Saturday, September 24, 2005

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.

38 Comments:

At Sat Sep 24, 11:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Jeff Wilson said...

Thanks for the exegesis, Fausto. This is one Bible verse which I thought a lot about as a child and had my own interpretation. Remembering back I can't say for sure whether someone at the Universalist church actually explained it to me, or whether I came up with it myself based on the general theology of my church. I'm inclined to think the latter. It's maybe a bit embarressing to admit that in some ways one's theological understanding hasn't changed much since being a young child.

Anyway, the way I always understood things is that God is love, that love is the most important truth of existence, and that Jesus was the highest embodiment of love. So reading through the Bible I always just mentally substituted the words "love" or "truth" wherever the text read "God" and many places where it read "Jesus." Thus I saw this verse as "Love is the way, the truth, and the light, and no one comes to the Truth except through love." In my childish understanding, I thought this meant that the point of religion/the Bible/Unitarian-Universalism is to realize that love is the most important thing and that we should all cherish it and act in loving ways toward one another--that it is not through creeds or beliefs or any single, specific religious system that we are saved, but through the love which religion awakens us to.

Later on as a teenager I learned that many Christians have a very different understanding of this verse. That helped to really turn me off to Christianity, which seemed mighty miserly after the understanding I'd had for eight or ten years. Nonetheless, when I hear this verse I still think of it as expressing love, and only after a moment remember that perhaps something far less universal is intended.

 
At Sat Sep 24, 02:49:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

The ironic thing, Jeff, is that I don't think something less universal was intended. I think the original author did mean something close to what you or I understand. It is a misunderstanding and misapplication of institutional Christianity in practice that closes the doors and builds the walls of exclusion -- not the original scripture or its author.

 
At Mon Sep 26, 11:32:00 AM EDT, Blogger Peregrinato said...

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At Mon Sep 26, 11:34:00 AM EDT, Blogger Peregrinato said...

Hola Fausto! Strange, that we should be contemplating the same verses. I need to read your post more (once the coffee has really worked my brain into a frenzy). It is worth noting that Christ does not say "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through what people say about me." I do believe in the importance of community in scriptural interpretation, but too many times the Church has replaced Christ as the epicenter of divine reconciliation. (Edited from previous attempt at posting, sorry for any confusion.)

 
At Mon Sep 26, 07:37:00 PM EDT, Blogger PeaceBang said...

I like Emerson's take on it, which we can find in his Divinity School Address. He intrepets Jesus' words as meaning, and I'm paraphrasing from memory, "If you would see God, see me. If you would be one with the Father, be one with the ecstatic unity with God which I represent."

As much as I agree with your exegesis in my own Unitarian way, I can't really square your Logos concept with the troubling reality that, in John's phrase, Jesus uses the pronoun, "ME."

That "me" is the stickler in my reading. I don't think Jesus understood himself to be the living incarnation of Love, so it's a little too hopeful to attribute the kind of universalism you're suggesting to him.

However, more to your point, I also (happily) don't hear him saying, "no one comes to the Father except through doctrines about my teachings."

 
At Mon Sep 26, 11:51:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

I can't really square your Logos concept with the troubling reality that, in John's phrase, Jesus uses the pronoun, "ME." ...I don't think Jesus understood himself to be the living incarnation of Love, so it's a little too hopeful to attribute the kind of universalism you're suggesting to him.

How to understand "me"? Here are some further thoughts:

1. Consider the immediate context. Jesus is sitting around with the disciples in a private moment, getting them ready for the time when he will leave them, and telling them to follow him where he is going. They ask, "But how will we know the way?", and he answers, "I am the way." He's not preaching to the world here, just giving some brotherly comfort and guidance to his close friends who are afraid of becoming lost without him: "Remember what I've shown you, fellas, stick with it, and you'll be fine." "Me" in this sense means "what you've seen me do".

2. Consider the overall context. The whole theme of John's Gospel is that the Logos of the Greek philosophers is and always has been one with the Lord God of Israel. John sees this identity being made manifest in "the Word [that] was made flesh and dwelt among us", i. e., Jesus. When John's Jesus speaks, it is not necessarily an attempt by the author to record and preserve as accurately as possible the actual sayings of Jesus the real-world rabbi (as in the synoptics), but rather, a theological argument in narrative form, a docu-drama if you will, in which the author argues for an apprehension of Jesus as the personified Logos by portraying him that way. I'm not attributing universalism to Jesus himself, but to the creative theological writer who was willing to merge Jewish and Greek concepts of divinity into a radical new syncretic union. Did Jesus really say these words? I doubt it. But did the author really believe that the Logos was "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", and that coming to terms with Jesus was the surest way for Jews to touch the Logos and Greeks to touch YHWH, the great "I AM"? You betcha. "Me" in this sense means "how my hagiographer wants you to understand me".

