Friday, June 30, 2006

The Way, the Truth and the Life

A sermon by Fausto
(and a reworking of a previous thread on the Socinian)
delivered at First Parish (UU) in [Grovers Corners, New Hampshire]
April 30, 2006


Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

[Genesis 11: 1-9]

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.”

[Acts 2: 1-11]

"Little children, I am with you only a little longer. You will look for me; and as I said to the Jews so now I say to you, ‘Where I am going, you cannot come.’ I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?”

Jesus answered, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now; but you will follow afterward. ... Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.”

Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

[John 13: 33-36, 14: 1-7]


I know what you’re thinking. In the last three weeks we’ve celebrated Holy Communion, we’ve sung “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”, and we’ve heard our pastor preach on Jesus’ miraculous appearance to the disciples on the road to Emmaus. And now, today, we’re ratcheting it up to speaking in tongues and “I am the Way”! If you’re any kind of contemporary self-respecting Unitarian, you’re probably sitting there, scratching your head and thinking, “Dude, where’s my church?”

Rest assured, your church is right here in the same place it’s been since it was built in 1778, the same place it’s been since we kicked out the orthodox Calvinists and made them build another one next door, and turned this one around sideways and pulled out their pews just to underscore the point in 1834. All we’ve been doing over the past few weeks is having a good hard look at the foundations on which this old house is built. You don’t need to look at foundations too often, but you do want to know that they are still strong. This church has stood here for a long time, and we don’t want it to fall down on our watch. So, let’s take one more trip down to the cellar, even if it may make some of us feel claustrophobic, and have one more glance at those footings. Or as T. S. Eliot, who used to sit in our back pews on Sundays when he attended [Grovers Corners] Academy, put it,

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

"I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Many Christians and non-Christians alike take that sixth verse from Chapter 14 of the Gospel of John as a defining boundary between Them and Us, an insurmountable barrier to common acceptance and understanding. Either you’ve got Jesus or you don’t, you’re in or you’re out, you’re saved or you’re not, and believing anything else is evil, because there is no other Way. To read it superficially like that is to raise walls. It sanctifies those who are within the "club" and dehumanizes those who are not, and at its extreme it leads to Crusades and Holocausts. I suspect 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?

However, as Jesus also said, a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. I may not agree with sizable chunks of orthodox Christian doctrine, but I don't want to call all of Christianity a bad tree that bears only bad fruit. For one thing, it is the tradition that produced our own denomination and bequeathed to us most of our own ideals. For another, no other religion has produced a clearer vision of those ideals -- including forgiveness, reconciliation, humility, service, charity, compassion, and justice -- than Christianity's concepts of "grace" and "the Kingdom of God". 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, it must have another, truer meaning.

It’s taken me a long time to come to that realization, though. My own UU roots are strongly Humanist, and in my family the suggestion that a man could also be a god was so preposterous as to preclude any further inquiry. When I was born, my parents attended the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, one of the UUA’s largest churches and long a citadel of Unitarian Humanism. The minister then, the Rev. David Rhys Williams, had signed the original Humanist Manifesto, but Rochester’s humanist roots go even further back to the Rev. William Channing Gannett, who arrived there in 1889 and built it into a thriving and vigorous congregation.

Now this Gannett was an interesting cat. His father, Ezra Stiles Gannett, was the Associate Minister at Arlington Street Church under William Ellery Channing, who had helped lead the Unitarian denomination away from the Congregationalists. William Gannett was named for, and baptized by, Channing, and he grew up in the milieu of Boston’s upper-crust establishment. Eventually he rejected that sort of elitism – though not until completing his doctorate at Harvard. He moved west and became a leading figure in the Free Religious Association and the Western Unitarian Conference, offshoot Unitarian groups that opposed the Christian cosmology and orientation of most of the New England Unitarian churches in favor of a more universal, scientific, and non-supernatural quest for material and spiritual truth. He wrote the historic statement of Unitarian principles entitled “Things Commonly Believed Among Us”, the direct ancestor of our current statement of Principles and Purposes, in an effort to bridge the growing gap between Christian Unitarians and what were then called “Free Religionists”.

Gannett was an energetic and charismatic leader. One Rochester parishioner of the time quipped, "I never hear Gannett preside at a funeral without wishing I was in the coffin." He presided over a tremendous expansion of his church’s social service and interfaith activities. He helped organize the World Parliament of Religions at the 1893 Chicago World Columbian Exposition. He exchanged ideas with his local Baptist colleague Walter Rauschenbush, a leader of the influential Social Gospel movement. Among Gannett’s important social causes were racial equality and women’s suffrage; it was during his leadership that Susan B. Anthony joined the Rochester church.

It was precisely this simultaneous embrace of the prophetic moral and social imperatives of the Christian Social Gospel movement, but rejection of Christian supernatural cosmology and claims to exclusive spiritual truth, that would a generation later become codified in the Humanist Manifesto that David Rhys Williams and a number of other Unitarians signed.

