Am I a Christian? The short answer is yes. In 1984, when I was in my early-twenties, I prayed the “sinner’s prayer” and became a “born again” Christian. I then participated in charismatic fundamentalist evangelical churches for twenty years and after that was an evangelical Quaker for ten years. In those 30+ years I have heard thousands of sermons, participated in and led countless Bible studies, been an elder, a teacher, a pastor, a “ministry-team” member, a worship leader, a seminarian, etc.
The thing I gradually learned over those years is that Christianity is not a monolithic thing. Rather than Christianity there are Christianities–many different interpretations. Even those interpretations which claim to be monolithic, such as Catholicism, in actuality contain within themselves a tremendous amount of variation. Our Father’s house has many rooms. Where I hang my theological hat these days is in the (Marcus) Borgian progressive Christian wing of the mansion.
Christianity tends to be based upon telling and believing stories. Stories shape our worldview. What drew me to Buddhism was its emphasis on practices which bring about transformation and develop the very “fruit of the Spirit” that Paul wrote about to the Galatians (5:22–“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”). Becoming a Buddhist has enabled me to combine story with practice and has made me a better Christian; happier and more open to the work of the Spirit in my heart.
I sometimes receive push-back that I cannot really be a Christian and also be a Buddhist. The proof-text that is inevitably invoked is John 14:16–“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
As is not uncommon among fundamentalist evangelicals, this text is applied out of context. Jesus is depicted in the Gospel of John as saying these words as part of a longer answer to a question asked by Thomas, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Thomas’s question, in turn, is part of a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples in which he is telling them that he is going away.
This dialogue between Jesus and his disciples has nothing to do with other religions or, for that matter, with salvation. It is concerned with how these Jewish disciples can continue to see the Father when Jesus is no longer physically present. It is a question about revelation. When Jesus says that he is the “way and the truth and the life” for them, he is not speaking about the belief system called Christianity that would gradually develop, or about the Bible which would eventually be canonized, or about the doctrinal formulations which would be concocted centuries later by Gentile theologians at Nicaea and Constantinople and Chalcedon.It is helpful to step back and examine the raison d’etre of the entire Gospel of John. It was written around 100 AD, 70 years after the death of Jesus and 30 years after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple by the Romans. It was written during a time of great existential upheaval for the Jews, as they tried to come to grips with the devastating aftermath of their failed revolt against the Romans in 70 AD, and as various factions claimed that their way was the way forward for the Jewish people. In a few years the Jews would rally under a messianic leader name Simon bar Kokhba for another attempt at revolt, which would fail spectacularly and result in the deaths of at least half a million, the enslavement of tens of thousands of survivors and the depopulation of Jerusalem and Judea.
The Gospel of John was not written by Jesus’ disciple John, as church tradition mistakenly claimed, but was produced by a community of Hellenistic (Greek-influenced) Jews during those turbulent and dangerous times. It’s point was to present Jesus as the embodiment of the Greek metaphysical concept of the Logos (the Word). The Logos (from which we get our word logic) was thought of as the ground of existence; the omnipresent divine animating principle which gives meaning to life, the universe and everything (interestingly, Buddhists have a similar concept, which they call the Dharma). The author of the Gospel of John presents Jesus as the embodiment of the Logos–the Logos made flesh. Thus, the Gospel of John starts with, “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God. . . . And the Word (Logos) became flesh and lived among us.” Far from making Jesus exclusive (as evangelicals misinterpret it to do), this approach actually universalized Jesus by taking a pre-existing Greek philosophical/metaphysical concept and fusing it with the Jewish Jesus in order to provide a radical new way for late-1st and early-2nd century Jews to envision their God. The Gospel of John is a work of surprising syncretism that was intended to show a way forward for beleaguered Hellenistic Christian Jews who were a minority experiencing mounting pressure from majority non-Christian Jewish factions to give up on this whole Jesus thing and get with the program.
Modern-day fundamentalist evangelical Christians in the U.S. simply assume that Christianity is primarily concerned with who gets to go to Heaven, and that it is normal for Christians to assert that their way–and only their way–is the right way, while every other religion is deficient or wrong. Ironically, the only other world religion that has this same extreme exclusivistic tendency is radical Islam.
I am a Christian: a follower of Jesus who in his life and actions and teachings embodied the Logos, the Dharma, the Father. I have found that it is possible (and in fact joyous) to be a disciple of Jesus who also appreciates other ways from other cultures in which humans have attempted to grasp the ineffable universal principle, which manifests itself as love, and in which we live and move and have our being.