3. You're right to point out that what the author said about Jesus also resonates with what Emerson said about him in the Divinity School Address: "[Jesus] saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, `I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would you see God, see me; or, see thee, when thou also thinkest as I now think.'" [emphasis added]. "Me" in this sense means "my teaching and example", not "my unique Godhood".

4. Some of these ideas first arose in a Beliefnet discussion about Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar who recently died. An Episcopalian seminarian posted a brief note on Funk's death and a benign "rest in peace", to which a fundamentalist replied with smug humor that Funk was a nonbeliever who was now burning in hell. That drew a lot of indignation from Christians all along the theological spectrum, as well as from one Native American who observed that this is why interfaith dialogues with Christians always break down, and asked "When I die, will you gloat that I too am burning in hell?" One well-meaning Christian tried to explain that Christians do mean well but they also take John 14:6 seriously, to which the Native American replied, "See? You're still raising walls." That's when I as a low-christology Unitarian and a near-Universalist stepped in, with similar thoughts to what I posted up top here, to say that understanding Christianity and John 14:6 as exclusionary was misleading, no matter which side of the wall you stood on. After that, an evangelical minister agreed with much of my post (though objecting, of course, that she considered the verse a verbatim quote from Jesus). She added that although to conservative Christians Christ is the judge of all and the only "way" to the "Father", he should be seen as judging Christians and non-Christians alike with grace and compassion, giving no preference for doctrinal purity. I then responded that "Christ does not necessarily appear to non-Christians in the same guise as the God-Man from Nazareth whom orthodox Christians recognize and proclaim. God's ways are not human ways, and non-Western modes of epistemology and perception are not Western ones. Nevertheless, that which is not contrary to Jesus' teaching and example is consistent with them; and that which celebrates the same principles and ideals that he did is, as Christians understand Jesus himself to be, an expression of the Logos. When a non-Christian achieves an ecstatic union with the Divine, or is motivated to acts of charity and compassion, or dies and returns to the all-animating Source, it is through the agency of that same Spirit that manifests itself to Christians as Christ, even if non-Christians may know it by some other name, or not consciously know it at all." "Me" in this sense means "through the ideals of love, equity, compassion, reciprocity, forgiveness, and reconciliation, which to Christians I personify."

 
At Tue Sep 27, 11:16:00 PM EDT, Blogger PeaceBang said...

Dig you, missionary man. I mean it. That's a sermon I'd like to hear preached somewhere. By you. Munching on a hymnal as you do. You convinced me.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 01:05:00 AM EDT, Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

For what it's worth, both the Jesus Seminar's methods for examining the Gospels and Bishop Spong's latest book (The Sins of Scripture) both advance the view that the words in John 14:6 were not spoken by Jesus.

Instead, these words were written to serve the needs of one community of early Christians. However, these words don't have the characteristics of words that would have been spoken by by Jesus and preserved through oral transmission from roughly 30 to 50 CE (Q and the Gospel of Thomas were written around 50 and 60 CE based on Jesus Seminar and other liberal Bible scholar estimates).

Bishop Spong suggests in his latest book that much of the Gospel of John was written by one early Christian community as just one voice in a dispute between different segments of the Jewish community in the Roman Empire. Those who were followers of the Jesus tradition were trying to establish their legitimacy as Children of Abraham when arguing with those who did not belong to this Jesus community.

It's possible that John 14:6 may be a Bible verse written for one particular circumstance and may be of limited use to us today.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 09:35:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Yes, as I mentioned, this whole discussion grew out of a discussion noting the passing of Robert Funk, founder of the Jesus Seminar. The idea I discuss above -- that John is essentially a polemical argument rather than a factual narrative -- is one that Funk and Spong would agree with, if they didn't think it up in the first place! I think the idea of particular verses being written for momentary rather than enduring circumstances is more applicable to the Epistles than the Gospels, though.

Although I too admire liberal Christian writers like Funk, Spong and Borg, it's worth remembering that they are dissenters and provocateurs in the modern Christian conversation. Within the Christian community, Funk's and Spong's ideas are not taken for canon truth; they threaten what is taken for canon truth. We UUs are so accustomed to taking dissenting arguments seriously that we sometimes forget what it means that that they are the dissent, and not the accepted consensus. Thomas is not a recent, more authentic discovery that casts the authenticity of the canon in doubt; it is a work that was well known at the time the canon was selected and rejected then as inferior and unreliable. Thomas is not in the canon; John is. Suggesting that John is anything other than literal, unassailable, historical truth is not self-evident logic, but rather a sharp accusation than needs to be be supported with persuasive authority; if it can't be supported, it may even a damnable lie springing directly from the mouth of Satan. To believers who hold a high opinion of canon truth, the Jesus Seminar is not the authority but the threat.

