Lectionary Commentary: “A Progressive Christian Reading of John 14:6” (for Sunday, May 22, 2011)

I have a long and complicated relationship with today’s Gospel lesson, especially verse six: “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”  The first time I remember reading this verse, I found it comforting. A few years later, I came to be haunted by the implications of this verse for other religions.  Recently, I have found this same verse freshly inspiring. Let me start at the beginning.

Part One: Pre-Critical

The first memory I have of John 14:6 is from when I was thirteen.  I was at summer camp, and a group of us had been challenged to memorize a Bible verse. Growing up Southern Baptist, I had memorized many Bible verses, but this was different.  In Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, I was assigned verses to memorize.  This time, I had to pick the verse.

There are over 30,000 verses in the Bible.  So, when I look back, I’m curious what drew me to this one verse out of the 30,000 I had to choose from.  I remember lying on my bunk and flipping through the Bible, and somehow I ended up in the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John.  I don’t remember the details except that I liked the verse.  It was also easy to memorize, which was an additional perk.

I tell this story now because this verse has stuck with me.  And I’ve never forgotten that I selected this verse to memorize out of the entire Bible: “Jesus said…, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.’”  At that time in my early adolescence, this 2,000 year old saying of Jesus seemed clear and unproblematic.

Part Two: Critical

I continued to think about this verse from time to time, but I didn’t examine it closely again until college, when I began to learn more about other religions besides Christianity.  I took a class in Islam, read the Qur’an, and visited mosques. I also visited synagogues and read rabbinic commentaries.

During many of these activities, this verse from John that I had memorized years earlier kept popping into my mind. What I had previously found innocuous began to seem insidious and deeply troubling: “Does this verse mean that Jesus is the only way to heaven? If so, what does that claim mean for all the faithful Hindus, Muslims, and Jews I have met, who are also good, funny, competent, kind, and smart human beings?”

When I took a class on “Jesus and the Gospels,” my skepticism about this one verse expanded to include the entire Gospel of John.  One of the required textbooks for the class was called a Synopsis of the Four Gospels. [LINK]  The bible study tool lines up the text of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) in four parallel columns, so you can compare and contrast the passages they do and do not have in common.  When I started flipping through the book, I couldn’t help saying out loud, “What a great idea!”

You quickly notice details like the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus is only in Matthew.  Or that famous stories such as the Parable of Good Samaritan or the Parable of the Prodigal Son are only in Luke.  You see this because the Matthew or Luke column is full of writing, while the other columns are small and empty because they contain no parallel text.

Even more striking is the relationship of the Gospel of John to the other three Gospels.  Even a cursory glance through a Synopsis of the Four Gospels, reveals a curious pattern.  Picture with me what this looks like.  On most of the pages there are three, equally-sized columns showing the parallels between Matthew, Mark, and Luke so that you can compare the variations in how each Gospel writer records the account.  But with disturbing frequency, John is a small empty column, set off to the righthand side.  Sometimes Mark joins John in being a small, empty column because Mark is the shortest of the Gospels and, thus, contains less parallels.  But then you start to notice that there are large sections where John has a huge, single column to himself, and there are three small, empty columns for Matthew, Mark, or Luke.

When you start to tabulate all of the parallels, you realize that approximately 90 percent of the Gospel of John is unique to John; there are no parallels of this material in Matthew, Mark, or Luke.  If you first familiarize yourself with the first three Gospels, then you start to read John, the fourth Gospels will seem strange.  The Gospel of John includes no stories of Jesus’ birth, baptism, or temptation. Instead, there is only the proclamation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This cosmic vision is a far different account than visiting the baby Jesus in the manger.  John also includes no transfiguration, no parables, no exorcisms, no references to repentance, and no institution of the Lord’s Supper.

Conversely, John includes many important accounts that are not in Matthew, Mark, or Luke: the miracle at Cana turning water into wine; the story of the woman caught in adultery where Jesus says, “let him who is without sin throw the first stone”; the raising of Lazarus, the washing of the Disciples’ feet, and the Resurrection appearance to “Doubting Thomas” are all only found in the Gospel of John.  If we only had Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we would know nothing of these important events.

