October 21, 2016 by jmw
This is the second post in response to my friend Nathan who wrote a post about there being many ways to God other than Jesus. In my first post I attempted to explain that all claims about “ways” to God are extremely complicated and cannot be oversimplified into easy (lazy) conclusions. I also attempted to elaborate some biblical concepts related to the word “way” and how it can be understood when talking about relationship with God. In that post I positioned myself with Nathan in critique of what I would call an exclusive and ungenerous posture in traditional Evangelicalism, a posture that seems to resemble the religious leaders of the gospels more than Jesus himself.
In this next post, however, I want to shift around to the other side of the table and push back a bit. My aim is not to argue against the notion that there are more ways to God than Jesus, but rather to offer an argument for the claim that Jesus is the only way to God. (Discussion about more ways to God will have to wait for my next post.) In this post I want to explore how the claim “Jesus is the only way to God” can be an honest and respectable confession without also becoming an exclusive and ungenerous posture toward others.
One of my greatest pet peeves about God-talk is that, despite the reality that we are embodied, particularized, historical creatures, when we talk about God we all of the sudden start talking in abstract generalities. Have you ever gotten into a heated conversation about God only to realize that maybe the word “God” means something different to you than others? How is it that we can even speak about God as if we were talking about the last episode of Game of the Thrones? Why do we take for granted the idea that the word “God” means something clear and defined?
The truth is, we can’t. We just can’t talk of God as if we are privileged to know something of an objective definition of God that will function in all places across all times. God is not an abstraction like math. The truth is that God – or our understanding of God – is a subjective thing.
Now hear me out: I’m not saying it’s subjective in the sense that it’s whatever you feel or whatever you want to make it. What I’m saying is that our understanding of God is subjective because it is historical. And this, I would argue, is a biblical understanding of God.
When we read through the Hebrew Bible we do not find God anywhere. We only find “the God who…” that is, the God who acts or the God who is like this or does that. The Hebrew Bible witnesses to the “God of Abraham” and the “God of Isaac” and the “God of Jacob.” Most importantly, God was the “God who brought you out of Egypt.” Many scholars believe that the God of the Hebrews was actually the God of the Exodus before the God of Genesis. In other words, God was known as the liberator of slavery first, and the creator of the world second.
The point is this: God is never just “God.” God is always bound up with a particular historical event. Why is that? Why can’t we get outside of these historical events and talk of God in abstract universals? Because we are bound to this mysterious time/space history – and God’s relationship with us is bound to that history.
Now, permit me a new but related thought. Because we are bound to history and God acts in history, the only “way” that we know God is through these historical acts/events. And when these historical acts occur, we cannot not speak of God on those terms. Karl Barth made popular the idea that God is God’s self-communication through God’s acts (God-in-action, he called it). But this was not a new thought; just a biblical one. When we take seriously our historical situation then it becomes not only possible but necessary that we speak about God in terms of specific historical events. And in that sense, historical events are not so much “subjective,” but uniquely objective (in the sense that they are particular).
Like the God of the Exodus, the earliest followers of Jesus were convinced that God had acted uniquely in the Christ Event (life, death, resurrection of Jesus). Because of that, they could not not speak of God on these terms. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “From now on we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions,” (Ethics, 54).
The point here is not that we must tell others that they are wrong but that we (Christians) cannot speak about God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. To say that “Jesus is the only way to God” is a deeply historical confession, and not an abstract generality. One illustration and then I am done.
Before I got married to my wife I could say, “There are many ways to marriage.” There were literally millions of ways that I could become married. But after I married Michelle, I must now say, “Michelle is the only way to marriage.” What happened in my life was an historical event, and that event changes the way I talk about possibilities.
I know it’s not a perfect analogy, but I hope it helps to tease out the uniqueness of an historical event. The idea that God is active in the history of time/space means that our talk about “God” and “ways” to God are bound to historical particularities. To speak in abstract generalities is to ignore both our human condition and the historical witness of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
So where does that leave us? Is it right to say, “Jesus is the only way to God?” Of course, but… I think that it’s silly to think this statement is just like saying 2+2=4. It’s not an abstract principle or “law” of science. It’s a confession of one’s experience rooted in the historicity of an event. (This, by the way, is why the Catholic faith is so staunch about the church as the means by which we know God – if it were not for her witness we would not even know Jesus. That’s actually a great thought experiment for this conversation: imagine that the first followers of Jesus died out. Would God be done with God’s “ways” in history? Or might God keep acting and pursuing the redemption of all things? But I digress.)
At the end of the day, we have to take seriously the witness of scripture that God acts in and through historical events. And that means that not only did act in the event of Jesus but in many events throughout history. Read the Old Testament and see how many “ways” God acts in history! All of those events were “ways” to God because it was God acting. So, as much as we are convinced that God acted decisively through Jesus, we must be humble that God is God and we are not. Who knows – God may even still be acting in history.