Of course it's true that John 14:6 has little meaning and limited use for those today who stand outside the Christian community. It's just as true that nothing else in the Bible has much significance to those who stand outside Judeo-Christian tradition. Nevertheless, for Christians, not only is some level of Biblical authority presumed, but within that broad authority John 14:6 is one of the central tenets of their faith. You can find few other Bible verses that are more central, more relevant, to them.

For those like Spong who would continue to stand within that faith at a time where advances in human knowledge offer seemingly contrary and superseding revelations, or like us UUs who for reasons of heritage or belief stand near the edge of that faith but still within its sphere of influence, and need to remain engaged with it, or for those like the Native American critic who struggle to find a common ground for mutual understanding, it is essential to come to terms with this verse and other similar assertions -- claims that might be benignly called Christian universality, or that might be more pointedly called Christian triumphalism. It is necessary oto a shared understanding. To dismiss it as useless or irrelevant is to walk away from the table.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 11:42:00 AM EDT, Blogger Oversoul said...

Lots of very interesting thoughts here, you’ve all given me a lot to think about.

Not to be the party pooper, but I tend to be suspicious of liberal/progressive explanations of “unpleasant” parts of the Christian tradition. What I mean by this is that I think some Christians are too eager to have their cake and eat it too: they want to stay firmly rooted in Scripture, but radically re-interpret/re-define it to suit their needs. I think this is also evidenced when Thomas and other “gospels” are bandied about as though we’ve inherited a fake form of Christianity for 2,000 years and just now modern Christians are finally uncovering the “truth.”

And this is why, in spite of my appreciation for much of Jesus’ teachings and for much of the Christian tradition, I don’t feel it right to call myself a Christian.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 12:54:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

I think some Christians are too eager to have their cake and eat it too: they want to stay firmly rooted in Scripture, but radically re-interpret/re-define it to suit their needs.

Well, Unitarians and Universalists have always been the radical re-interpreters. It's the reason we haven't been one denomination with the Congregationalists for the last 200 years. We've always been seen as "beyond the pale" by Christians who consider themselves doctrinally pure.

In past times that didn't faze us. As the Unitarian poet James Russell Lowell once wrote,

By the light of burning heretics
Christ's bleeding feet I track,
Toiling up new Calvaries ever
with the cross that turns not back,
And these mounts of anguish number
how each generation learned
One new word of that grand Credo
which in prophet-hearts hath burned
Since the first man stood God-conquered
with his face to heaven upturned.

...

They have rights who dare maintain them;
we are traitors to our sires,
Smothering in their holy ashes
Freedom's new-lit altar-fires;
Shall we make their creed our jailer?
Shall we, in our haste to slay,
From the tombs of the old prophets
steal the funeral lamps away
To light up the martyr-fagots
round the prophets of to-day?

New occasions teach new duties;
Time makes ancient good uncouth;
They must upward still, and onward,
who would keep abreast of Truth;
Lo, before us gleam her camp-fires!
We ourselves must Pilgrims be,
Launch our Mayflower, and steer boldly
through the desperate winter sea,
Nor attempt the Future's portal
with the Past's blood-rusted key.


In contrast, in more recent years it seems we've been satisfied to concede the point, and have given up trying to make room for our vigorous, vital, inclusive, morally grounded witness in the larger Christian dialogue.

I think that is regrettable. The same arguments are still going on, though, without us, between theological liberals and conservatives in most other Christian denominations today. Once upon a time, we were the ones who framed and led those debates. Now it's liberals like Spong who are accused by traditionalists of not being "real" Christians. Now, largely by choice, we're nearly irrelevant to the conversation, even though we tend to lionize the current progressive leaders -- voices like Funk, Spong, Borg, and Pagels -- who are still in there swinging.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 03:39:00 PM EDT, Blogger jfield said...

Nice bit of work this. Like some of the other comments, I tend to think this passage is a little hard to read against the grain as you attempt. I generally prefer to look at how the Johannine writers fit in with the other gospels and with the more adoptionistist rather than incarnationist Christology in some of the Pauline letters.

I think I take from Pagels the importance of understanding a diversity of understandings in the early Christian community. I prefer to keep open an examination of how different communities came up with different answers rather than trying to find a way for each communities' answers less problematic to sense with my understanding.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 05:55:00 PM EDT, Blogger greenseagirl said...

C.S. Lewis expected that some non-Christians would be saved. "Though all salvation is through Jesus, we need not conclude that He cannot save those who have not explicitly accepted Him in this life." On the radio he announced: "We do know that no [one] can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved through Him."