More pertinently for this lectionary passage, John includes seven well-known “I am” statements that are found in none of the other Gospels: Jesus said: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the vine, and…I am the way, the truth, and the life. Through these and other statements, Jesus is much more talkative, especially about himself than in the other Gospels. Taking into account how different the Gospel of John is from the other three Gospels and that it is the last canonical Gospel to be written led me, for a time, to ignore the Gospel of John.  Throwing out John, also meant that I could avoid dealing with pesky texts like Jesus saying, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

Ironically, it was a close reading of this same text, John 14:6, that was a turning point for me taking the Gospel of John seriously again. I was in a world religions class, and we were studying some of the so-called “clobber texts” for inter-religious dialogue: the scripture passages that are most often wielded as weapons in theological debates.  Perhaps you have been in a discussion where someone asked if Christianity is the only way to salvation.  Likely, if the discussion went on long enough, someone reached into their back pocket to pull out a clobber text.  It might have gone something like this: “The Bible says, ‘Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the father except through him.”  The citing of this verse is often meant to signal, “BAM!”  Discussion over.  Case closed.  That’s a clobber text.

But as I studied this text closely, I began to notice that when people quote this verse, they often leave out two crucial words: “to him.”  Listen next time you hear this verse quoted, you will probably hear, “Jesus said, I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  But that’s not what the verse says.  They got it wrong at the first four words, which read, “Jesus said to him.”  Not just “Jesus said” and on to the clobber text.  I’ve misquoted this countless times myself, but when you realize that Jesus is speaking “to him,” you are prompted to examine the larger context and ask, “Who is the ‘him’ to whom Jesus is talking?”

The first time I studied the context of verse six was a revelation.  Back at the beginning of John chapter fourteen, Jesus says, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Now we have reached the crucial verse five in which Thomas asks Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”  So Jesus says to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”  In this famous, or infamous John 14:6, Jesus is answering Thomas’ question.  And Thomas’ question is not “Jesus, are all non-Christians going to hell?”

In continuing to study the larger context of John 14:6 in the Gospel of John, I also discovered another fascinating passage four chapters earlier.  John chapter 10 contains two of those seven “I am” statements from Jesus that are found only in the Gospel of John.  This time Jesus is making an analogy, saying, “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved.”  Jesus continues to say, “I am the good shepherd.”  Nothing too surprising so far:  Jesus is the “shepherd” who leads us into in the “gate,” so we can follow the “way.”

But the end of this section in John 10 caught my attention.  Jesus says in John 10:16, “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.”  Other sheep?  Other folds?  Is Jesus hinting that other religions will be saved that there might be “one flock, one shepherd”? These questions are similar to what the renown, twentieth-century Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner’s “anonymous Christian” theory.  The idea is that faithful adherents of other religions would be saved through Jesus even if they have never heard about Jesus or Christianity.  According to Rahner and other proponents of this theology, if Hindus are faithful Hindus, and Muslims are faithful Muslims, and Jews are faithful Jews, then they will be saved…through Jesus.  Many applauded Rahner’s inclusivity, but equal numbers of critics asked, “How can you justify that the faithful followers of other religions will be saved as “anonymous Christians”?  What if it is the other way around?  Perhaps Christians are anonymous Hindus, anonymous Buddhists, or anonymous Muslims.  They’ve got a good point.

Although I admire the spirit of Rahner’s attempt, I ultimately think his critics are right.  It is unsustainable to claim that John 10:16 is about Jesus being the gate through which the sheep of all religions enter to be saved.  However, John 10:16 does serve as a defense to combat the misreading of John 14:6. To exclusivists who insist that John 14:6 is about Christianity being the only way, I insist that it is only consistent to say that John 10:16 is about why Christianity is inclusive of other religions.  Fair’s fair.  However, the most honest reading of both texts is that neither John 10, nor John 14 holds the answer to the question of whether there is salvation outside of Christianity.

I was satisfied with that conclusion for awhile.  I could no longer read John 14:6 innocently as I had done as a young teenager, but I also no longer found it a threat to the truthfulness I had witnessed in other religions.  At this point, since the verse was no longer either a comfort or a threat, I didn’t have much use for the verse at all.

