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What, or who, do you want?: Educating our Desires

What, or who, do you want?: Educating our Desires

Guest author Prof. David Ford explores how the gospel of John can form and inform our desires in an attention economy. 16/03/2022

‘What are you looking for?’ These are the first words of Jesus to his followers in the Gospel of John. It is a question about desire, one that is deeply relevant to our culture, our politics, our economics, our laws, our personal lives, and our planet’s future. What are we looking for?

In the course of over twenty years of writing a commentary on the Gospel of John, I was impressed again and again by the implications of that question of Jesus. Nowadays I get a lot of my reading and viewing recommendations from my children. One that has gone deep into our contemporary world and our information civilization has been Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, which the Financial Times rightly called ‘groundbreaking, magisterial… unmissable.’ I also became one of the millions who has watched her YouTube videos. She is an emerita professor at Harvard Business School who seems to have spent as many years on her book as I did on John.

Connecting the two together was illuminating both ways – of John and of our world today. Again and again, her questions, concepts, and concerns resonated with John, as she gave her penetrating account of the development of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and of the online culture, economics, politics, and personal interactions that they and others have generated. Who and what do we trust? How do we test testimony? What is worth our attention, and what is our attention worth? How are our horizons, choices, and relationships being shaped and manipulated? And who is behind all this?

Zuboff makes two things vividly clear. One is the transition, which she devastatingly documents in the cases of Facebook, Google, and others, from an ethos of service to an ethos of profit, one that radically compromised the claim to be a service without being at all transparent about how the data about users was being used, and lead to massive accumulations of knowledge, power, and wealth. The other is how central desire is for all of us. It is at the heart of that fateful transition, from desiring primarily to serve, to desiring money, knowledge, and power. It is involved in every click we make, in who and what we trust, and in our choices and decisions in culture, politics, and personal life.

In John’s Gospel, a profound wisdom of desire emerges as a key concern of Jesus. It is centred on service in love, inseparable from trust, friendship, truth–seeking, and living in the light. For example, a reimagining of power and authority are performed by Jesus on the night before his death: ‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’. This is service grounded in love and leading into friendship. Soon after, in the dramatic confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, who represents the Roman Empire (the greatest concentration of power and wealth in that age), the key emphasis is on truth in the context of justice (or in this case, injustice), which might be seen as the public face of love: ‘For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’ In relation to what Russia is presently doing in the Ukraine, and the role of the media, what comes to mind is Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s powerful Nobel Prize speech, ‘One Word of Truth’, in which he makes a deep connection between our desires for truth and for beauty, and his penetrating analysis of the relationship of lies to violence is relevant far beyond Solzhenitsyn’s or Putin’s Russia.

Another of my children’s recommendations has been The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long Term in a Short–term World by Roman Krznaric. This concerns the timescale of our desires, and how they can be formed in line with our deepest values and commitments. It is about ‘deep–time humility’, ‘cathedral thinking’ that sustains projects across centuries, and the shaping of an ‘ecological civilization’ that helps life to flourish across generations, and is served by long term institutions that can make wise choices. A core image is of the marshmallow and the acorn. Our ‘time–torn brains’ have to choose continually between satisfying the immediate desire for a marshmallow or using our capacity for imagining a good future and acting towards it, as in planting an acorn. 

I came to see John’s Gospel, written after the letters of Paul and the other Gospels, and facing the issue of succession after the eye–witness generation, as cultivating such an orientation in the early Church, which became the longest–lasting global institution still in existence today. One of the central ideas in John is expressed in the Greek verb menein, meaning to ‘abide, dwell, endure, last, stay, live, remain’. The opening question of Jesus, ‘What are you looking for?’ was answered by those first disciples by another question: ‘Where are you staying/living?’ That short–term question is transformed as the Gospel’s education of their desires proceeds. This culminates in Jesus’s Farewell Discourses (Chapters 13–17), where the orientation is to the community’s ongoing life, and the practices (such as loving service, trust, faithfulness, friendship, prayer, truth–seeking, endurance in the face of persecution, and the willingness to sacrifice lesser desires for greater ones) that will keep it healthy. Jesus even says what any leader concerned with succession should be able to say at some appropriate point, ‘It is better for you that I go away’. He wants them to take transgenerational responsibility.

The timescale of the desire of Jesus, expressed above all in the extraordinary culmination of his final prayer in John 17:20–26, is transgenerational. And the embracing vision of ‘eternal life’ is well translated as ‘deep, lasting life’.  It is made very clear that the desire for this and its realisation begin right now—what Jesus had earlier summed up as his mission to bring ‘life in all its abundance’. He enacted this in what John called his ‘signs’ of abundant life, such as huge amounts of wine for a wedding celebration, healings, and feedings.

The culmination of the drama is when what happens to Jesus himself is the sign, the carrier of deep meaning. He goes to the heart of darkness in death, but that is not the last word. Death itself is relativised by his death and resurrection: he is now present on both sides of death. And the final, open, challenging word about desire is another question asked by Jesus. In one of the most moving scenes in the Gospel, the resurrected Jesus meets Mary Magdalene, who is weeping as she searches for his dead body, and he asks her, ‘Whom are you looking for?’


The Gospel of John. A Theological Commentary is published by Baker Academic and is available to buy here.

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Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

David F. Ford

David F. Ford

David F. Ford OBE is Regius Professor of Divinity Emeritus in the University of Cambridge. The Gospel of John. A Theological Commentary is published by Baker Academic.

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Posted 16 March 2022

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