Perhaps this is a prime example of trying to "have your cake and eat it too".

But I feel like it works.

Here where I live there are a lot of unmarked roads. I routinely drive along streets that probably have names, but the names aren't known to me. I get where I'm going anyway. "through me" not "only if they say the magic word."

 
At Wed Sep 28, 05:57:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

I tend to think this passage is a little hard to read against the grain as you attempt

Yeah, no kidding. But that's true of a lot of Scripture, not just this selection. It's also how Jesus himself read much of Jewish scripture, in contrast to the way it was conventionally used by the Temple authorities.

To read 14:6 superficially is to court exclusivity and raise barriers; it sanctifies those who are within the "club" and dehumanizes those who are not, and at its extreme it leads to Crusades and Holocausts. However, as Jesus said, a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. Since the verse is so close to the core of Christian faith, and since a superficial reading seems so clearly (at least to us nonconformists) to bear bad fruit, then either it must have another, truer meaning, or it reveals all of Christian tradition to be a bad tree.

I may not agree with sizable chunks of orthodox Christian doctrine, but I don't want to call all of Christianity a bad tree. For one thing, it is the tradition that produced our own denomination and bequeathed to us our own ideals. For another, no other religion has produced such a clear vision of those ideals -- including radical forgiveness, reconcilation, humility, service, charity, compassion, and justice -- as Christianity's concepts of "grace" and "the Kingdom of God".

I think the evangelical minister at Beliefnet whom I mentioned above, who understood the risen Christ to be the benevolent mediator between God and all humanity, extending grace and compassion to all without regard to doctrinal adherance, articulated a traditional but inclusive meaning within the strict framework of Christian orthodoxy. I think what she said was remarkably close to our own Universalist doctrinal heritage, in fact. However, I think non-Christians would find it somewhat condescending: "My God is bigger than your God, and He is so good that He likes you even if you don't like Him."

On the other hand, I think that if you apprehend the Christian image of Christ not narrowly as a literal man-God who dropped by for a visit 2000 years ago, died, woke up, and flew up into the sky, but more broadly as a figurative archetype who personifies the ideals that Christians profess to have learned from him, then you are left with a set of universal ideals that are capable of overcoming anyone's separation from the Divine Essence, no matter what dark glass and distorting smudges you may peer through to perceive it -- including, as Paul admits at I Corinthians 13, Christianity's own. It is a valid generalization that includes within it the orthodox Christian apprehension of Christ as a specific case, but does not depend on the orthodox apprehension for its validity.

 
At Wed Sep 28, 11:10:00 PM EDT, Blogger Jennifer said...

WOW. I just found you while blog surfing. What a wonderful explanation of the scripture. You put it so eloquently! It's exactly what I have been thinking and feeling, but couldn't put into words. Thank you.

 
At Thu Sep 29, 01:57:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Verdugo said...

I think the evangelical minister at Beliefnet whom I mentioned above, who understood the risen Christ to be the benevolent mediator between God and all humanity, extending grace and compassion to all without regard to doctrinal adherance, articulated a traditional but inclusive meaning within the strict framework of Christian orthodoxy. I think what she said was remarkably close to our own Universalist doctrinal heritage, in fact. However, I think non-Christians would find it somewhat condescending: "My God is bigger than your God, and He is so good that He likes you even if you don't like Him."


uh... I'm the "evangelical pastor" in question-- here amid some fear and trembling by fausto's invite. : )

Fausto represents well my comments, which fall more or less within the neo-evangelical wing of conservative Christianity. I see the passage as emphasizing the universality of the atonement, as well as the universality of our brokenness. Rather than seeing it as a wall that separates "us" and "them" (or "in" and "out"), it emphasizes that we're all in the same boat. The only way anyone "gets in"-- Jew, Christian, non-Christian-- is through the redemptive grace of Jesus Christ. It cuts through that sense of moral superiority and works righteousness in the classic understanding of 14:6 where salvation is tied to doctrinal purity. Note that the text never says a word about beliefs-- "the way" is not a set of doctrines, it's a person-- Jesus. And Jesus is not the sole possession of anyone-- not even Christians. It affirms the old evangelical truth that Jesus died, yes, for the whole world, not just a select few. It also, IMHO, parallels with a key theme found in Jesus' teachings-- the wide availability of the Kingdom, and the very surprising people you find there. All of which helps reconcile John 14:6, with it's usual polar opposite, Matthew 25 (the parable of the sheep & goats) where salvation is tied not with doctrinal positon, but with (gasp! works righteousness!) compassion and service to the poor. And, finally, it points to the prophesy of Eph. 2-- that someday every knee will bow and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord.

