For some time I’ve been suspicious of too-simple invocations of “human nature,” and those invocations tend to fly fast and furious whenever someone’s ideology is working from blindness, the reductionism becomes far more likely. When an economic libertarian (those liberals who have the worst ideas about money and tend to vote Republican) starts talking about the ways in which and the extent to which society consists of buying and selling, one can with uncanny accuracy predict that at some point that economic libertarian is going to invoke something akin to human nature (even if that term itself does not get spoken) to reprimand someone (like me) who wishes to introduce moral concepts into the realm of the sovereign Market. On the other hand, a social libertarian (those liberals who have the worst ideas about sex and tend to vote Democratic) talking about “sexuality” is more than likely going to invoke something sounding like human nature (even if that term itself does not get spoken) if someone (like me) has the audacity (though these folks tend to call it naivete) to suggest that morality might enter into the way that homo sapiens organizes a common sexual ethic. In both cases, when either ideology ventures into that space where its ideas are worst, the appeal to nature is almost sure to come into play to cut off the conversation before morality can get there: after all, if such is the nature of things, there’s no real point saying that any sort of moral deliberation should have any place–it simply won’t “work” in the face of these superhuman, sub-rational “powers.”
Fortunately for the faithful, Israel’s life with God never was terribly impressed with the “nature” of things, preferring instead to talk about true and false teachers. In other words, it’s no more “natural” to pursue monetary gain as the end that subjugates all other ends or to treat sex as an undifferentiated medium of self-expression or mode of dissipation than it is (to use the vocabulary of Hebrews) to stand under the auspice of things unseen, of a better country than what stands immediately apparent. All such things stand in relationships, and as human beings, we are always learning how those goods relate to one another.
What that means is that, instead of pretending that “natural” desires were the end of the story, Israel always had teachers. Certainly parents of children served in this office, speaking of the Torah as they walked along the roads and raising up children as they should go, but alongside those authorities had always been folks like Moses and Ezra and eventually Nicodemus. In the face of five centuries of occupation (interrupted briefly by the Maccabean era, which had its own baggage), Israel’s teachers were responsible for keeping the unseen city alive, helping Israel to observe Torah in spite of the intellectual imperialism of Babylon and Phillipi and in the face of the easy syncretism of Persepolis and Rome. Always looking forward to the coming Exodus, the liberation of the people from these insidious regimes, Israel’s teachers kept alive the practices of articulating Israel’s particular ethical place among the nations (the Torah), of reciting God’s hopeful proclamations in the face of Empire’s domination (the prophets), and of crying out to God in the face of injustice rather than assuming that God would be alright settling for what was, at the moment, the prevailing power arrangements (the Psalms).
These responsibilities were always the responsibilities of a class of teachers to a nation in exile and diaspora, and when Jesus upbraids Nicodemus with that awful rhetorical question, “Are you a teacher of Israel?” he points not to a gap in Nicodemus’s research and certification but to a basic failure to sustain the people in exile. Jesus has to tell him at the end of the passage what he should be telling the people already: that God loves the world in this manner, in sending the Son.
(Modern sermons and children’s Bible lessons tend to make “so” an intensifier, following modern usage and making John 3:16 about the great depths of divine sentiment, but the passage makes a bit more sense if “so” stands as shorthand for “as the other clause says,” as in “Gilmour thinks that moderns read this a bit anachronistically, and I think so as well.”)
For someone like me, this rhetorical question does not stop being terrifying just because it’s Nicodemus and not me on the business end of it. Throughout the New Testament, people who should be teachers, those people who enliven imaginations and educate desires so that people strive in the right direction for the unseen city, turn out to be wrong-headed, wrongly motivated, and in all sorts of other ways wrong. And there are grave consequences: because the Church, like Israel, has “scribes” (to use Matthew’s vocabulary) and “teachers” (to use Paul’s), people whose pedagogy leads people to good or to ill, our salvation, our own pressing-on, never happens in a vacuum but always involves other people, people whose salvation in this world (I tend to shirk when folks ask me to comment on worlds to come) stands at risk if someone like me happens to be an idiot. As someone who’s been an idiot more than once, I fear the moment, and hope the moment never comes, when Jesus looks at me and asks, “Really? You, a teacher of the Church?”
May God’s grace fall on us who teach and especially on those who hear our teaching.