“I am the vine and you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5
We meditated on this quotation from Jesus yesterday at our Virginia Methodist provisional clergy mentor covenant group retreat. On the side, I have been reading Eastern Orthodox theologian John Zizioulas’ Being and Communion, which has caused me to see the implications of Jesus’ statement in a completely new light. Zizioulas writes that God is the only authentic person in the universe because God is the source of His own being. As creatures, we are completely contingent upon God for our being.
If we really believe that God is the source of every instant of our consciousness, then Jesus’ statement is a lot more all-encompassing than we might have previously thought. He is not simply talking about the relationship that followers have to their leader or students have to their teacher. He is not just talking about any kind of lifestyle or community we choose to enter into. He is talking about the relationship He has as Creator to all of His creatures who are branches on His vine whether we accept this reality or not. Nothing in the universe exists independent from Christ, who is not solely the man Jesus who walked the Earth 2000 years ago but also the very Word of God, the creative agency which articulates and implements the Father’s will as John 1:3 describes: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”
On the vine of our creator Christ, those whose hearts are opened to communion and intimacy with their Creator “bear fruit.” Those who pretend to “be like gods” themselves (Gen 3:5) and cling to the delusion of their own self-sufficiency are “like a branch that is thrown away and withers… [before it is] picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:6). Individualism describes the atheist delusion that we are the source of our own being, which is having the naivete of a branch that thinks it does not need God’s vine to be fed and survive. You can be an individualist and talk about God all day, but God is not truly God to you if you think you’re a self-made person. Unfortunately, individualism is the default perspective with which people in our age view life, including many who never stop blabbering about Jesus.
Cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am. Written by Rene Descartes in 1637, this is perhaps the most definitive declaration of independence from God in the course of Western history. It is the origin of secular thinking, because it sets as a foundational premise that our minds in effect “create” our existence, i.e. we are the source of our own identity (rather than God). Descartes’ premise is a choice to view the world with the assumption that the boundaries of reality are determined by our perception of it. “I think; therefore I am” applied to the world outside my brain becomes “I see it; therefore it is,” which is the foundational premise of modern science.
Truth becomes that which has been observed and measured by multiple persons coming to the same conclusions instead of what our ancestors tell us that God told their ancestors to pass down to us. Rather than being a tribe in which our identity is given to us by our family, humanity is redefined by the Western secular tradition of Descartes and Enlightenment thinkers as a race of individuals who are the source of their own identity and subsequently form families and societies through social contracts with other individuals.
To view the world in this “I-centered” way which is ubiquitous to Western culture means living as if God doesn’t exist, at least not the God who Christians for centuries considered to be the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Rather than being understood as the source of our being, God becomes just another infinitely bigger and more powerful being who’s a constant threat to our freedom. God is the one who started the world, who intervenes occasionally in certain spectacular supernatural moments, and who will ultimately end the world, instead of being the One from whom creation is constantly emanating. God is seen as Someone outside of everything to whom we call to intervene rather than Someone inside of everything to whom we seek a purer connection. Paul’s declaration that “in him all things hold together” (Col 1:17) sounds like pious poetry to us, but we don’t take this at all seriously as an ontological claim, because what we really believe in modernity is that “in science nature holds together” and, most problematically, “in our theological system God holds together.”
I understand that there are many positives to the legacy of Descartes and the Enlightenment. I just think it’s completely wrong to say Cogito ergo sum when we should be saying Cogitat Deus ergo sum (God thinks; therefore I am). Cogito ergo sum isn’t just Descartes’ delusion; it’s the delusion of all in our society who are taught to see themselves as self-made individuals. People don’t make themselves. Individualism is an atheist lie. Christ is our Creator. In Him all things hold together. All things are created through Him and for Him. He is the vine and we are the branches.