I would have to agree with fausto that it still comes off a bit arrogant-- "I'm right, and in the end you'll agree with me." To some degree that's a result of the mutual exclusivity of most religious beliefs.

OK, first blog. Be gentle.

 
At Thu Sep 29, 06:36:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Thanks and welcome, Verdugo!

I think it might come as a shock to some of us UUs (though perhaps not anyone in this conversation) to hear an evangelical Christian pastor talk the way you do -- and I think the way you speak about Christianity is much closer to the essence of the Christian faith than the unflattering stereotype of smug, judgmental rigidity that many UUs seem to suppose. (I know you've seen that stereotype in action yourself, because in some discussions at Beliefnet we've been allies debating against it.)

I almost brought up Matthew 25 in my first post. It says a lot in a few lines. To me, the main point of the "parting the sheep from the goats" parable is that those whom Jesus deems righteous are not necessarily those who knew him by name, but those who were charitable toward the less fortunate. If you have a charitable heart, Jesus is saying, you know me whether you realize it or not. In that sense, it plays into the theme of non-doctrinal universal ideals that I'm teasing out of John 14:6.

But what troubles me about the "sheep and goats" metaphor is that he then curses the goats and casts them into everlasting fire. That can easily reinforce (and often does) an exclusionary posture that promotes pride among those who consider themselves (self-)righteous "sheep" and scorn toward those other unrighteous "goats". (Besides, we're rather fond of goats around here, but that's an inside joke.) It's an image that seems inconsistent with our legacy Universalist belief in free grace and atonement for all. I'd like to de-emphasize that part of the metaphor with a contextual interpretation, or by understanding it as a deliberate exaggeration Jesus used only for dramatic effect to keep his listeners' attention, but I'm not confident that would be an honest reading.

Another verse from Matthew that I think supports my non-doctrinal reading of John 14:6 is 7:21: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father in heaven." Here he seems to be saying, "Don't put your hope in displaying piety toward me, because that doesn't matter much to God. What will bring you into a right relationship with God and your neighbor -- what I call the 'Kingdom of Heaven' -- is striving to live out these things I am teaching you." That seems consistent with my interpretation that the "me" of John 14:6 should be understood as "my teaching and example" or "the ideals I personify", not "correct doctrine about my person".

 
At Thu Sep 29, 11:14:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Verdugo says, in response to the question of Christian arrogance:

To some degree that's a result of the mutual exclusivity of most religious beliefs.

Well, maybe. However, one thing that I think distinguishes the UU witness from that of other denominations is the attempt to see the core truths of all world religions as mutually consistent, rather than mutually exclusive. We tend to look for the common understanding that unifies all particular perspectives. That underlying attitude is reflected in my take on John 14:6, for example.

It's also reflected in a commonly used UU doxology, which is adapted from Isaac Watts' 1719 setting of Psalm 119:

From all that dwell below the skies
Let songs of hope and faith arise;
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.


This UU doxology replaces Watts' original references to "Creator" and "Redeemer", which refer explicitly to a Judeo-Christian apprehension of God, with the more general conceptual ideals of "faith", "hope", "peace", and "goodwill on earth". By doing so, they expand the circle of inclusion beyond only those who apprehend God in Judeo-Christian terms. Nevertheless, as befits our Christian origins, even the more general language remains entirely consistent with the most traditional expressions of Christianity; it is taken verbatim from the New Testament (I Corinthians 13 for faith and hope, and Luke 2 for peace and goodwill). And since "peace on earth, goodwill toward men" is what Luke reports an angel chorus singing at the birth of Jesus, it is even implicitly consistent with the more particular "every knee shall bow" vision of Paul in Phil. (not Eph., neener, neener) 2.

 
At Thu Sep 29, 11:55:00 AM EDT, Blogger Roger Kuhrt, PhD said...

fausto: You might find of interest Neil Douglas-Klotz explanation of this verse from the Aramaic perspective. You can find it in his book: The Genesis Meditations on page 42.

Cheerfully, Roger Kuhrt

 
At Fri Sep 30, 01:24:00 AM EDT, Blogger Steve Caldwell said...

Fausto wrote:
-snip-
"Although I too admire liberal Christian writers like Funk, Spong and Borg, it's worth remembering that they are dissenters and provocateurs in the modern Christian conversation. Within the Christian community, Funk's and Spong's ideas are not taken for canon truth; they threaten what is taken for canon truth. We UUs are so accustomed to taking dissenting arguments seriously that we sometimes forget what it means that that they are the dissent, and not the accepted consensus."

