of the story has already seen and believed. Who are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe? Just in case we are confused, in verses 30 and 31, John tells us. “These signs are written down so you will believe that Jesus is the Christ, and in the act of believing, have real and eternal life.” This beatitude is for you. You—the reader. You—the listener. You—who believes without seeing. Now, while I would not presume to be able to understand or behold all of the invitations put before us in this cave, there are a few that I think I can see at present. First, there seems to be an invitation to humility. That is, an invitation to consider the possibility that I, too, might have some caves in my life—that perhaps I don’t see as clearly as I think I do. This invitation to humility invites me to resist the temptation to be an expert everywhere I go and instead move toward what Zen Buddhism calls shoshin or “the beginner’s mind.” Can I have an attitude of openness and eagerness? Can I resist preconceptions and show up just as a beginner would—in humility? Can I leave room for learning and possibilities—like the possibility that I might not see as clearly as I think I do? There also seems to be an invitation to solidarity. The cave that John’s Gospel reframes is a cave where we are all connected by the light that frees us. No one is to be left in chains. Not Mary—who didn’t recognize Jesus in the Garden. Not the disciples locked away in fear. Not even Thomas, who refused to believe.
None are to be left out. None are left behind. None are unworthy.
And if that’s the case, then I also have an invitation to responsibility. If no one is to be left in chains, then I have a responsibility to return to the cave with the light I have experienced. Jesus tells the disciples precisely that when he breathes the divine breath on them and sends them to forgive and love just as he was sent. As theologian Gail O’Day wrote, “Jesus lives, not because he can walk through locked doors and show his wounds to frightened disciples, but because he breathes new life into them and commissions them to continue his work.” I have a responsibility to carry the love, light, and warmth of the sun that continues to set me free into the caves before me. But that responsibility comes with another invitation—an invitation to consistency. The path that I am invited to follow is the path of the Christ, who continually and consistently shows up with Shalom—saying, “Peace be with you.” No matter what cave the Christ enters or the mindset of the prisoners he finds there, he consistently shows up in peace. This invitation may more rightly be called a challenge because it’s not easy. If anything, Plato might have nailed this one on the head. Returning to the cave can be disorienting, and I may indeed find people who are hostile to my return.
It might not go well.
My friend and spiritual director Dr. Lynn Anderson recounts a story that illustrates this reality in his book If I Really Believe, Why Do I Have These Doubts? It’s the true story of an Inuit Greenlander—an indigenous guide that was hired to help an arctic expedition in the 1920’s. At the conclusion of the expedition, his employers took this guide—who had never left his native Greenland—to New York City. As you can imagine, he saw and experienced things in New York City of which neither he, nor anyone in his village, had ever dreamed. He couldn’t wait to get home and share his discoveries. When he did get home, he told his friends and family of “great stacks of igloos that reached into the sky” and even igloos that moved and carried people along the trail. The villagers, however, did not believe him. They found what he described to be too fantastic, too disturbing, and impossible. Instead, they labeled him Sagdluk, which means “The Liar” and shunned him. By the time he died, no one even remembered his original name. He took the name “The Liar” to his grave. Years later, there was another arctic expedition in need of an indigenous guide. This expedition recruited a man named Mitek from the same village as “The Liar.” When Mitek’s expedition was over, he, too, received a trip to New York and, just like the guide before him, was amazed by what he saw and experienced. But when Mitek returned to his village, he remembered the fate of “The Liar.” Instead of sharing the truth with his friends and families, he told them about paddling a big kayak on a wide river with lots of ducks and geese and even some seals. Dr. Anderson concludes this story by stating, “Thus, Mitek—the real liar—actually gained a place of extraordinary respect among his home villagers, while the man who had told the truth was called ‘Liar’ and died in shame.”
Humility. Solidarity. Responsibility. Consistency.
Acknowledging and accepting the invitations before us in John’s reclaimed cave may indeed come with a price. We, too, may be labeled a liar and rejected. We, too, may be offered a choice of hiding in the shadows. Jesus warns his disciples that these invitations—invitations to love as the Christ loves with humility and solidarity, to serve as the Christ serves in responsibility and consistency—could lead to hatred and persecution from others. The prisoners in Plato’s Cave did not receive their returning neighbor. They ridiculed him, dismissed him, and wanted to kill him. The prisoners in John’s cave did not receive the Christ. They ridiculed him, dismissed him, and killed him. They even put his dead body in a cave and sealed the entrance. But in that cave lies our greatest invitation—the invitation to reality.
All is not as it seems.
Death is not the end.
Hatred and persecution will not have the last word.
There is something more real than our fear and doubt.
Plato did get some things right. We do live in a world filled with caves and prisoners—he was right about that. When the shadows are working for us, we don’t want to see anything else—he was right about that, too. And life can absolutely drag us, kicking and screaming from our caves—we’re all experiencing that right now. But John’s Gospel sees something more—something that Plato missed. John sees a God who doesn’t wait for prisoners to be dragged outside. John sees a light that invades the cave. This light inhabits every cave—it dwells there among the imprisoned. I don’t have to free myself. I’m not even sure I could if I wanted to. I don’t have to be forcefully dragged outside.
The call is coming from inside the cave.
Jesus the Christ shows us a love that enters our cave in humility, takes on our shackles in solidarity, patiently and consistently invites us beyond the shadows, and calls us to our responsibility to do the same for others.
I can see that now.
I believe it.
And that’s real enough for me.
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