Part Three: Post-Critical

Gradually, I began to understand John 14:6 in a new light.  I started to see it as an important intra-Christian statement (a statement by Christians and for Christians), which is how I see the text today.  I still don’t think the statement has much importance for inter-religious dialogue — that is, between different religions — but I do think it is important for internal Christian self-understanding. Accordingly, the Christian theologian Wesley Ariarajah writes that,

When my daughter tells me I’m the best daddy in the world, and there can be no other father like me, she is speaking the truth, for this comes out of her experience. She is honest about it; she knows no other person in the role of her father. But of course it is not true in another sense. For one thing, I myself know friends who, I think, are better fathers than I am. Even more importantly, one should be aware that in the next house there is another little girl who also thinks her daddy is the best father in the world. And she too is right. In fact as the level of the way the two children relate to their two fathers, no one can compare the truth content of the statements of the two girls. For here we are not dealing with the absolute truths, but with the language of faith and love. …

The language of the Bible is also the language of faith….The problem begins when we take these confessions in the language of faith and love and turn them into absolute truths. It becomes much more serious when we turn them into truths on the basis of which we begin to measure the truth or otherwise of other faith claims. My daughter cannot say to her little friend in the next house that there is no way she can have the best father, for the best one is right there in her house. If she does, we’ll have to dismiss it as child-talk!

This insight brings me back to Thomas’ question and Jesus’ answer.  Jesus begins chapter 14 by saying, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  He then proceeds to describe God’s big house with many rooms (God’s “big tent,” if you will).  But Thomas’ heart is troubled.  He’s worried and concerned about all this talk of Jesus going away.  So he asked that fateful question, “How can we know the way?”  Jesus’ statement about being the way, the truth, and the life is a response to a question by Christians, and Jesus’ answer is directed to Christians and is about Christians. Of course, Jesus’ followers wouldn’t have called themselves to “Christians” yet; but, as we learn in the book of Acts, “The Way” was one of the earliest names for Christianity.

Part of what Jesus was doing was offering comfort to Thomas: “Don’t worry, Thomas.  You know me. When I’m gone, just continue to ‘do the works that I do.’ Follow the path I have set forth with my life, and you’ll be following the way.”  So perhaps I wasn’t so wrong all those years ago to find comfort in John 14. But Jesus’ instruction doesn’t end there.  Included in Jesus’ pastoral assurance is the challenge to keep on following the way of Jesus even when it’s difficult.  The best summation I’ve seen of this perspective is by the pastor, writer, and spiritual director Eugene Peterson.  Peterson encapsulates Jesus’ point in John 14 by saying, “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.” Isolating only the so-called “Jesus truth” yields a disembodied orthodoxy: all the right words with no behavior to make the words believable.  More important is the “Jesus Way” of loving God and loving neighbor.

Conclusion

I’m no longer haunted by the idea that John 14:6 means that Christianity is the only way to salvation.  In my experience, the claim that Christianity holds sufficient truth for salvation does not mean that it has to hold that truth exclusively. This revelation became particularly real for me when I realized, for example, that Mohatma Ghandhi (a Hindu) and Thich Nhat Hanh (a Buddhist) come closer to the Jesus truth, the Jesus way, and the Jesus life than most of the Christians I know, including myself.

As I have continued to wrestle with the reality of religious pluralism, I have found the following two short sayings helpful.  First, theologian Huston Smith says that God is “defined by Jesus, not confined to Jesus.” Second, Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong has said, “I walk the Christ-path into the mystery of God, but I do not believe that God is a Christian.” The common core to both of these slogans is that one can affirm the validity of other religious traditions without abandoning Christianity.

What haunts me now is not whether faithful Hindus, Muslims, and Jews are saved.  Even if this were a concern, there’s too much wonderful, beautiful, and challenging involved with being a Christian to worry too much about everyone else’s religion.  Today the questions I ask myself today are:

Am I living the Jesus truth?

Am I living the Jesus way?

Am I living the Jesus life?

Notes

1 For more information on these and other differences between The Gospel According to John and the synoptic Gospels (The Gospel According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke), see Mark Allan Powell, Fortress Introduction to the Gospels (Fortress Press, 1998).

2 “When my daughter tells me I’m the best daddy in the world….” Wesley Ariarajah, The Bible and People of Other Faiths (Orbis, 1989), 23.

3 “The Way” was one of the earliest names for Christianity. Acts 9:2, “[Saul asked the high priest] for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”

4 “Only when we do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way do we get the Jesus life.” Eugene H. Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation on the Ways That Jesus Is the Way.

5 The claim that Christianity holds sufficient truth for salvation does not mean that it has to hold that truth exclusively. I owe this thought to Paul F. Knitter’s outstanding (though poorly titled) book, Introducing Theologies of Religions, where he outlines four models for understanding the relationship of Christianity with other religions: replacement, fulfillment, mutuality, and acceptance. See also Knitter’s more recent and personal book Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian.