Well ... for what it's worth, the methods used by the Jesus Seminar group is one that is grounded in reason, examination of all available data within and outside the traditional cannon, and use of cross-disciplinary methods such as texual analysis, anthropology, and ethnography.

If Jesus' teachings were passed down by word of mouth from 30 CE to 50 CE, how would these teachings look and sound? Would an orally transmitted set of teachings sound more like the parables in the Synoptic Gospels or the "I am" statements in the Gospel of John? This is a very reasonable question to ask even if it might threaten "canon tradition."

As Unitarian Universalists, should we rely on "cannon tradition" when it might conflict with reason and methodologies used by fields outside of traditional theology? Does Christianity get a special pass exempting it from rational inquiry and these sorts of tough questions?

I did a review of the Jesus Seminar work back in 1997 for a sermon:

Jesus: Icon or Iconoclast?
http://members.aol.com/uuwebman/jesus.htm

The sermon text provided a brief overview of the revisionist schools of thought. To be fair in my research, I also read Luke Timothy Johnson's criticism of Crossan and the Jesus Seminar methods (just to be fair).

Even though I consider myself an agnostic religious humanist grounded in the Protestant tradition known as Unitarian Universalism, I was surprised with the results when I took the Beliefnet quiz "What Kind of Christian Are You?":

http://beliefnet.com/section/quiz/index.asp?sectionID=&surveyID=83

The five categories of this quiz are:

** Jesse Ventura Christian (Secularist or Non-Christian)

** Bishop Spong Christian (Biblical Revisionist)

** Hillary Rodham Clinton Christian (Left Leaning Traditionalist)

** George Bush Sr. Christian (Right Leaning Traditionalist)

** Jerry Falwell Christian (Historicist)

When I took this quiz, I didn't end up in the Jesse Ventura category but rather in the Bishop Spong category and surprised myself in the process.

The bottom line here is we can't follow tradition without some modification to how we follow it if we discover that it conflicts with reason and other evidence.

 
At Fri Sep 30, 06:35:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

The bottom line here is we can't follow tradition without some modification to how we follow it if we discover that it conflicts with reason and other evidence.

Yes, absolutely, but that's an enormous "if", and although we UUs do that routinely, that doesn't mean that other, more tradtional sects don't value reason too. As the last 2000 years of Christianity, the last 450 years of Unitarianism, and the last 250 years of Universalism all show, not everyone reaches the same conclusions. If they did, there would still be only one Christian church, and everyone would belong to it and accept its one true doctrine, including ourselves. The fact that there are so many different Christian (or Christian-derived) sects shows that we are not the only ones ever to apply reason to doctrine. Even Falwell thinks he does that.

Other denominations or movements may be larger, more traditional, and share a more uniform consensus of belief than we do, yet still consider themselves as dedicated to reason in faith as we are -- the Jesuits come quickly to mind as a very traditional example. In contrast, we UUs may no longer be nearly as devoted to reason as we once considered ourselves to be -- do we embrace Wicca yet question Christianity because Wicca is more grounded in reason and historical authenticity?

I would expect that most UUs would fall on your scale somewhere between Hillary Clinton and off the left margin of the page entirely, out past Spong. I haven't taken the test, but I'm probably somewhere between Clinton and Spong.

I don't think Clinton and Spong are particularly good representatives for their points on the spectrum, though. Clinton doesn't seem particularly deeply grounded in her faith, and Spong's voice is often hostile and strident toward those with whom he disagrees. Al Gore or Jim Wallis and Marcus Borg might be better models.

As to John, both the "revisionist" Jesus Seminar and a majority consensus of mainstream scholarship agree that it stands apart from the three other synoptic (meaning "same view") gospels. Where the synoptics attempt to present a historical portrait (I taught Sunday School last week and used a game of telephone to illistrate exactly your point about the fuzziness of oral history, by the way), John presents a contrasting mystical and theological one. The Jesus Seminar casts doubt on John's historicity and factuality, but does not challenge its canonicity.

Van Gogh never saw an actual landscape that looked like "The Sttarry Night", but that doesn't make it a poor painting. The historical Jesus may have looked and sounded nothing like the portrait of him in John's gospel, but that doesn't make John a poor theologian, nor the Church Fathers unreasonable in selecting it and not Thomas for the canon.

 
At Fri Sep 30, 08:06:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

I just said:

The Jesus Seminar casts doubt on John's historicity and factuality, but does not challenge its canonicity.

I should clarify that. As I noted in an earlier post, to the many traditionalist Christians who believe that the truth of the Bible is factual, and that all of it is equally true and factual, "revisionist" questioning like that of the Jesus Seminar is indeed a direct challenge to the very foundations of their faith. My point is a more nuanced one: that if scholars are correct that John was written primarily as a theological argument rather than a factual account, then to accept it or reject it on the basis of factuality alone is to misunderstand much of what the author was trying to say.

