October 20, 2016 by jmw
My friend Nathan recently wrote a blog post contending that there are more ways to God than Jesus. What follows is a response to that post.
I will begin by saying that, overall, I agree with Nathan. I agree with his critique of traditional Evangelicalism’s simplistic theology and exclusivity. When traditional Evangelicalism claims “Jesus is the only way to God,” what is really meant is that a particular kind of thought and action regarding Jesus is the only possible means to a relationship with God. Thus, the strength of Nathan’s post is his honest challenge to this traditional view, a challenge that is rooted in the cognitive dissonance that occurs when one believes this traditional view while experiencing the reality of the world. For example, the traditional view implies that anyone who does not “believe in” (think about, assent to) Jesus in the same way is unable to know or be in relationship with God. This view, as Nathan suggests, is not only manipulative and colonial but also theologically bankrupt. We must question our embedded theologies in light of our experience in the world.
I also agree with Nathan’s attempt to stand with and advocate for those who have thought such thoughts as “There are more ways to God than Jesus.” To engage with those outside of established religious institution is nothing if it isn’t Christian.
My agreement notwithstanding, I have some issues with the post. My contention comes not from what was said but what was not said. For example, in a post whose title suggests “more ways” to God, one would have appreciated reading about at least one of those additional ways. For me, the rubber really hits the road when we start asking what are those other ways, as well as what ways do not lead to God. (Our tendency is to not ask those questions, which leaves us vulnerable to a very individualistic, consumeristic ideology where everyone’s “way” to God is “their way.” And that’s bull shit because it’s just lazy.)
To be fair, Nathan offered a follow-up post to explain one alternative way to salvation – a post worth reading. But my contention with the original post remains. You cannot claim that someone’s view is wrong and submit the opposite view as correct without a fair amount of elaboration. Therefore, what follows is my attempt to not only respond to but expand upon the original post. Like Nathan, I think I’ll write in instalments. In this first instalment I offer some of the elaboration that I think is necessary to critique the exclusivist Evangelical viewpoint.
WAY, WAY TOO COMPLICATED: WAY? YES, WAY.
Let’s begin by acknowledging the complexity of the statements “Jesus is the only way to God” and “There are more ways to God than Jesus.” These phrases are so loaded and so complex that we can’t have meaningful dialogue without more responsible elaboration.
Exhibit A: can you define the word “way” please? What the hell is a way? Is it a path? Or a method? What does that even mean, especially when talking about a way to God!? We might say that a way is a means from getting from one point to another, but … a “way”… to… God?
The traditional Evangelical (exclusivist) claim that Jesus is the only “way” to God seems to assume that a “way” is just some abstract “means.” But this is too simplistic. Is it a means of knowing? If so, at what point do you know enough to know God? Is it just something that happens in your head? Or is it a practical thing? Is it a regiment of practices, like the Eightfold Path to Enlightenment in Buddhism? Or is it a membership in a religious community? Do you need to be baptized to be on the “way” to God through Jesus?
It is plain to see that the first major problem in this whole conversation is that we can’t even agree upon what the word “way” means (let alone the meaning of the word “God”). This problem applies to both statements, which is why I think Nathan’s thesis is weak. It is just as simplistic. But I must address that in another post.
What is perhaps most frustrating (and ironic) is that those who profess to be most Evangelical and orthodox fail to grasp the concepts associated with the word “way” in the Bible. Permit me two examples.
Firstly, the word “way” is a very special word in the Jewish faith (and thus for Jesus). For Jews, the “way” was the Torah – the Halakah, which literally means “the way to walk.” This way was summarized by the various practices and habits of liturgy and neighbourly love found in the Law (see Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy). Relationship with God was received and lived through this “way” of being in community with God, neighbour and creation. When Jesus spoke of being “the way,” there is no doubt that he and his Jewish disciples would have heard it as saying, “I am the embodiment of the Halakah.” We see this also when Jesus claims to be the fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17).
So the first thing we need to understand about the word “way” is that Jesus and his contemporaries were not thinking in terms of “beliefs” or “eternal salvation.” They were thinking in terms of action (behaviour) that fulfilled the will of God here and now.
Secondly, we need to rethink the meaning of “way” in John 14. “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” This is one of the cherry-picked verses to claim that there is no other “way” to God except Jesus. But when we look at the context of the whole conversation we see that this isn’t really what Jesus is talking about. In fact, we have to go back to chapter 13(!) to begin understanding this scene. I’ll try to be brief.
Jesus has just washed his disciples feet and tells them that the new commandment is to love one another in this particular way. Then Jesus says that he is going somewhere and they cannot come with him. Where is he going? Is he going to heaven? No. He’s going to the cross to drink the cup of suffering and shame that they cannot. He’s going to the very place where the love of God’s kingdom burns brightest: in the non-violent forgiveness of the cross. But his disciples don’t get it. They keep asking, “Where are you going?” And one of them, Peter, says that he will go with Jesus. But Jesus responds on the contrary, “Actually, Peter, when the time comes for you to follow, you will deny me.”
This must have been very scary for the disciples. It sounds like Jesus is abandoning them. So what does Jesus say? He says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled.” Don’t worry. Trust me. Abide in me. Even though you can’t go with me where I am going, I will prepare a place for you and bring you. “In my father’s house are many dwelling places, and I go ahead of you to prepare a place.” Note: Jesus is not talking about heaven. He is talking about the kingdom of God, the Father’s economy, wherein the new commandment of love is lived out because Jesus paves the way.
So then Jesus says, “You know the way to the place I am going.” But Thomas replies, “We don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” And this is where Jesus responds with, “I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” Notice that Thomas’s question is not, “But how will everyone in the whole world be saved? How will the Romans and the Zoroastrians make it to heaven?” Thomas’s question is about how to get to the place where Jesus is going. Thomas already possesses an inherent desire to follow Jesus; it is not an abstract question about universal salvation.
If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, then I think it becomes rather clear that Jesus is not talking about going to heaven or some exclusivist salvation formula. Jesus is not doing systematic theology, he is being pastoral. He is encouraging his disciples to remain faithful to him and his way so that they may “also do the works that I do, and, in fact, do greater works than these.” (v. 12) Or, to paraphrase, to live out the way of God’s kingdom.
This brings me full circle to the problem of the original statement. Not only do we have a problem with the word “way” but we also have a problem with determining where – to whom or what – the way leads. The question, “To what?” determines what kind of way we need. And if we’re talking about Jesus being the way, then the answer we find in John 14 is not “to God” or “to ultimate salvation” or to “life after death.” The answer that Jesus gives is that he is the way to the Father’s economy, to the kingdom of God, the works of love.
Notice, however, that this reading of John 14 does not negate the statement, “Jesus is the way, the truth and the life.” But neither does it over-simplify it to mean something it never meant to Jesus or his disciples. The Jesus of John 14:6 is no exclusive religious authority drawing lines in the sand for the sake of cheap self promotion. No, he is a loving shepherd encouraging his disciples to trust him and his way in the midst of a very scary and violent world.
To read John 14:6 as an abstract salvation formula not only neglects the biblical significance of the word “way,” but also fails to consider the context of John’s writing. After all, the same John who wrote the “gospel of John” also wrote some letters in which he said, “Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God,” (1 John 4:7).
To those who believe Jesus is the only way to God, I encourage you to wrestle with the meaning of these words. They are anything but simple.