Blind from Birth

Posted: April 25, 2017 in Uncategorized

Blind from Birth

March 26th, 2017

Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-14


“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” — John 9:5

I was reading a sermon on our text by Robert Hamerton-Kelly this week and I have unashamedly used some of his material because I thought it was interesting. His sermon was written in 2008 so some of it is out of date but some key points are worth revisiting.

We begin with that old bugbear Original Sin and we acknowledge that very few of us thinking people accept the doctrine today even if we agree that the human species is not perfect but rather yet to be fully realized. Being human is an evolutionary journey that is not yet complete thus the definition of being a sinful, fallen being has nothing to do with our origins but rather the recognition that we have a way to go to be better human beings. Our reading this morning from John presents a statement that the man in question was blind from birth, that is, that his was an original blindness. Blindness from birth is as radical a visionary affliction as there is and easily distorted be naming it as an original sin outcome. Sins of the fathers and all that.

Prof Bill Newsome, an authority on the neuroscience of perception, suggested that a blindness that has never, ever seen, can only be overcome by a laying of all kinds of physiological and anatomical foundations anew. We are reminded at this point of the phenomenon of Helen Keller who went blind and deaf before the age of one year, and although consequently aphasic as well, could write an autobiography full of vivid visual imagery. Her loving mentor Annie Sullivan must have mediated the world to her, which is remarkable enough, but if she had never seen at all, had been blind from birth it would have been impossible, for her to perceive what she wrote about.

This raises the question: is there more to perception than the sense of sight alone, and by extension, the other senses? Is it possible to enjoy not extra-sensory perception but para-sensory perception, that is that the perceptual process, which is a function of the brain, is not wholly dependent on the eyes? Who says it is a law of nature that perception must go only through the senses? As we learn more about the brain so we learn that the 19th century scientistic fundamentalism, of the kind Richard Dawkins and others represent, might actually be wrong and misleading.

Much of the new discoveries about the brain and how it works leads us into greater complexity as to how it works and asks serious questions about our previous assumptions about what truth is and how we use it. I don’t intend to spend too much more time on the science of this other than to say that the brain and how it works is a fascinating subject and our understanding of what it is to be human is developing at a rapid rate. In regard to our topic today it is suffice to say that the recently emerging new understanding of processes of perception in the brain and their unsteady link to the senses, are a watch this space phenomenon.

The point we return to here that Jesus can enlighten the dark world of one born blind, that is, in metaphorical mode, Jesus, the light of the world, is the antidote to this perceived, congenital darkness of the world. Despite the limitedness of dualism the imagery in both our lessons uses the fundamental symbols of light and darkness to express good and evil, and in the Gospel, the symbol of darkness is the man born blind, that is originally blind, and the symbol of light is Jesus Christ the light of the world.

We choose this one point to focus on out of the many one might treat in such a rich passage, the darkness of congenital blindness and the man who is the light of the world. Darkness then, especially in the human form of radical blindness, is a vivid symbol of self-deception. Self-deception being the choice to concretize an understanding or to remove it from critique. The Gospel suggests in original sin type of thinking that we are radically self-deceived from the day of our birth, that darkness, in the sense of a fundamental fraudulence about who we are and what the world we live in is like, is historically speaking our “natural state.” This of course goes to our understanding of what it is to be human and I would want to suggest that both the darkness and the light is our natural state and not just the darkness. and that the metaphor is about us being afraid to engage with the light. To leave the womb of darkness, to enter the path of evolution and development. And it is this fear that is the fallen-ness we know and struggle against as human beings.

To add to this discussion we remember that we are in lent and heading toward Easter and the meaning of the cross. This immediately introduces another blindness so to speak. The blindness that appears to be original or part of the natural state of being human, the propensity for violence. We face the question not as to whether there “is a link between the Cross and the violence of the 21st century but rather “What is the link?” because we can assume such a link, as it seems the gospel does, and more than that, we have to deal with the idea that the Cross on which a young man is being tortured to death by church and state together, is the first true word to be spoken about who we are, not “they” but “we,” you and I. Another choice of darkness over light, another avoidance of our limitations that we can slot away into the too hard basket by naming it Original sin and thus unchangeable.

Hamerton-Kelly writes of his view of the American situation in 2008 and he calls his talk, “From Golgotha to Guantanamo,” or “From Joseph Caiaphas to Dick Cheney,” and he suggests through their own American Caiaphas, they are torturing and blaspheming the living Christ as he dies right then under the weight of their congenital sin, which is scapegoating violence. We might want to locate today’s violence in the area of globalization of economies, global movements of refugees and world migration. Pressure are on economies to rationalize taxation policies to deal with online and multinational companies and to provide infrastructure that copes with movement of peoples and integration of cultures and social difference.

“In as much as you have done it to the least of these my brothers you have done it to me” (Matthew 25:40 &45), is not a metaphor, or symbol, but a spiritual fact; when we torture hurt others or cause others pain we hold the Risen Christ on the cross, we engage in violence. So this Lent when we look on the Cross and think “violence” we also reflect on what happens for people who commit violence. Evidence seems to suggest that in many cases people lose their souls, shrivel up and die long before their biological system stops working. Clearly the image, of a young man in the throes of being tortured to death, is one of the central iconic proclamations of our faith, and that image says that the Christian revelation is primarily a revelation to a self-deluded species, unrealistic about the fact that we potentially, are violent to the core and have throughout human history got some strange sort of satisfaction by torturing people to death, and it is a revelation of who God is, namely, the opportunity and potential that we do not have to succumb to that way of settling our differences. Nor do we need to avail ourselves of a need for a scapegoat to do it for us.

The call is to see that the need to avoid confronting our own failures as a species is not alleviated by a scapegoat, nor is it dealt with by ignoring it and choosing the safety of the darkness. The choice of the darkness is to choose to be like those who are blind from birth, and who are they? They are you and I, unoriginal sinners. None of us are able to avoid the light and sit in darkness, none of us can wallow in our self-esteem because it just might be self-delusion, and self-delusion is to give in to the natural reaction to all threats and all challenges which is to use violence of some sort to seek self-esteem

The challenge for us is to accept our congenital blindness, not congratulating ourselves because we can see no evil nor hear any evil, especially of ourselves, but rather being self-aware enough to see the light of the world, and I hear the Calvary cry of pain both as the agony of our cruel race as well as our own personal responsibility and seek not to rage against others or pass on the violence we receive by some miraculous reorganization of responsibility.

We resist seeing ourselves as we really are because we hide in the sacrifice of others. violence. We sit in the dark. ”Don’t bother I’ll just sit here in the dark” and because we think there is no alternative, we call the darkness light. If all we have is darkness our religion will take the form of so much hyper-moralistic exhortation aimed at others,

Last week we spoke of the living water as the water that is not some magical water that stands above life but rather the very water that we take for granted, the water of our everyday and it is that that made it precious and sacred. We also suggested that the Samaritan woman see who Jesus really was. Hamerton-Kelly offers a story that pulls all these themes together under the umbrella of awakening to the light.

“Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as a crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, through the middle of the street of the city; also on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship him; they shall see his face, and his name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign forever and ever.” Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world (John 9:5).” “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).”

So the challenge this lent is to see the light of the Cross as a revelation of who you are and who God is for you, and rejoice, for there is no greater love than what is realized there. There is no need to hide from our reality in our moralistic pride or in the darkness of our self-congratulation. We are all that one born blind and Jesus has applied the mud he made with his spittle to our sightless eyes, and we can see, for the very first time. Amen.


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