The Way, the Truth, the Life
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The Christian faith purports to be the way, the truth, and the life.
How can Christianity claim to have the absolute truth? How can it be that there is only one way to God? How can we hold these kinds of beliefs in a world of tolerance, inclusivity, and relativism? This is a big question and it can be difficult to know even where to start. Let us start with our situation. We live in a pluralistic society. What do we mean by pluralistic? When we talk about social or cultural pluralism, it means a society which holds up freedoms such as freedom of religion, of association, of speech. A society where discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc. is not permitted. This is generally held up as a good thing. You sometimes hear it said that “Diversity is our strength.” Living in the city you know that we are constantly rubbing shoulders with people whose mother tongue, culture, faith commitments are different from ours. I saw Graham Nash on CBS Sunday Morning recently talking about living in New York, and he said how great it was to hear 10 different languages before he had his morning bagel and coffee. There is a richness to this sort of experience most definitely. I believe it adds a level of richness to our lives, though I recognize that not all would agree.
This is not a new situation for the Christian faith, by the way. The Christian faith from the beginning was made known in highly pluralistic societies.
While we are living and working alongside people of other faith commitments (and everyone has some sort of faith commitment), we find that we see a lot of what we call the fruits of the Spirit in them. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness. How do we see this? What do we do with this?
At the same time, we hear things like there is no absolute truth. There are reasons why this sort of thinking has come about, from the theory of relativity to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle (and I am the least qualified to discuss quantum field theory!) to the historical fact that people groups have had absolute truth thrust on them, often at the point of a sword or gun.
What do we do?
I want to start by reiterating that everyone has some sort of faith position. No one holds a purely objective view. Someone has said that “no standpoint is available to anyone except the point where they stand…there is no platform from which one can have an ‘objective’ view that supersedes all the ‘subjective’ commitments of the world’s faiths...” Even a standpoint such as “there is no absolute truth” is stating what a person believes to be absolute truth! The idea that there can be some sort of pure objective viewpoint is one that’s been largely discredited I think. We see it in the social sciences. The idea for example that the study of history can result in some sort of objective “just the facts” account is largely out the window. History is written by the victors. Events are recounted, left out, explained based on one’s standpoint.
Even in the harder sciences, there is a faith commitment to the scientific process, to tradition, to what has gone before, to publication, to peer review, to further study, etc. etc. There is a certain amount of unknown, of putting a hypothesis out there until such times as it is disproven, or allowing that further study is required. It seems that a lot of the trouble around the “war on science” currently going on is that people are being asked to choose between believing that science is totally objective on one hand, or that it is totally biased or political on the other.
But what does all this have to do with faith claims? First of all, there is a kind of Age of Reason hangover that there reason and knowledge will get us there. This is viewed with suspicion (and so many look askance at a statement like “We hold these truths to be self-evident” self-evident how and to whom?). There is also a notion that there are values or beliefs we might hold but they’re private as in “Hey your truth is your truth and mine is mine.” Faith is seen as a private thing. We looked last week at the saving work of Christ and how in Christ God was reconciling all things to himself. To have faith in Christ, to follow Christ, to commit yourself to Christ is not simply to commit yourself to ideas or values or ethics. It is to commit yourself to God who has acted in history and is acting in history and will act in history. A commitment to Christ is therefore something more than a privately held belief. It is something that is to affect every aspect of our life. It is something to which we who follow Christ are called to be witnesses in our words and in our deeds. Oftentimes you know I like to say that the chances we have to speak about the truth will come from the acts that the Holy Spirit performs in and through us.
This is one thing to keep in mind.
The other is to think of how we frame the question/answer here. As a follower of Christ, I do not claim to possess or have the truth, as if the truth were something to be held onto by me and doled out to others by me and by my wisdom. I do not possess the truth. I do not have the truth.
I follow the truth. We follow the truth.
I follow the one who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” This is the one I follow. This is the one to whom I am committed. This is the one whose way I am on. I thank God that we are called to do this together. This is the one in whom I have found life eternal, which as Jesus put it is knowing God. This is the one who is the truth, whose kingdom is truth and whose kingdom he told me to seek first.
“Here I stand, I can do no other!” as someone once said.
To acknowledge that I follow Christ who is truth and that truth is not something I possess is to acknowledge that I see through a mirror dimly. It is to acknowledge that the things I have come to know about God and about God’s grace, justice, mercy, and love have changed as I’ve been following him. That we never on this side of the mirror come to an end of knowing. These are not just internal values that I have adopted or a philosophy that I’ve come to accept. They’re based on what God has done in human history. The story that is contained in this book which starts in the beginning and ends with the renewal of all things. To have one’s life hidden in Christ, to say that this is the God to whom I belong, is not to have these stories and songs and poems and letters make sense of your story – to ask “How do they apply to my life?” It means that your life makes sense in the light of this story. It means that we see our lives and indeed the life of the world through the story of God. Who loved the world in this way, that he gave his only Son. But before that who created all things. Who, when humanity was lost, began a saving plan through a man to whom a promise was given. He would become the father of a nation through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed and the people involved in the plan would grow in number. This plan narrowed down to one man once again, but I should say one baby when a baby’s cry pierced the Bethlehem night. It carried on when another cry was heard, this one from a cross – “It is finished.” The plan has been going on ever since and it’s expanded into a group of people called out by God to be sent even as Christ was sent, empowered by the Holy Spirit even as Christ was empowered. It will be going on until that day when another cry will be heard “Look I am making all things new!”
