Saturday, 20 May 2017

John 14- the offensive claims of Jesus

We live in a world full of so much diversity- many cultures and many religions- isn’t it arrogant for Christians to claim the only way to God? It’s offensive to say you know spiritual truth and imply that others don’t. 
We live in a world with an incredible amount of diversity among human beings. There are many different cultures and religions.  As globalization has its effect on us we bump into more of the varieties of cultures and religions in a way we wouldn’t have even 50 years ago.  
In the midst of this incredible diversity of cultures Christians claim to know the exclusive route to God.  Paul in Romans 5:19 says, “For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” It is Jesus who fixed what was broken about the world. It is his medicine that was injected into the sick world that is bringing about a cure. In John 14:6 Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The Prophet Isaiah is speaking for God and in Isaiah 45:5 he says, “I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides me there is no god.” In Acts 4:12 Paul says about Jesus, “there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”  To the modern North American this all seems pretty intolerant and offensive. Christianity should change its tune if it doesn’t want to be considered bigoted and close-minded.
There is a detail that is worth teasing out in the Christian claim. Christians are saying that Jesus said of himself that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through [him]”. We aren’t making the claim about Christianity. We are saying Jesus made this claim about himself. We aren’t saying only Christians are saved. We aren’t claiming to know who populates heaven or hell. We are just saying that Jesus said he is the one who saves. If someone is saved it is because of Jesus. If an atheist, or a Hindu is saved it is not because of their atheism or Hinduism- it is because of Jesus.  That might still seem offensive to some, but that is where traditional Christianity takes its stand because of the words of Jesus.
We shouldn’t see this as unusual for religion though. I spent 4 years of university getting a bachelor’s degree in the study of world religions at a secular university. As I grew up at different times I considered myself a Wiccan, and experimented a lot as a Buddhist. I have spent a lot of time and energy looking at this thing we call religion. … All religions make claims about spiritual truth. For example, Buddhism teaches that you will not reach Nirvana without practicing Buddha’s 8-fold path, and the Buddhist worldview even includes a hell (just in case you thought Christians had the monopoly on that). So it’s not as if this problem goes away by getting rid of Christianity. All religions make claims about spiritual truth, not just Christianity. 
Some religions try to have a broader inclusion. So for example, some broad-minded Buddhists will try to see Jesus as a Boddhisatva (which is sort of a Buddhist saint). So the Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh reinterpreted the Eucharist saying, “[Jesus] knew that if his disciples would eat one piece of bread in mindfulness, they would have real life”.[1]  It seems open-minded, but really they are changing Jesus and making him into a Buddhist. He stops being the Jesus of the Bible and starts being a Buddhist. In a similar way Islam seems to embrace Jesus, but he is not the Son of God and he did not die on a cross and have a bodily resurrection. They reinterpret Jesus and make him into a Muslim prophet- he is not the Jesus of the Bible. Other religions might seem to embrace Jesus, but they won’t accept him on his own terms. All religions claim spiritual truth, which then implies that other claims are less true or false.     
There is a kind of parable that is sometimes told about the various religions of the world. They symbolically imagine spiritual truth as an elephant. Then they imagine these blind men approach the elephant and each attempt to understand and describe the elephant. One blind man approached the elephant’s leg and he says, “An elephant is like a tree”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s trunk and says, “An elephant is like a snake”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s side and says, “An elephant is like a wall”. Another blind man approaches the elephant’s tail and says, “An elephant is like a rope”. This parable is often told to talk about how each of the religions mistakenly knows a part of the spiritual truth, but they don’t know the whole truth. Each of them only has a part of the truth and it is a mistake to think any one of them really understands an elephant by only knowing the elephant’s leg.
The story is often told to point out the foolishness of the blind men- and so the foolishness of the world religions. They are arrogant to claim they have knowledge that is superior to the other religions, just as it would be arrogant for each of the blind men to think they have the full understanding of the elephant. …
The problem is that there is another person in the parable. The person who is watching the blind men is the only one who sees the whole elephant. The observer is the only one with superior knowledge- the observer is the only one that is not blind. The one who thinks the other religions are arrogant and foolish for claiming knowledge superior to the other religions are themselves claiming to have superior knowledge over all the other religions- they hypocritically claim they have knowledge which they just made fun of the blind men for claiming to have. The observer is in the position of being right and all the other religions (or blind men) are wrong. They fall prey to the same arrogant stance they accuse the other religions of having.
The statement that all religions are basically the same is a claim to know the truth. It also implies that the Buddhist who says the 8-fold path is the way to nirvana is wrong- and the Muslim who says there is only one God and Muhamad is his prophet is wrong- and the Christian who says Jesus is the only way to the Father is wrong.