We can still apply our powers of reason to question its validity, but the validity we question should be that of the author's intended meaning, not his command of the factual record. Whether Jesus did or did not really go around saying "I am" is not as significant to the validity of John as whether John is correct in perceiving the presence of the Logos in him.

Channing and Emerson accepted John's premise, and expanded upon it -- they suggested that the Logos could likewise be present in you and me. (And that idea, incidentally, is the mustard seed that eventually blossomed into Humanism.)

 
At Fri Sep 30, 10:07:00 AM EDT, Anonymous your minister said...

That does it, Fausto, you're preaching this year. Check out those open dates on our worship calendar and let me know when you're in.

And while you're at it, how about co-leading our Lenten Bible study with me?

 
At Fri Sep 30, 10:16:00 AM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Oh, s***, now I've done it.

 
At Fri Sep 30, 11:58:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Verdugo said...

hehehe-- we're good that way, fausto! : )

And hey, even us evangelical Presbyterians sing Watts' hymn!

Speaking from an evangelical-friendly stance re: Jesus seminar, I think it has a useful purpose, but more limited purpose, from our perspective. The Jesus Seminar uses many of the same historical-critical methodologies as evangelical schoalrship, but begins with different presumptions-- presumptions that evangelicals would not share (e.g. the role and purpose of the miraculous, the expectation that Jesus would be and sound counter-cultural, etc.). The Jesus Seminar provides us with helpful information that serves more as background data for our search, that begins with different presumptions and therefore leads us to different places.

I like your "Starry Night" metaphor (not least of all cause I'm a huge Van Gogh fan). Helpful way to look at it.

 
At Fri Sep 30, 12:03:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Verdugo said...

hoping I'm doing the html code right...

To me, the main point of the "parting the sheep from the goats" parable is that those whom Jesus deems righteous are not necessarily those who knew him by name, but those who were charitable toward the less fortunate.

Yes, it's not so much that we know his name, as that he knows ours. That's what comes thru in the passage-- some "sheep" are surprised to be there-- surprised by Jesus-- but they were known to him.


But what troubles me about the "sheep and goats" metaphor is that he then curses the goats and casts them into everlasting fire.

Yeah, I don't like that too much either.

What comforts me is the idea that Jesus makes the call. And my experience of Jesus, both in the gospels and in my life, is that Jesus ALWAYS has more grace than I do. So however wide I might open the door, I can expect that Jesus will open it even wider.

My job is not to be the doorkeeper-- that's Jesus. My job is simply to be ready (assuming I'm "in") to welcome all the surprising mishmash of people who enter in to that door as brothers and sisters.

 
At Sat Oct 01, 08:34:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

hehehe-- we're good that way, fausto! : )

"We"? Are the two of you in cahoots?

Why do I suddenly feel like a fly caught in a web?

Oh well, I guess it's better than being Jonathan Edwards' spider.

 
At Sun Oct 02, 01:03:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Verdugo said...

we= pastors

 
At Sun Oct 02, 01:49:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Oh. Phew. ;-)

 
At Sat Oct 08, 07:59:00 PM EDT, Blogger fausto said...

Evidently, I'm not the first Unitarian to conceive of the Logos/Word in this broad way. Here's John Haynes Holmes' take on it, "O'er Continent and Ocean", hymn #400 in the old Red Hymnal":

O'er continent and ocean,
From city, field and wood,
Still speak, 0 Lord, thy messengers
Of peace and brotherhood.
In Athens and Benares,
In Rome and Galilee,
They fronted kings and conquerors,
And taught mankind of thee.

We hear, O Lord, these voices,
And hail them as thine own,
They speak as speak the winds and tides
On planets far and lone:
One God, the Life of Ages,
One rule, his will above,
One realm, our wide humanity,
One law, the law of love.

The tribes and nations falter
In rivalries of fear;
The fires of hate to ashes turn,
To dust the sword and spear.
Thy Word alone remaineth-
That Word we speak again,
O'er sea and shore and continent,
To all the sons of men.


And here's William Channing Gannett's, "It Sounds Along the Ages", #76 in the old Red Hymnal and #187 in the current Grey one:

It sounds along the ages,
Soul answering to soul;
It kindles on the pages
Of every Bible scroll;
The psalmist heard and sang it,
From martyr lips it broke,
The prophet tongues out-rang it
Till sleeping nations woke.

From Sinai's cliffs it echoed,
It breathed from Buddha's tree,
It charmed in Athens' market,
It hallowed Galilee;
The hammer stroke of Luther,
The Pilgrims' seaside prayer,
The oracles of Concord*
One holy Word declare.