6 God is defined by Jesus, not confined to Jesus. John Blake, “Huston Smith’s Painful Spiritual Odyssey.” (Nov. 23). Available at cnn.com/2009/LIVING/wayoflife/11/23/Smith.daughter on May 13, 2011.

7 “I do not believe that God is a Christian.” Terence Handley MacMath,  2009 “Interview: John Shelby Spong former Bishop of Newark.” Church Times 7650.30 (Oct.). Available at www.churchtimes.co.uk/content.asp?id=83862. See also, God Is Not a Christian: And Other Provocations by Desmond Tutu.

8 Affirm the validity of other religious traditions without abandoning Christianity. Paul Knitter, editor, The Myth of Religious Superiority: Multi-Faith Explorations of Religious Pluralism (Faith Meets Faith Series in Intereligious Dialogue).

About Carl Gregg
  • Tim Zebo

    As our culture has progressed in understanding the natural world using science and logic, the number of times that one religious explanation of a Biblical idea has been replaced by a different one must be thousands upon thousands. To speak of the “Jesus way” is a nice shorthand for a system of recommended behavior that works well in many situations – no problem. My puzzle is why the notions of “salvation”, “heaven” and “hell” are still needed?

    • Carl Gregg

      I share some of your puzzlement, Tim, and am extremely interest in attempts to reconceive a more “naturalist” metaphysics that makes sense in light of discoveries like Quantum physics — along the lines of the attempts made by Process Theologians such as Alfred North Whitehead, David Ray Griffin, and Philip Clayton. Indeed Clayton has an interesting new book about to be published on “The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith” (http://amzn.to/l6jyqv).

  • http://www.smoaksignal.com Jeff Smoak

    Carl, wouldn’t your own exegesis work against you here? People may miss the important words “to him” (Jesus speaking to Thomas) but the all important words (one word in Greek) “no one” are still in there. Jesus did not say to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. YOU do not come to the Father except through me.” The statement is recorded with “no one.”
    Just something to consider.

    • Carl Gregg

      Jeff, if you read my exegesis closely, you’ll see that I have already addressed your point. The “no one” is intra-community, “love language” like “You’re the best daddy in the whole world”; moreover if you really want to press me, there’s no way almost anything in John’s Gospel can be traced back to the historical Jesus, but I think it is important to do theology alongside John just as John’s Gospel is theology alongside the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.

  • http://www.smoaksignal.com Jeff Smoak

    Thanks, Carl. I appreciate your attention to context and detail in the text. I read your idea of “intra-community love language” and did not find it cogent but that is because we have drastically different views on Scripture and specifically the Gospel of John. I would add that the Bible has many texts written in “global community truth-language” as well. Romans taps into this language for instance. But, again we hold vastly different views of Scripture, John, and how other texts would inform our understanding of John. Blessings to you.

    • Carl Gregg

      Jeff, fair enough. I too have encountered many different situations in what differing presuppositions about scripture, etc. lead to drastically different trajectories of interpretation and, hence, vastly different end points. Thanks for taking the time to engage my thoughts and to share some of your own reflections.

  • Matt

    I appreciate your struggle with the concept of salvation, Carl. But salvation is not the result of our behavior – hence the examples of Mohatma Ghandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh as being “closer to Jesus’ truth” does not jibe with the the concept of grace. The reason that our faith embraces Christ as “the” way is that no mere human, regardless of his/her behavior or religion, can be saved apart from God’s grace. Does God’s grace extend to people of all religions? I believe it certainly does!

  • http://www.gacm.org Chad Hale

    Thank you for your work, Carl. I come at the verse slightly differently; I do think of it as an absolute statement that is universal, and I find that to be glorious. The assumption behind the clobber verse approach is a judgmental one: believe in Jesus or you will go to hell. For me, it is the opposite for this verse: it proclaims that the one who loves us so much is the way, and that’s just a fact and is our hope. It is a wonderful fact, because no one could be a judge who is more for us than he who loves us even while we are enemies. Besides, the verse does not say anything about what anyone has to SAY about Jesus; it does not say you or I or anyone has to say anything. Jesus is solely making a claim about himself: I am the one (and, by the way, I have come to save the whole world and pull you OUT of hell). It is not about Christianity having the only truth, just about Jesus being the way. And what a way! Therefore, be of good cheer.


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