You can’t get away from making claims about truth. We all do it. And when we claim something is true, we are automatically implying something else is false. We all have a way we view the world that includes a specific kind of belief system. 
          I heard a pastor named Timothy Keller once describe a conversation he had on a university campus with a student. As they were talking the topic moved to religion, as often happens with pastors. Eventually the student realized what was happening and said, “Hey! You’re trying to evangelize me. You’re trying to convert me to Christianity. You are trying to convince me that your way of looking at the world is better than mine. You are trying to say your belief system is right and mine is wrong. That is offensive!” … Timothy Keller responded, “Wait, so you think my way of thinking is wrong (trying to convert people to Christianity and saying Christianity is true) and that I should convert to your belief system (that of broad inclusivism where somehow no religion is more right than any other)? That’s offensive”.  …. The student was making claims about the right way to think and act. You can’t get away from making claims about what is true. And when you say something is true you automatically exclude other claims. …  When you find someone offended at these kinds of religious truth claims, if you look just beneath the surface, you will find they believe in their own truth claims and are just as guilty of stating others are wrong. It is usually a hypocritical stance, though they usually don’t see it.
Some people say all religions are paths that lead up the mountain to God. They are different paths, but they have the same destination. … Well, what is it that we arrive at when we get to the top? Is it the Triune God of Christianity? Is it the one (non-Trinitarian) God of the Koran? Are there thousands of Gods as Hindus believe? Or is the mountaintop empty because Buddhism doesn’t believe in God? Or is there a new age idea of the Force?
I’m not saying that we don’t have similarities. We do. There are tremendous similarities among religions in some areas. Especially when it comes to morality. Usually the various religions of the world will agree on most moral cases. There is a lot of overlap when it comes to morality.  Jesus used positive examples of Samaritans who were considered heretics in his own time (John 4; Luke 10; Luke 17). Jesus had mercy and healed non-Jews (Gentiles), who were usually Pagan. He didn’t come to them with condemnation.  We read about Paul in Athens and he quotes some of their pagan authors and praises them for how religious they are (Acts 17).  I think we too should follow the examples of Jesus and Paul and recognize what is true and beautiful in other religions. We should be willing to applaud the deep insights of other religions. We should be willing to recognize where we overlap in our moral convictions and be willing to work together in those areas.    
If you think the whole goal of religion is morality, then you might be led to say things like “all religions are pretty much the same”. But that is really a surface issue. Most deeply religious people will see morality as a side effect of what they believe, but not the end point, or even the central point. Saying all religions are basically the same shows you haven’t spent much time with the various religions of the world. We should recognize our similarities, but we should also recognize our differences. We should also recognize that at times we will think each other are wrong.  To use an extreme example, I don’t think any of us want to support the beliefs of someone who would crash a plane into a building killing thousands of people and say it is the work of God; or beliefs that would require child sacrifice (as some ancient cultures practiced). I hope we would all consider those beliefs as mistaken, regardless of the sincerity of the practitioners.  The desire to be kind and gracious to those who believe differently than us is a good instinct. That doesn’t mean we have to give up what we believe to be true.
I think we have a trickier job as religious people in our age. 100 years ago we didn’t bump into such a variety of religious people. God gave us a brain and God expects us to use it. In the mix of beliefs we find ourselves in, we have to work hard to figure out which claims about God, human nature, and spiritual reality are true and which are false. What is life all about? What is the most important thing we should spend our time doing? Is there life after death? What is right and wrong, and why?  We have to base our life on some answer to those questions. We cannot function without some kind of belief structure.
Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). We have to decide what we are going to do with that. Are we going to accept what Jesus says about himself? Is he right or is he wrong? Or are we going to choose some other truth to believe in (like ‘all religions are true’) and say Jesus is wrong? Either way we are committing ourselves to some truth, and we are therefore rejecting the alternative.  The motivation behind the statement ‘all religions are equally true’ is good. It is a desire for peace and understanding between the various cultures of the world.  I think Christianity values both peace and a desire to build relationships with those that are different from us. Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. Jesus died praying for the forgiveness of those that were killing him. I believe his teachings are a powerful force for good in our world. And probably much more helpful than a vague inconsistent belief about everyone being right. AMEN

[1]  Thich Nhat Hanh, Peace is Every Step, (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 22.

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