From “On the Mystery:
Discerning Divinity in Process”
by Catherine Keller, b.1953
What, then, of the tortured figure under interrogation in Pilate’s palace? In the messianically supercharged atmosphere of the “Gospel of John,” we might presume that he utters, indeed that he is, the truly absolute truth. We might also presume that when Pilate gives the great shrug of relativism, he gives it in response to Jesus’ absolute truth-claim. But we are seeking understanding, not presuming it. So let us back up just a couple of verses, to see what elicited the famous rhetorical question in the first place.
“So, you are a king?” demands Pilate.
This question is also little more than rhetorical.
Let us listen with fresh cars to the too-familiar reply: “You say that I am a king.”
Thus deflecting the projection of imperial rivalry, Jesus (not the taciturn witness of the other Gospels) continues: “For this, I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Testimony: this metaphor signifies truth as an activity in language, appropriate to a testament.
“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
He attests to a truth to which he belongs; others who also belong will listen. This is itself testimony, making a claim at once messianic only in its humility.
We do well to hear what he is not claiming. He does not say those who belong listen to the truth; or, they hear that I am telling the truth. This is a more mysterious claim. This truth doesn’t seem to be something that could be simply said. It does not propose a propositional belief or a correct position. Jesus (unlike many Christians) is not claiming to have the truth. Truth is not eternal information processed by God and revealed in timeless sentences. Jesus doesn’t seem to think truth belongs to anyone.
One could, however, belong to the truth. Indeed, we will shortly explore how we are invited in this Gospel to “worship in spirit and truth” or to abide in the “Spirit of truth.” Jesus before Pilate does not ask that the other obey, or believe, or even recognise: but only “listen.” Give him a hearing. Enter a relationship. Truth seems to be an interaction, an interactivity. It is what he has been doing all along. The Johannine truth is an action: “do the truth” (facere veritatem). We don’t simply know it; we have to make it happen. Even in the high Christology of John, truth does not signify a timeless or abstract absolute. At the same time, by the same token, this Jesus will not play imperial mirror games with the dissolute: Pilate cannot make him accept the title of “king.”
The Jesus portrayed in the other three Gospels hardly mentions “truth,” whereas John’s Gospel is radiant with it. Testify to it, belong to it, do it, dwell in it, even in Jesus’ case to enflesh it: John gives truth multiple metaphors. Far from any abstract absolute, each sign of Johannine truth touches off a happening, a revealing interaction, a step on an open-ended way.
Earlier in the same Testament, along a dry and dusty way, by the side of an ancestral well, this relational space had bubbled open. The parched traveller just wanted water.
But the woman resists her own instrumentalisation: “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman?”
This gets his attention. He liked this sort of chutzpah in women. Yet the truth-process has here, too, the character of a trial, one infinitely more gentle. If she tests Jesus with her first question, he responds with a playful courtesy:
“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Living water” has the double meaning of running rather than stagnant water and of a more mysterious liveliness. When she points out his lack of a bucket, he releases the water, “ gushing up to eternal life.”
In response to this sudden welling-up of metaphor, the woman displays a disarming honesty about her own life. A reader now may not fathom the unimaginable pain of all those husbands, lost presumably to death, the inevitable sense of curse, social marginality and finally unmarriageability. She displayed no shame and he wanted none. Later preachers may moralise about her life, but the text does none of it. It is her honesty, not any sin, that interests the thirsty rabbi: what she has said, in risky trust, “is true.” Within its patriarchal context, this interaction should not have happened at all (“They were astonished that he was speaking with a woman”). Yet it comprises one of the longer dialogues in the “Bible.”
In its improper reciprocity, Jesus initiates a radically mobile sense of truth. It moves like living water. The way is a truth-flow. It bursts out of the territorialism of religion, of worship fixed here or there, mountain or Jerusalem, my group or yours, my church or your temple, mosque or yoga mat.
“God is spirit,” announces Jesus by the well.
This is one of only two definitional propositions about God in scripture. The other is “God is love.” These are not accidentally correlated proposals: they proposition us to and from a bottomless well of compassion. This fresh sense of spirit Jesus offers does not deny divine presence in local sites and practices. Rather, it resists the dispiriting absolutisms that would lock the mystery into a single venue. God the spirit is in all of these places and containable in none. The manna will not keep. Those who would worship this spirit must “worship in spirit and truth.”
That preposition “in” is revelatory. What is this space of spirit, this truth-space? Surely not something that we find ourselves in, as in a jar or a house.
“You have set my feet in a broad place.” (Ps. 31:8)
“If God‘s Spirit,” comments Jurgen Moltmann, “is experienced as this broad, open space for living conferred on created beings, then it is easy to understand the spatial designations which declare that people live ‘in’ God’s Spirit, and experience God spatially as ‘breadth.’ ”
This is a “way-ward spirit.” Its mobile, animating spatiality is comprised not of territories to be guarded or invaded, but of a process of interactivity. Not just any interactive process, but one characterised by the flow of truth.
Process theology has shown that we do not exist outside of our relationships. We become who we are only in relation: we are network creatures. But how often do our relationships radiate the unexpected honesty of this well-side dialogue? To “worship in spirit and in truth” is to be in our world of relationships, but differently. Worthily. Our word “worship” comes from the Old English “weorthscipe,” “weorth” (worthy), and means: “to attribute worth to someone, to esteem another’s being.”
As a leading preacher and liturgical scholar has taught us, “If “weorthscipe” is grounded in the relationships that sustain our lives as worthy.”
Such worship is not a cringing genuflection before an alien power but an intimate interaction that endows all participants with worth. A long-shamed woman by a well glows with worth in the exchange, knowing herself valued and glimpsing the bottomless source of all value. Our often edgy and unsatisfactory relations to each other get touched by a meaning beyond themselves. Our limited networks suddenly seem to open into that which infinitely exceeds them. The touch of truth may not cure our losses. It can, however, redeem them for the open future. For that future, if it’s truly open, opens into the God within whom all process happens.
The Johannine narrative betrays traces of a way beyond the mirror-play of absolutism and relativism. It wells up from within, it flows between, it blows from without. But this truth is not to be had. To own the truth is to lose it. The flow of truth is in this text the movement of the holy spirit in the world. Spirit and truth together name the fluidity of a process that we cannot possess, neither in propositions nor in practices, neither in creeds nor in prayers. We belong within it. It does not belong to us. This testimonial truth is a relation, not a possession. It is a way, not an end. It is not a processed proposition but a proposal for an endless process. Are you and I not taking part in it even now? Do we begin to go dry when we cease to realise it within and among us?