Yet despite their rejection of Christian doctrine these early Unitarian humanists were fully immersed in the language and spiritual authority of the Bible. Like all Unitarians before them, they used Christianity as a basic frame of reference, and defined themselves by the degree of their dissent from the orthodox standard. I’ve got a 1959 order of worship from the first service Williams led in Rochester after he retired, with elements including a Gloria, a responsive reading of Psalm 90, and a solo vocal performance of the very same setting of the Lord’s Prayer that we heard Leslie perform so movingly this morning.

If even those original Humanists knew how to use traditional religious language, then our more recently devised denominational covenant “to affirm and promote … a free and responsible search for truth and meaning” likewise obliges us to know it and understand it. If we refuse to search responsibly for meaning, we cannot really know with confidence what we affirm and what we doubt. So let’s get out our flashlights and shine them brightly into the thickest cobwebs of our cellar, including even the most difficult verses.

Let’s start with Babel, the easiest of today’s Bible selections. This is one of the cultural origin legends of the Hebrew people, the last story in the collection of myths that forms the first section of Genesis. It is often taught in a superficial way to explain why people are scattered over the earth, and why different peoples speak different languages and have trouble understanding and co-operating with one another. It is also often taught on a moral level as a warning against the sins of pride and hubris, which provoke God’s wrath and punishment. What I’d like to point out, however, is what it was in the story that constituted wrongful pride. It was not just garden-variety personal narcissism, but an ambitious, collective uniformity in pursuit of arrogant, self-glorifying aims. (Can you think of similar instances in modern history?) It was the desire for uniformity, to speak in only one voice and understand in only one fashion and act with one unified purpose, that proved to be human folly, and diversity in human understanding and aspiration was the remedy that proved to be both God’s will and God’s doing.

Now jump with me from mythical prehistory to the first Pentecost celebration after Jesus’ death. Christians traditionally understand this Pentecost story from the Book of Acts in one of two ways: either the disciples were so overwhelmed with the Holy Spirit that they began to yammer away in ecstatic fits of unintelligible gibberish, or else the Holy Spirit spoke through the disciples in a single voice so miraculous that strangers speaking foreign languages from all over the world all understood exactly the same thing. But I think both interpretations are mistaken. What I see clearly occurring in this vignette is the Holy Spirit speaking to the assembled foreigners, not in meaningless babbling, not in one uniform voice that they all understand the same way, but in a diverse multitude of languages and voices, to each stranger individually according to the unique ability of each to hear and understand.

I was discussing this recently with a Jewish friend, and a look of surprised recognition lit up his eyes. Pentecost was not originally a Christian holiday. The term means “fiftieth” in Greek, and is another name for the Jewish festival of Shavuot, which celebrates Moses receiving the Torah from God on Mount Sinai on the fiftieth day after the Passover. In the original Hebrew of the Book of Exodus, it says that the children of Israel “perceived” or “saw” the “thunderings” that were occurring on Mount Sinai as God gave the Torah to Moses. To “see thunderings” is such a strange expression that a whole body of Jewish commentary has arisen to explain the meaning. My friend told me there is a midrash that holds that when God gave the Torah to Israel at Sinai, all the children of Israel, past, present and future, dead, living, and unborn, blood descendants and converts, were somehow mystically present at the base of the mountain to receive the covenant individually and personally, together with Moses. Another midrash expands on the plural word "thunderings" by stating that God's voice mutated into seven voices, and the seven voices into seventy languages, so that all the nations might hear it; and ultimately every Israelite, past, present and future, heard the words of the Revelation in his or her own way, depending on his or her personal ability to comprehend the Divine message.

So God divided our human understanding at Babel, but spoke to each of us individually through our divisions and diversity at Sinai and at Pentecost, in multiple voices according to our individual capacity to hear and understand. The desire for conformity in the quest to reach God is human folly, but the richness and diversity of human understanding is God’s will and handiwork. Only with that idea firmly established are we ready to tackle the Gospel of John.

The author lived at the interface of Jewish and Greek culture. The whole premise of his Gospel is to equate the Jewish apprehension of God with the Greek idea of Logos, or “Word”, which Greek philosophers, beginning with Heraclitus 600 years earlier, had believed to be the underlying rational organizing principle of the universe, from which all things proceeded. Hence John opened his Gospel with the now-familiar words: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. All things came into being through him, and not one thing came into being without him."

What John saw was that the God of Israel was merely one culture's limited apprehension of a universal divinity that was in fact available to all peoples, and 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 all others before him had seen only separation.

The synthesis of elements from different religious traditions is called “syncretism”. We Unitarians and Universalists have made a specialty of it, but it is hardly our invention. John's is a wildly syncretic Gospel, expressing what was then a radically new theology. Today, the line “the Word was with God and the Word was God” is so entrenched in our culture that it seems almost trite, but in John’s day it must have been astonishingly radical, as radical as if he had equated the Jewish God with the Tao or with Vishnu or with Odin.

