Saturday, June 16, 2007

Thinking Out Loud About John 14:6, Part 1

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

This verse has come up in a few different places for me lately. There's a big discussion about it happening on the UCC forums. Last night I overheard a guy telling another guy that this verse is "objectively true" while I was picking up some Chinese take-out. A few days ago, a friend asked me not about this verse but about the general concept of absolutely needing Jesus to have any semblance of a meaningful life.

This will be a little rambling and may need to be divided up into two parts. So be forewarned.

Traditionally, this verse is interpreted to be an exclusive, triumphalistic affirmation of Christianity as the one true faith. Note that I said Christianity. True, some would argue that the person of Christ is what the verse means, but then we begin to talk about who Christ is and which beliefs are correct and before too long there are accusations of apostasy thrown around. The way, the truth, and the life eventually becomes not just Christ, but a particular church or denomination, a particular creed, a particular theological other words, a particular understanding of who this one way, Christ, is. That's the first thing that we need to acknowledge when dealing with this verse.

Many Christians wonder about this verse or are uncomfortable with it. They wonder about their Jewish friend or they question the concept that Christianity is the truth among other faiths. I'll try to get to that question, but for this first one I want to talk about the verse and what people tend to read into it.

First, the Gospel of John is such a different animal from the other three. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus corrects people who call him good: "no one is good but God alone." He proclaims this notion of a kingdom of God and makes that his definition of good news or gospel (Mark 1:14-15). He tries to point others to this kingdom, this larger reality that God is bringing about and will bring about. In John, the focus is on Jesus himself. Jesus is the good news. Instead of chastising people for calling him good, he frequently states that "the Father and I are one." So the Bible is in conversation with itself about who Jesus is, what he's pointing to, and how he's pointing to it.

John puts forth a Jesus who is constantly in control and who wants people to look at him to see God. It is Jesus, John says, who should be our focus. This is important to note both because of how it may or may not square with what is found in the other three Gospels and because the literary and rhetorical context helps in our understanding of this verse.

When Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," what does that mean in the context of the entire book? We need to begin answering that by dealing with the second part of the verse: "no one comes to the Father except through me." I begin with this because this part of the verse tends to be read back into the first part, and there's a lot more reading back beyond that which I'll mention soon enough. But when Jesus makes this claim about the Father and him, it is in line with similar statements he makes throughout John, one of which occurs as soon as verse 7: "If you know me, you will know my Father also," and then in verse 9: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." In fact, this verse comes as part of one of a handful of teachings where Jesus says such things. So when I read verse 6, I first read it as being another statement to be included with this list of statements about seeing the Father so completely in Jesus. So when Jesus says no one comes to the Father except through him, it is another statement in a string of statements about how Jesus reveals God.

What gets read back into this verse is the word "belief." True, John's Jesus talks about belief a lot, but there's no reference to belief here. However, when this verse is typically read, the necessity of belief makes an appearance on the part of the interpreter. Why? Jesus doesn't say, "no one comes to the Father except by belief in me." He just says, "except through me." This is important to note because of what I observed earlier: that this verse is usually read and interpreted with a belief system in mind, when really John is closer to making a statement that when you look at Jesus you see God, and it is the most complete sight of God that you will ever see and so paying attention, somehow, to this sight of God, and responding to it, is the way to the Father.

More typically, Paul's writings about the importance of faith is read back into this verse. Paul has this ongoing argument that shows up in his letters about whether or not Gentiles need to be circumcised and become Jews before they can become Christians. No, Paul says, their faith in Christ is how they are justified. And we'll skip the nuances of the Greek word for "faith" here. This concept that Paul used has been lifted up as a more categorical truth: you need faith in Christ (unspoken: the right kind of faith in the right kind of Christ) to go to heaven. Paul's argument doesn't mention heaven, but that gets tacked on anyway. Then we have the writings of guys like Augustine and Luther, who were the big pushers of such a reading of Paul and who wrote volumes based on this interpretation about belief in the right things rather than anything that we can do on our own, and eventually John's verse is interpreted with a strong belief component that isn't there.

Jesus says, "I am the one comes to the Father except through me." It's actually a pretty enigmatic statement. Even if Jesus is the way, how do we follow the way?

Oh. Hold on. Follow. You follow a way, don't you? If you want to "come to" a particular destination, you need to walk a path. You need to follow a way, not just believe some things about the way. If I want to drive to St. Louis, I can believe all the things I want about I-70. I can believe that it's flat and long and boring and even that it's necessary to travel in order to reach where I want to go. But all that belief isn't going to get me to St. Louis. I'll need to actually drive it. So there's more to Jesus' statement than believing the right things (if that's even applicable), isn't there?

That's enough for today. More to come.