Reinterpreting John 14:6
"I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through me."
That verse from the Gospel of John is taken by many Christians and non-Christians alike as a defining boundary between Us and Them, an insurmountable barrier to common acceptance and understanding. I suspect, although it is rarely discussed in UU circles, it may be near the center of many UUs' aversion to Christianity: if we can find glimpses of truth in many traditions and cultures, how can we affirm one that denies all the others?
Yet John 14:6 doesn't need to be a wall, even though many Christians do indeed understand it that way, and therefore unwittingly use it that way. I would argue that to read it that way is a misunderstanding.
The author of the Gospel of John (let's call him "John", though scholars speculate he may have been someone else) lived at the interface of Jewish and Greek culture. The whole premise of the Gospel of John is to identify the Jewish idea of theos (as John called it in Greek; in English, we say “God”) with the Greek idea of Logos (“Word”). Hence John opened his Gospel with the words: "In the begining was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."
John saw not only (as the author of Jonah previously did) that the "God of Israel" was merely one culture's limited apprehension of a universal divinity that was in fact available to all peoples, but also that the same divinity had already been apprehended outside the Jewish tradition, by peoples the Jews considered "Gentiles" or "pagans". Of course, those foreign apprehensions had used different cultural perspectives and different descriptive and relational vocabularies, but John saw an identity where others before him had seen separation.
John perceived, in particular, that in the Jewish figure of Jesus was also a manifestation of the Logos recognized by the Greeks, and that the perplexing life of Jesus could be understood as a fusion of the two previously independent divine apprehensions. Moreover, because Jesus had appeared in an approachable human form, he was more easily describable in relational and unifying, rather than culturally defined and dividing, terms. Hence John wrote (at 1:14): "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us". The rest of the Gospel is an embellishment of that idea, a portrayal of Jesus as an embodiment of that humanly accessible, cross-culturally inclusive, manifestation of the Hellenic idea of divine Logos.
John's syncretism expressed a radically new theology, distinct even from the Gentile missionary Paul's in its express incorporation of apprehensions of divinity originating outside the Jewish culture. Where John (at 14:6) portrays Jesus as saying "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through me," it would be a misinterpretation to understand those to be the verbatim words of Jesus, decreeing eternally as the one true God of Israel, that the only way to escape an eternity of burning torment in the afterlife is strict adherence to a set of abstruse doctrines about himself that would not even be defined until hundreds of years later by politically charged conferences of fallible men. Rather, it is John's attempt to illustrate Jesus' identity with the divine Logos, which the Greek philosophers believed to be present everywhere. When Jesus speaks in John's Gospel, he speaks on behalf of the universal Logos. John is saying that Logos is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and if you would know the Father, the God of Israel, then also get to know Logos. You can find it illustrated, among other places, in John's theological (but deliberately not historical) portrait of Jesus.
Now, John himself was only concerned with reconciling Hellenic and Jewish apprehensions of divinity. He was writing only for Jewish and Greek audiences, not Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Taoist, or Native American ones. But as the influence of his writing spreads beyond his original audiences, I think we must apply his original attitude of inclusivity and commonality of apprehension to analogous new circumstances. We should not allow what he intended as a dissolution of barriers and fusion of disparate understanding to be used to erect new barriers instead.
What does John 14:6 mean today, then? I think this: If you would know not only the God of Israel, but if you would also know Brahman, if you would know the Tao, if you would know Ahura Mazda, if you would know Wakan Tanka, then know also that like the God of Israel, despite similar cultural differences, they too are in essence one with the Logos of the Greek philosophers, the Christ of the Christians. The manifestation of Logos that John found in the figure of Jesus shares a basic commonality with all those other apprehensions from other cultures. Moreover, although all of them are all only partial apprehensions, culturally constrained descriptions of that Ultimate Reality that is beyond all cultures and the human capacity to know, it is in the broad, fundamental identity of apprehension that all cultures across the world find "the Way, the Truth, and the Life". Christians from their particular perspective may perceive it as the way of Christ, yet others may see it through different eyes and traditions and give it other names, and legitimately so.