Monday, January 13, 2014

He is Our Shepherd: Are We a Dumb, Conformist Flock?

Not exactly a highbrow image for
the human community? Hmmm....
Jesus is the good shepherd, and we are all his sheep.

The "pastoral metaphors" in Scripture are often taken by us as picturesque and superficial. We feel a vague warmth about them but then pass them by without much consideration. We've heard them so many times.

But such metaphors are often misunderstood by critics of Christianity as images of obscurantism, fear of initiative, or escape. It is thought that Christians would rather conform themselves to a flock and follow a superior being than use their own reason to judge and construct their own lives.

We Christians might not be so comfortable about being called sheep if we gave it some thought. Aren't sheep supposed to be really stupid? They have to be put in pens, and led into pastures just to find the food they need. Alone they are vulnerable, lost, and -- of course -- always easy prey for the wolf.

What does this image have to do with the rational human being? We use reason to accomplish spectacular feats. We build cities, measure the distance to stars, find cures for diseases, develop computer software and master ever more refined information technology. Sheep?! We're not sheep! It seems like an insult to compare the human person to a sheep, or the human community to a mindless flock.

Perhaps we have forgotten what this metaphor intends to convey.

It is interesting to note that recent neuroscientific studies indicate that sheep are not so dumb after all. In fact, their cogitative skills are surprisingly high among the animal species. Science has confirmed what grizzly shepherds have always known, namely, that sheep can recognize faces and sounds, and even respond to their own distinctive names.

The animal instincts and sense-cognition of sheep are markedly relational. What appears to us as an anonymous flock is in fact a group of animals that have high capacity for memory and recognition. Studies have shown that sheep remember one another's faces as well as the faces of their shepherds. They distinguish and remember the bleating of their companions and other familiar sounds. They even develop particular one-on-one familiarity; i.e. sheep within a flock can become "friends" with other particular sheep. They are highly competent animals in their own sphere and within their own environment. What makes them vulnerable is the larger context of an unknown world abounding with dangers and predators.

Sheep thrive by sticking together. They are domesticated not by coercion, but by the guidance of their relational instincts and the training of their memory. It turns out that a flock of sheep is not a mass of stupid, indistinct, and anonymous beasts that follow blindly according to the most primitive instincts. On the contrary, it is group of animals with a high degree of interactive sophistication, who remember and recognize the distinctive features of one another and of the human beings who care for them, protect them, and help them find the things they want: food, water, and an optimal environment in which to reproduce. There is some indication that these capacities for recognition and memory also correspond to a surprisingly high level of emotional responsiveness. There is an "animal affection," an emotive bonding within the flock, and between sheep and shepherd.

None of this would be news to shepherds anywhere in the world. For millennia, they have cared for their flocks, and they could easily say something like, "I know my sheep and my sheep know me" (John 10:14).

Human beings are not sheep. Human beings are persons, each with an identity, intelligence and freedom that are embodied in flesh and blood, and yet also transcend the whole material universe. Every human person is unique and inviolable, possessing always an intrinsic value worthy of being loved for his or her own sake. At the same time, human persons are profoundly related in families, friendships, communities, peoples, and a world in which we must learn to recognize and remember one another's faces and to call each other "brother" and "sister."

The shepherd, the sheep, and the flock are images that help us to reflect on some aspects of the mystery of who we are. They are only images, and so they have their limits, but they also have evocative power and poetic beauty. With careful attention, we may discover that these images have greater depth and nuance that we thought. Moreover, for Jesus, these images are a starting point for drawing us all up into the mystery of his relationship with the Father.

"The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers" (John 10:2-5).
"I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again" (John 10:14-17).
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one" (John 10:27-30).