I have been asked this question quite a bit in the wake of a series of Wednesday Night Live studies Dr. Gary Brown and I conducted on something he calls “Interspirituality.” During the study, we spent time discussing the western (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc) religious traditions and the ways they intersect with and inform one another. Specifically, we looked at the spiritualities that emerge from these traditions, seeing the ways the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic mystical traditions more closely resemble the eastern religions in their approach to spirituality. Our time together was enhanced by a visiting lecturer from Vanderbilt Divinity School, John Thatamanil, who helped us think about the Bhagavad Gita in conversation with the Gospel of John.
The conversation about the Gospel of John led naturally to a session on John 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This passage had come up several times throughout the semester, both in class and in private conversations. So last night I began a two-session close reading and study of John 14. We only made it to the verge of the verse in question and next Wednesday we will dive right into it.
One of the things we discussed last night is that as in real estate there are three important things: location, location, location; so in Bible study there are three important things to keep in mind: context, context, context. It is easy to get so familiar with passages like this one, especially ones that often get quoted as single verses, that we lose context and, consequently, meaning.
So here’s my question for my readers as I look toward next Wednesday. How do you read this text in light of the presence of people of other religions no longer, as Thatamanil says, across the ocean, but often across the bed? The reality of inter-religious and interfaith dialogue is no longer a theoretical question for missionaries, but a day-to-day practical question for all Christians who take their faith and the faith of their friends, neighbors, co-workers, and family members seriously.
Is Christ the only way to God? Should people of other religions be recipients of our evangelism? Are there many paths to God? If so, what do you do with a text like John 14:6 and many others like it (though not as explicit perhaps) scattered throughout the Bible? Does reading this text in a wider context change the way you look at it? How do you personally think about your acquaintances of other faiths? Is there a middle position between the extremes of complete acceptance of other faiths or complete rejection?
Please share your comments. I will keep them anonymous if I share them with the class on Wednesday night, but I would love to know how folks on this blog are thinking about these issues.
I am so hoping that you will let me know what the middle position between the two extremes might be! As you know, my daughter-in-law and her father are Jewish and I love them dearly. My son attends Temple with her. And at every point in my life since I turned 18, at least one of my very closest friends has been Jewish. Once in about 1986 at one of the very first Lena Reynolds School of Missions (we had classes back then), one of our church members said that she felt so sorry for Jews because they did not have Jesus to believe in. It had never occurred to me to feel sorry for my Jewish friends, who were leading wonderful, beautiful God-centered lives! I have been bothered by scriptures such as John 14 ever since. I think I do believe that Jesus is my way and the only way for me, but that God may well have created other ways for other people. Is that wrong???
I was having this conversation with Aaron and Lauren one day in the van. I have taught thousands of children from diverse religious backgrounds. Two years ago, i had two Jewish children, a Hindu boy and a Muslim boy in my class with twenty Christians of varying denominations. We were having a talk one day about hatred and prejudice and a very wise Muslim boy, Waqqas piped in, "Mrs. L. the world needs to take a good look how all of us get along in this class where we all respect each other." Thinking about these wonderful children from different faiths, I have a hard time taking this passage at its literal meaning. Instead, I feel that people should live Christ-like lives: show kindness, mercy and do justice. When I hear Christians saying that other faiths are doomed to spend eternity in hell, I wonder if they are living Christ-like lives. I think I'd rather spend eternity with kids like Waqqas.
If God’s love is infinite, and infinity has no boundaries, how could there be only one path to God’s love.
If we believe in the Trinity, and that Jesus is fully God and fully man, the only begotten Son of God, how can we believe in any other way? We don't claim to be redeemed by our goodness, but by His love for us, and His atoning death on the cross.
I've been pondering this for years. If one thinks deeply about the topic with an open mind, it can open up the idea of universal salvation for everyone. For many reasons many people don't like to entertain that idea. The very act of accepting Jesus in some way is and act or deed that some people are not afforded due to where they are born or what situations they are born into. I find some comfort in the view that God just might effect salvation for everyone thru Christ in some way that I don't understand. Let me know when you get the answer.
I personally do not like the terms "exclusivism" and "inclusivism," but for lack of better terms, I would say that I'm an exclusivist in terms of the MEANS of salvation (it's only through Christ), but I'm an inclusivist in terms of the SCOPE of God's salvation (and I think this fits within the frame of what's being said in John 14:6). Employing the "indiginizing principle" of Andrew Walls, I believe that the cultures of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc. can be brought under the lordship of Christ without the dangers of syncretism. There can, indeed, be such a thing as a distinctly orthodox "Hindu Christianity." After looking at the great similarities between Christianity and the many religious traditions of the world, I doubt that these traditions were simply plopped on the ground by accident, and I do not write them off as mere consequences of sin either (although I do acknowledge the systemic effect of sin in all traditions). Rather, it seems that the various cultures of these faith traditions are meant to be brought under the lordship of Christ as a display and embodiment of the diversity of the one universal catholic church. However, it is in the outright denial of the MEANS of salvation (i.e., Christ), that we see the distortion of many other faith traditions. It is in this sense that I think Christians have to be "exclusivists."People of other cultures should certainly be recipients of our evangelism, but evangelists should recognize and appreciate diversity as the purpose and will of God to create humans as "culture makers." I think that the appeal to modernity's search for absolute knowledge (refer to Descartes et. al) and a foundationalist epistemology influences evangelism and the reading of Scripture. For instance, I'm afraid that Western Christianity has a problem with deducing everything from DOCTRINE in a methodology similar to that of modern foundationalists. So Christianity becomes something that is all about "belief." This, of course, is implicit in the reading of Scripture, which informs many of our doctrines. I believe that this doctrinal deduction causes many evangelists to fail to appreciate the diverse cultures, actions, and worship of other peoples. After all, the doctrine of, say, Western Christians will be radically different than the framework of living and believing for, say, various African tribes that derive from the Khoisan religious tradition. I think a shift of focus would be beneficial. Evangelism should shift its focus from doctrinal deduction to an account of "creatureliness." That is, it should focus on the anthropological orientation of ALL humans beings as principally liturgical beings. We all worship! So the phenomenon of religious plurality should be explored in these terms instead of merely in terms of "doctrine." Doctrine, after all, is implicit in our liturgical practices. But it seems that it's our PRACTICE that comes first. A question I often ask in this regard is this: Can evangelists help reform and revise the PRACTICES of other faith traditions without completely ABOLISHING the culture in which these practices arise? Notice I use terms like "revise" and "reform." It's bad mission to force a tradition to completely abandon its culture; in fact, that's impossible and thus ineffective. Rather, evangelism should focus on a distinctly Christian human-formation within the framework of the diverse practices in various cultures that remain "indigenous" (a la Walls). It's particular sinful practices that have to be stripped as these cultures come under the lordship of Jesus Christ, who, as recorded in John 14:6, is the way, the truth, and the life.