Why did Nathanael resist Philip’s good news? Perhaps he couldn’t get out of his own way long enough to take in something outside his frame of reference. If I know everything already, any suggestion of something new is a threatening falsehood. If we are to grow and flourish, we must suffer this self-centered certainty to be dismantled. “The great wisdom traditions of the world all recognize,” writes Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World, “that the main impediment to living a life of meaning is being self-absorbed” (page 91).
Taylor thinks, for example, about why the ancient Christian Desert Mothers and Fathers lived in some semblance of community, even in their pursuit of personal holiness. “The deeper reason they needed one another,” she writes, “was to save them from the temptation of believing in their own self-sufficiency” (page 91). Perhaps the illusion of his own self-sufficiency is Nathanael’s problem as well.
The problem with self-absorbed self-sufficiency is that it makes us pathologically self-centered. Perhaps this is a good psychological description of the experience of sin: self-centered, self-absorbed, self-sufficiency. St. Augustine gave it a shorter description seventeen hundred years ago. We are incurvatus in se, Latin for “curved inward on oneself.” Luther agreed completely with this description of the human condition. But it’s a hard sell in selfie-land.
This inward turning refuses trust and embraces certainty. This certainty might masquerade as strength and even bravado. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” is a question asked from behind such a mask. The disguise hides our fundamental fears and insecurities. In a world shaped by 09/11/2000, the Great Recession, resurgent white supremacy, and Covid-19 (just to hit the low spots), our fears are off the charts.
So, our desire for the safety and stability of certainty is nearly irresistible. “Fear tempts us to make safety and self-preservation our highest goals,” Scott Bader-Saye writes in Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear, “and when we do so our moral focus becomes the protection of our lives and health. Security becomes,” Bader-Saye continues, “the new idol before whom all other gods must bow” (page 28). I’m not sure there is a better nutshell description of the first quarter of this century than Bader-Saye’s words. He is surely describing our current American reality, even though he wrote his words prior to 2008.
It should be no mystery why I find this riff on the gospel text necessary and compelling. The aggressive and hostile rejection of anything different and destabilizing is a hallmark of our current social setting and of life in large parts of the Christian church in America.
The recent and somewhat bizarre attack, for example, launched by Southern Baptist seminary presidents on the sociological disciplines of critical race theory and intersectionality shows how easy it is for fear to overdetermine our perceptions, our thoughts, our judgments, and our actions. Can anything good for Christians come out of the social sciences? Not, apparently, if you are a white Southern Baptist theologian.
“In a culture of fear, the short answer to ‘What is going on?’ is ‘We are at risk’ or ‘We are in danger,’ writes Bader-Saye. “Insofar as we accept that answer as our dominant description of the world, our lives will be shaped by…self preservation…Our moral vision becomes tunnel vision. Fear becomes the ambient background to our lives,” Bader-Saye concludes, “rather than a proper response to a concrete and passing threat” (page 27). In such a setting, responses to disorienting dispatches from life are reduced to derisive snorts on social media. Nathanael’s snotty question would have slid comfortably into the rhetoric of the Twitterverse.
“We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote,” Philip gasps, “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Confronted with that destabilizing bit of news, Nathanael goes on the rhetorical attack. Fortunately for Nathanael and for us, Philip appeals to the small nugget of curiosity still resting in Nathanael’s guts. “Come and see!” This is the first step in answering the call to “come and follow.” Curiosity requires at least a small dose of courage.
“Our brains are hardwired for curiosity,” writes Todd Kashdan in his book entitled (oddly enough) Curious? “along with its neural twin, worry” (page 44). He reminds us that we are wired for the worst. We all live with an onboard “negativity bias.” Studies have shown repeatedly that we are at least twice as sensitive to threats as we are to opportunities.
That makes perfect sense, of course. If we miss an opportunity for something, we might go hungry for a while. If we miss a threat, we might become some other creature’s dinner. So, other things being equal, we tend to regard new information with some degree of suspicion. Nathanael is our sibling in that suspicion.
What does it take to open us to new information and perspectives? Kashdan describes the “positivity effect.” This is what takes over when we feel safe. In that setting, he writes, “We show a slight bias to explore new things and seek out new experiences. We are pulled toward rewards and excitement. Without this offset,” Kashdan concludes, “we would never learn, stretch, grow, or evolve” (page 46).
What does it take for us to entertain a new thought? Harder still, what does it take for us to entertain a new way of thinking, a new way of seeing and understanding the world? Now we can entertain a bit of exegetical empathy for Nathanael.
After all, Philip is proposing a scriptural non sequitur. The one about whom Moses and the prophets wrote is the Messiah. The Messiah should come from Jerusalem – or at least somewhere in King David’s old neighborhood. The Messiah should have royal and priestly connections, and those trappings should be obvious. The Messiah should come equipped with horse, sword, shield, and retainers. What Philip suggests is sheer nonsense. To even entertain the possibility means that Nathanael must be open to a new view of his world.
Philip issues the invitation – “Come and see.” Nathanael apparently regards him as a trustworthy source of information, because Nathanael goes and looks. The invitation comes in the context of a trusted relationship. That’s worth noting as we think about our own opportunities for witnessing to the reality of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior (one of the underlying themes of the season of Epiphany). Philip makes no claims and requires no agreement. He’s not selling or persuading or invading. He takes the risk to extend a gracious invitation to someone he knows and loves. Then, it seems, he goes with him.
Perhaps we have a couple of models or types at work in this text. Nathanael is the legitimately skeptical truth-seeker who has, perhaps, been burned by more than one would-be Messiah in the last few years. He’s close enough to the religious establishment to see that large parts of that establishment are morally and spiritually bankrupt – in bed with the Roman oppressors and making big money off their complicity. If Nathanael were no longer interested, however, he might not have responded with the veiled aggression of his question.
Nathanael is still looking. But perhaps he’s tired of being disappointed.
Philip is a witness to the light, to use the words of John’s prologue. He facilitates a meeting between Nathanael and Jesus. I wonder if there is a better description of the witnessing job. Jesus sees Nathanael as he is – not just a snarky tweeter but rather an Israelite in whom there is no bullshit. That authentic interaction is at the heart of this text.
Nathanael is not interested in scoring debating points. He wants truth, which makes him the opposite of what Harry Frankfurt calls a bullshitter. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth—this indifference to how things really are,” Frankfurt writes in On Bullshit, “that I regard as of the essence of bullshit” (pages 33-34). Nathanael models the sincere seeker who hopes that this time curiosity might be a wiser path than fear.
What Nathanael gets is a whole new understanding of the cosmos and a promise that he ain’t seen nothing yet. What he gets is the call to be a disciple. “Christian discipleship, that is, following Jesus, will mean surrendering the power that masquerades as security in order to love the neighbor and welcome the stranger,” writes Bader Saye. “It will mean avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good” (page 22). “Nathanael” can mean either “God has given,” or “Gift of God.” It would seem that both are true translations in this context.
Avoiding the safe path in order to pursue the good – perhaps we find ourselves back in the previous post. Loving the neighbor and welcoming the stranger are not safe paths as we challenge personal and systemic white supremacy. But they are good.
References and Resources
Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Glaude, Eddie S. Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own. New York: Crown, 2020.
Kashdan, Todd. Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Morris, Jerome. “Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth? Race, Class, and African American Schooling and Community in the Urban South and Midwest.” American Education Research Journal, Spring 2004.
Rothstein, Richard. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017.
Taylor, Barbara Brown. An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. New York: HarperOne, 2009.