It calls-and lo, new justice!
It speaks-and lo, new truth!
In ever nobler stature
And unexhausted youth.
Forever on resounding,
And knowing nought of time,
Our** laws but catch the music
Of its eternal chime.


[*"The testament of Torda" and **"Man's" in Gannett's original.]

I especially like the Gannett one, but perhaps that's because Gannett was the minister for many years in the Unitarian church that I was (much later) born into.

 
At Sun Sep 17, 03:42:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Tim said...

Perhaps you could also read it as `no-one will get to know the Father if I don't do what I'm about to'. Requires a subtle shift of meaning in the word "through" in most translations...

 
At Mon May 21, 06:05:00 AM EDT, Blogger ALHAJ said...

Dear Brother,

I happened to come across your blog. I find a kind of funny is your e-mail also Ustazoi@gmail.com? That is my e-mail.

I kind of surprise there's Christians not believing in Trinity or the Godship of Christ. Is this true. Please confirm me by e-mail.

AlHaj ibn Ibrahim.

 
At Sat Jul 07, 02:05:00 AM EDT, Blogger URfriend, Dean Johnson said...

This topic also came up on my blog:
URfriendly Reflections


The John 14 passage is Jesus comforting Peter concerning his coming thrice denial of the Christ,
John 13:38
.

Jesus comforts Peter by explaining that Christ is the way to God. Peter is included in the Christ who is the temple of God and the house with many mansions, that returns to the Father.

Access to the Father is provided in the Christ. Even if we deny him, and even "If we believe not, [yet] he abideth faithful: he cannot deny himself." (2 Timothy 2:13)

Access to God is found in this temple. Peter is included in the temple, and in the Christ. And so Christ is the way to the Father, not only for Peter, but also for all who are included. In
Ephesians 2:14-15
, Paul explains this more explicitly by stating that Jews and Gentiles or all humanity is included in this cosmic body of Christ [Ephesians 1:10, 4:6] that returns to the Father. This universal temple that has many mansions for all humanity is the house that God is building.
Ephesians 2:19
.

For every house is builded by some [man]; but he that built all things [is] God.
Hebrews 3:4
.

Jesus words are far more inclusive than is commonly understood.

Check it out if you like.

URfriend, Dean Johnson

 
At Wed Apr 23, 08:45:00 PM EDT, Blogger Alex J Morris said...

if we can find glimpses of truth in many traditions and cultures, how can we affirm one that denies all the others?

Quite simply: if Christianity is true, if the God described in the Bible is true, and all of mankind comes from the same origin, then small pieces of the truth would be scattered throughout, without necessarily being the whole truth.

Your exegesis depends on a lot of "if"s, and if I had the time, I would delve into them now. I'd like to get into more of it later. However, I have the time for only one question: What do you do with "no one"? It is "oudeis" in the Greek, which cannot be interpreted in any other way than "no one/no man." So even if God is the Stoic idea of Logos, as you say, even if these aren't the original words of Jesus, and John is simply delivering concepts in order to get past cultural barriers, than why this, "No one comes to the Father (or Logos, Reason, whatever you like to call this 'God' concept) except through me" business?

 
At Wed May 21, 12:04:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I cannot claim any significant education. I have no references. I cannot claim a belief or a defined set of values & have no background to consider myself armed to intelligently submerge myself in this conversation. I don't even know if what I just said makes any sense.

What I can innocently offer is my wonder: "If God (our maker, the Authority, the Spirit, the creator) is as powerful as we beleive, would he really allow the misinterpretation on such a level that would cause so many to become confused or lose the way?"

Does that make any sense?

 
At Wed Jul 30, 10:09:00 AM EDT, Blogger Heather said...

Thank you for this post and your blog in general. I never liked the "Us" vs "Them" feeling, even when I felt I was among the "Us", and now feel among the "Them." What a beautiful post--thanks for putting into intellectual terms the journey my heart and spirit have taken.

 
At Thu Sep 24, 05:16:00 PM EDT, Anonymous Brandi said...

What I can innocently offer is my wonder: "If God (our maker, the Authority, the Spirit, the creator) is as powerful as we beleive, would he really allow the misinterpretation on such a level that would cause so many to become confused or lose the way?"

I believe it is explained in the concept of free will. God gives us the information, how we use that information or how we interpret it is completely up to us.

 
At Thu May 31, 11:42:00 AM EDT, Blogger Karmatetra said...

Remarkable writing. I got a lot from your Blog. Reminds me of Joeseph Campbell. Also the comments along with your replies are illuminating. Have you published in print form? I would like to follow your blog, however I do not see a "follow" button.

 

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