Monday, June 18, 2007

Thinking Out Loud About John 14:6, Part 2

I was talking with a friend the other day who in turn had been talking with a friend. This third party is not a Christian, and he'd had a conversation with someone involved with the Evangelical parachurch campus ministry where he and my friend are getting Ph.Ds.

During the third party's conversation with this other person, the notion of the "God-shaped hole" came up. This is the idea that we all have a hole in our souls someplace shaped like God and thus God is the only one that can fill it. When my friend told me about this later, he used "God-shaped" and "Jesus-shaped" interchangeably, which is probably significant.

Anyway, my friend turned the question to me: "Do we need Jesus, specifically, to fill this hole? Is plugging some hole inside us with Jesus the only way to have a meaningful life?"

This was, and is, a question of whether other faiths are valid. It is also a question that assumes what humanity's problem is. I was a little dodgy on the first part because I myself didn't have a clear answer. But I did get to thinking about the second part.

The notion of a "God-shaped hole" assumes that 1) before some active profession and practice of faith, we have no connection to God, and 2) without God specifically as revealed in Jesus, our lives have no meaning. This is the problem as defined by this analogy. The problem is almost like a Mentos commercial: a problem arises, and once we pop Jesus the Freshmaker, all is well and we have a clear direction and purpose and maybe a cheesy smile. It borders on selling a product with promises of fulfillment and personal satisfaction. That's why many mainliners in particular have issues with many forms of evangelism, but that's for another day.

The first assumption of this analogy has flaws as well. The psalmist asks, "where can I go from your presence?" Jacob exclaims after his ladder dream, "Surely the Lord was in this place and I did not know it!" Jesus declares that the kingdom of God is very very close to people. There are numerous verses where God is in active pursuit of individuals and groups rather than waiting for them to make some public statement that they're ready to submit, repent, pray a sinner's prayer, sign a True Love Waits promise, raise their OCWM giving, or whatever else. So God is not a passive God waiting to fill some hole when invited in, and God is more connected even to people who have been deemed by others to have this hole. So there isn't really a hole to begin with, as that indicates complete separation from God and lack of regard by God until some commitment is made on the individual's part. we specifically need Jesus to fully realize this connection to and pursuit by God? My first inclination is to respond that the Israelites did pretty well for thousands of years without Jesus. That's being admittedly snide about it, but if we first consider that Jesus was indeed Jewish and thus in both continuity and critique with this tradition that had such a long history prior to his being born in a stable rude, coupling that with Paul's statements about whether Jews are "in" or "out," and the Biblical case is somewhat muddled.

Furthermore, I'm a weak subscriber to Karl Rahner's concept of "anonymous Christians." This is the idea that non-Christians can be in service to Christ without being aware of it. I say "weak" because I've never actually read this concept for's just come up in enough places for me to think that it makes sense. Understand that, acknowledging all of the factors of upbringing and cultural context, I am a Christian, and thus interfaith dialogue does not and should not call Christians to apologize for following Christ, but instead acknowledge differences while still working together on common matters of justice to which our faiths may call us. And while there may be the concept of "anonymous Christians," others may hold to concepts of "anonymous Muslims," "anonymous Buddhists," and so on. This is all to say, I suppose, that where our paths cross in matters of serving humanity and restoring creation is when we are most clearly showing the divine to our neighbors. That's probably an inadequate answer and I didn't even really mention John 14:6 until just now. I suppose it was the bigger concept that I wanted to write about.

This one was more rambling. But I think I've got all of this out of my system for the time being.


Anonymous said...

Re: anonymous Christians

I read this morning in My Utmost for His Highest this passage, and am mulling it over:

"Jesus did not say to make converts to your way of thinking, but He said to look after His sheep, to see that they get nourished in the knowledge of him. We consider what we do in the way of Christian work as service...[yet service is] what we are to Him, not what we do for him. Discipleship is based solely on devotion to Jesus Christ."

There is no question in my mind that doing good is doing good, regardless of your religio-spiritual-cultural grounding. But there is something different about doing it out of devotion to God (YHWH, The One Divine), and doing it for some other reason. There's a difference in texture, if not in content. I don't think it's the texture of salvation, per se, but of devotion. Of love.

p.s. love the title and bio!

HarryTick™ said...


I had forgotten that term, "anonymous christian". I remember where the Pharisees and the scribes are facing off with John the Baptist over his baptizing...lots of good stuff in that short conversation, but the key part that strikes my mind in relation to this topic is where John says that God could touch the stones and raise up sons of Abraham (I think under his breath he mentioned something like, "so he doesn't necessarily need a bunch of self-righteous old coots, like you!").

Jesus said that the Spirit goes where it will, and described it using the wind. John describes God as the source and embodiment of love. I can't help but sense that despite our packaging, God is out there accomplishing what he wills, when he wills, through whomever he wills. Even stones he has touched in order to raise up sons to Abraham.

I identify and define my belief through the person of Jesus, everything that I see and write about are colored by my personal revelation, but I've pretty much discounted even the subtler forms of snake oil salesmanship. "You're not well, you need what I have to sell you. It cures all that ails you!"

Like your thought, if God is the creator of all, the sustainer of all, the all in all, where-then-is-a-house-that-you-could-build-for-me big, and present everywhere, how'd we get turned into spiritual donuts with chunks of him missing? Maybe that's why you like coffee so much? Dunking from the inside out?

What I read in scripture suggests that the ministry of Jesus to everyone but those who presumed they didn't need to hear what he had to say, was that God is with us. Even the angel told Mary that he would be called Emmanuel, God with us.

Mystical Seeker said...

There are probably a lot of takes on religious pluralism out there, and I'm no expert. I think the idea of "anonymous Christians" at first glance seems to be weak form of pluralism, since it says that Christianity is the really true revelation and that the others are just shadow revelations, although if you also acknowledge that people from other perspectives can legitimately talk about anonymous Muslims or whatever, then that would make it a stronger form of pluralism that recognized that each religion can claim that other religions are their shadows.

Personally, my take on religion is that each religion represents an example of the blind man and the elephant, so in that sense I am a strong pluralist. I think that loyalty to one's tradition is a fine thing, and living fully as a Christian or Muslim or Buddhist can be wonderful. To me it isn't the faith that matters, but how one lives one's life, but that religious loyalty is a lot like like being loyal to one's spouse.

I've been thinking about pluralism a lot lately, and I've been blogging about the subject quite a bit. Stephen Prothero's recent NY Times review of the Pagels-King book on the Gospel of Judas got me started, and then his Newsweek article in which he attacked "multiculturalists" who promote religious pluralism also prompted me to respond.