Unlike the other Gospels, John’s is primarily a theological argument rather than a biography, and it presents a theological rather than historical portrait of Jesus. When Jesus speaks in John's Gospel, he speaks as a personification of the Logos. Where John portrays Jesus as saying “I am the Way” and "no one comes to the Father except through me," it would be a misinterpretation to understand it to be the God of Israel’s verbatim warning that the only way to escape an eternity of burning torment in the afterlife is strict adherence to a set of abstruse doctrines about His Son that would not even be fully defined until hundreds of years later. Rather, what John is really telling us is that it is the Logos, the Divine Word, the source of all things, the rational governing principle of the universe, that is the Way, the Truth, the Life. If you want to know the God of Israel, then to know that God fully, you must also know the Logos of the Greek philosophers, and that God and Logos are but two apprehensions of the same Ultimate Reality.

Now as we saw in the Pentecost story, the Holy Spirit speaks in many voices. I’ve just argued that one common understanding of the text is mistaken, and tried to tease a more obscure meaning out of the text, but there are certainly other valid interpretations as well. One evangelical pastor I know explains the conventional Christian understanding in terms that our own Universalists ought to recognize. Rather than seeing the verse as a wall that separates "in" and "out", she says,

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. And Jesus is not the sole possession of anyone -- not even Christians. It cuts through that sense of moral superiority where salvation is tied to doctrinal purity…. [T]he text never says a word about beliefs. 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. It affirms the old evangelical truth that Jesus died, yes, for the whole world, not just a select few. It's not so much that we know his name, as that he knows ours.

If you think about it, this is very good news even for the non-believers among us. Even if Christians are right and Jesus is the only way, we don’t necessarily need to know him by name, because he already knows us by name and loves us anyway. For anyone in fear or doubt, knowing that that’s the only consequence of being wrong can be a huge relief. And that’s pretty much our own historic Universalist gospel, in a nutshell.

Or if supernatural mysticism puts you off, another approach is simply to read the passage literally in its immediate context. Here Jesus is, sitting around with the disciples in a private moment, just before he is about to be taken from them to be executed, trying to prepare them to carry on without him. As in many other instances in the Gospels, they seem a little slow on the uptake, and want instead to follow along where he is going, as they have been doing. They ask, "Show us the way," and he answers, "I am the way." He's not preaching to the world, giving some grand new divine revelation, but just giving some brotherly comfort and guidance to his close friends who are afraid of becoming lost without him: "After I’m gone, remember what I've shown and told you, fellas, stick with it, follow it, and it will bring you to God. If you’ve seen me, you can see God." And if we only do those things, we can follow where he went too.

So there is no single correct way to understand this passage, but I want to come back to John’s syncretism. John himself was writing only for Jewish and Greek audiences, not Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or Native American ones, so he was only concerned with reconciling Hellenic and Jewish apprehensions of divinity. As the world shrinks and the influence of his writing spreads beyond those original audiences, though, I think we must apply his original good news of inclusivity and commonality of apprehension to our new circumstances. Where John broke down barriers, we should not, however unwittingly, raise them up again by misunderstanding him.

What can we post-modern, post-Humanist UUs legitimately draw from John 14:6 today, then? I think this: If you would know not only the God of Israel, but if you would know Brahman or Vishnu, if you would know the Tao, if you would know Ahura Mazda, if you would know Wakan Tanka, then know also that, despite any cultural differences, they too are in essence one with the Logos of the Greek philosophers, the Christ of the Christians. Although all of them are all only partial apprehensions -- culturally constrained descriptions of that Ultimate Reality, the underlying organizing principle of the universe and source of everything that is beyond all cultures and the human capacity to know -- it is in the underlying similarity of their apprehensions that all cultures across the world in their multitude of tongues 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 the same Way through different eyes and traditions and give it other names, and legitimately so.

So speak your personal truth with conviction, even as prophecy, but listen respectfully when others speak theirs also, even when they seem to contradict you. Our folly is to think that we alone understand, to the exclusion of others. It's all good. The Holy Spirit, still moving in the world, inspires us each to do our little piece of God's will in our own unique way, and to reach those others whom we are uniquely able to reach with the gifts we are given. For ultimately, “The Way, the Truth and the Life” is found in the unity that animates and organizes even our differences and contradictions.

I hope that’s a safe foundation that can continue to hold us up a good while longer.


At July 4, 2006 at 10:30:00 AM EDT, Blogger Doug Muder said...

Wouldn't it shake people up to translate "I am the Way" as "I am the Tao"?

The midrash about the thunderings on Sinai reminded me of one of my favorite kabbalistic myths: Every morning at dawn Ratziel, the Angel of Wisdom, stands at the top of Mount Horeb and announces all the most fundamental truths of existence. All day his voice reverberates around the world, not dying down until the next day at dawn, when he does it again.

At April 7, 2012 at 2:03:00 PM EDT, Blogger rbarenblat said...

So God divided our human understanding at Babel, but spoke to each of us individually through our divisions and diversity at Sinai and at Pentecost, in multiple voices according to our individual capacity to hear and understand. The desire for conformity in the quest to reach God is human folly, but the richness and diversity of human understanding is God’s will and handiwork.

That is utterly lovely. Thank you for this post!


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