Now you might ask the question “How can you say that God choose to work out his saving plan through a particular group of ‘chosen’ people? How can you say that God is continuing to work out his saving plan through an exclusive group of people? What about all the other people through whom God did not/is not working out God’s saving plan?
We need to start here with our view of the word exclusive. We tend I think to think of exclusivity as special. Here are the benefits of your exclusive membership. Come take your vacation at our exclusive resort. Come live in our exclusive retirement community. Because you’re special! You’re chosen. You’re set apart. We like that. We like to think we’re better. We’re set apart by God’s grace. God continually reminded the people of Israel that they were not to think that they were better than anyone else because they had been chosen. 7 It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors… (Deut 7:7-8a) In case you think you’ve come to Christ because you finally figured things out or again because you are special in some way, Jesus reminds his followers of the role that God plays in our coming to Christ. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. (John 15:16)
The thing is, this being chosen is in order to make God’s glory name known. To make God’s name known. God’s name is mercy and forgiveness and compassion and justice and love.
We’re called to do this with those around us. There are people who adhere to all kinds of different faiths around us. The Holy Spirit is at work not only in us. How are we to think about, how are we to talk about, this idea that Jesus is the only way?
There are different ways that Christians have approached this question. I’m going to propose a way to approach it. You may agree or not agree, I’m not going to be mad at you. Too often we approach people with different beliefs with anger. I’ve said before about how many people have said to me “Don’t be mad but I’m an atheist!” I can’t think that that reaction comes from nowhere and I hope it doesn’t come from a reputation I have of getting angry really easily. Christians of good faith may come down on different sides of a topic, I think, and we should be able to talk about it with love and grace.
First off are those who would say that all roads lead to God. That no one faith can adequately contain God. A story is told of a Rajah who called 6 blind men into his palace. They met an elephant there for the first time. Each blind man felt a different part of the elephant and said “Oh it’s like a wall” (flank) or “Oh it’s like a snake” (trunk) etc. Only the Rajah knows the whole truth. Of course, the person who holds this belief is in the position of the Rajah who is claiming to be the one who is enlightened and therefore practicing an exclusivism of his or her own. It’s a belief that I find doesn’t take seriously differences in belief systems or the commitment of those following them, certainly not Jesus’ assertion that he is the way.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who would say that salvation (meaning specifically eternal communion with God or not going to hell) is found only in Christ and only in those who hold and profess belief in Christ. At its most extreme are those who would say that people who never had a chance to know about Christ are suffering eternal torment. I find it difficult to make judgements that I believe are up to God or to presume to be able to say who’s going to hell or not. I also think that this kind of thinking is reductionist – reducing all of the faith of Christ to what happens when we die, leaving out that life in Christ is knowing God and living in communion with God, Father Son and Spirit.
The third way is what I would call a faithful not knowing. There’s room for not knowing in the Christian life. Billy Graham put what he believed like this as Dallas Willard describes it – “In his later years Billy Graham was asked if he believed heaven will be closed to good Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus or secular people. He very wisely replied: ‘Those are decisions only the Lord will make. It would be foolish for me to speculate on who will be there and who won’t… I don’t want to speculate about all that. I believe the love of God is absolute. He said he gave his son for the whole world, and I think he loves everybody regardless of what label they have.’”
I believe that Jesus is the only way. I don’t believe I can put limits around God’s grace. The only thing I would add to Willard’s comment is that I don’t believe anyone will be saved by being a “good” anything, but only by the immeasurable grace of God. This isn’t the good news that we share, as Willard goes on to say, it’s more like a loophole. But I think it’s an honest one and one that admits to the limits of our own knowing. We’re not to take salvation in Christ lightly. Not even our own. We are to remember God’s grace in the matter for ourselves too. Paul wrote, “Not that I have attained this or have already reached the goal, but I press on to make it my own.” We have blessed assurance but let us not get complacent in that assurance. That assurance is open to everyone and we make the invitation to everyone. We make it humbly and we make it knowing that the Holy Spirit is at work in people beyond our understanding. We make it being open to seeing the fruits of the Spirit in the lives of others, no matter what their faith, and speaking openly and honestly of our own confession of life in Christ. We remember that salvation is for all and that we experience our own salvation in the company of one another. There’s an old Irish saying which goes “It is in the shelter of one another that the people live.” We press on together in praise, in worship, in the Word, at the table. May God make us willing and humble instruments of God’s Kingdom, each playing our part in that great chorus which praises our Lord, the way, the truth, and the life indeed. Amen