Monday, April 10, 2006

John 14:6

There is no verse in the Bible I struggle with so much as this one.

I am about to plot out my struggle for all of you. I'm not sure if this struggle is a particularly Quaker struggle. I feel like I should be able to either happily ignore all the verses in the Bible I don't like, because it's an error-filled historical document, or ignore my problems with various verses, because the Bible is the Inerrant Word of God, Amen, period. But neither of those approaches satisfies me either intellectually or spiritually.

After many years, I came back to Christianity because of Christ's gospel of love. Love for everyone, including the sinners and Samaritans and people we don't like. The God I worship is a God of inclusive love. A Christian friend perhaps a year ago, just about the time I was truly coming back to my faith, spent some time trying to convince me that I could not call myself a Christian and believe that there were other paths, and she cited this verse- 'no man comes to the Father except through me.' If she had convinced me that this was a true dichotomy, I would never have come back.

There are layers and layers of feeling I have about this verse. Part of the time I just say, "Argh, I can't deal with that verse. It sums up everything I hate about Christianity. Ugh." Part of the time I say, "Surely that was not in the original. Surely that was a later interpolation," and honestly, most of the scholarship I've read suggests that this is likely (the Gospel of John diverges widely from the other three, synoptic Gospels, and is widely regarded as the least accurate in regards to the specifics of Christ's life).

Part of me, though- maybe the faithful part, and maybe the dishonest part- wants to find a way to reconcile my beliefs to this verse, or this verse to my beliefs. And this calls into violent tumult all my views about the Bible. I do believe that the Bible is Divinely inspired, just as I believe that most messages in Meeting are Divinely inspired. But I surely don't think that messages in Meeting are inerrant, and nor do I think the Bible is. Nevertheless, I learn a lot from my fundamentalist friends, and as they keep reminding me when I bring up my struggle with this verse or that (how can they NOT struggle?!), I am not meant to lean on my own understanding.

Well. I think I am meant to lean on my own understanding, in part. As I seem to mention at least once a post, I am a scientist, and I think our minds are meant my God to be used. If men didn't lean on their own understanding some, we'd still be praying for miraculous cures instead of using antibiotics. And as the death rates among religious communities which forswear medicine in exchange for prayer can attest, sometimes antibiotics are just what a body needs.

But if I leant on my own understanding entirely, I'd still be floating in a vague New-Age spirituality, on no real path. I chose to walk this road because I want that structure and guidance, and I am looking for a bit of a roadmap to the Divine will. My faith tradition says that's the Bible- fine. But I am looking for a consistent way to view the Bible. I believe it's inspired, I believe it's a historical document, I believe it's truthful, I believe it needs to be viewed in context, I don't believe it's inerrant, I do believe that it's holy, I don't believe that it's perfect, I do believe that it's God-breathed, I don't believe that it's meant literally . . .

But where does this get me? When I'm staring a difficult verse in the face, what do I do with it? I don't mean a 'difficult verse' like the silly ones about the mustard seed being the smallest seed (it isn't) or rabbits being unclean because they chew the cud (they don't). Because I don't think the Bible is inerrant and these are such minor errors, it doesn't take much shrugging to not be bothered by this. But what about John 14:6?

I am the way, and the truth, and the life, and no man comes to the Father except through me.

If there is one deep, religious insight I feel like I've ever gained in my life it is this: There is only one Truth, but no one has any bloody clue what it is. The job of religions is to get us as close to it as we possibly can, but only God knows the whole of it. I'm inclined to think that Truth is just plain unknowable by humans- after all, God is truth, and God is unknowable. And while this belief in the unknowability of Truth and God is a belief as deepset in me as beliefs come, my entire life is pretty much dedicated to getting as near to the unknowable as I can, and living in accordance with it as much as I can. And the Bible tells me a fair amount both about how to get there (love your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love thy neighbor as thyself), and how to sniff it out in other folks (by their fruits you shall know them).

I don't buy that the main message of the Gospels is "believe in Jesus and be saved." When someone actually asked Jesus about the most important thing, he quoted the verses I just did, about love. So that's what my Christianity is about- love. Not about my salvation, because that'd be a bit selfish of me. Love.

When I read that verse from John, I do reconcile it in my head. Here's how I do it:

Christ is, in fact, the way, the truth, and the life, and Christ is love. I truly don't think anyone can get to God except through love. I don't think that verse is commanding that we worship Jesus as Savior- I think it's commanding that we partake of the love of Christ. And as far as I can understand, there are a lots of ways to do that besides worshipping Jesus (and lots of people who worship Jesus that aren't following Christ at all . . . )

So that's my gloss for you. I even think it's a good gloss.

What I start to wonder is if I should be glossing at all. Not like everyone else isn't doing it. But in a way, when I use the Bible to justify a belief of mine, I'm being dishonest, because while the Bible informs many of beliefs and kicks me in the pants and reminds me to be honest and good and true, at the end of the day the Bible doesn't tell me what to believe; the still small voice does that. So I, and every bible-thumper in the country, can use the Bible to justify whatever beliefs I bloody well please, and I can make it sound all very nice and religious- 'of course I'm a good Christian! I believe in the Bible and everything!' when really I'm not sure if that's what the Bible is actually saying. I guess that's part of my lack of a handle on Truth.

And even then, I don't want to get caught in the trap of feeling that my beliefs must only come from the Bible . . . they don't, they never will, and I don't think they should. I'm a Quaker, blast it. Divine revelation is continually unfolding. What I want is a consistent view of the aggravating volume- some way to look at it that makes sense and helps me figure out when to gloss and when to not gloss and when to just ignore it. I have some nigglings in that direction, but nothing well fleshed-out.

And, argh, this is all part of the continual culture war inside of my head. The Quaker community here is wonderful and supportive and, like me, they view the Bible as inspired but not literal . . . but I often feel like I'm the only one agonizing over these things, because the other half of my faith community, in the form of my my dearly loved evangelical lowercase friends, do view the Bible as authoritative and I can't shrug off their influence . . . nor, I think, do I entirely want to. So here I am, groping towards a respectfully consistent view of the Bible. A Quaker view of the Bible, even. But I'm not there yet.

18 comments:

Martin Kelley said...

Hi Sarah,
I have to say, I've never felt too much worry about this one. I've always taken it to mean that the primary source of our understanding of the workings of divine love have to come via the Holy Spirit. "Christ has come to teach the people himself" and that direct, unmediated presence trumps bookishness and scientific rationality.

If you really want to wrestle with it, here's a cut-and-paste from Esther Murer's beyond-amazing Quaker Bible Index. She's gone through various Quaker text and cross-referenced as many Biblical quotations as she could find. Here are her links of early Quaker writings that take on John 14:6 (I left off a few hard-to-find references). The first line is page numbers, then the book they're from.

I hope you might find this helpful. I'm sure we'd all be intested to hear if you pull through to some new understanding of a Quaker-friendly take on this verse.
Your Friend,
Martin


The Journal of George Fox. Nickalls. Pages 35, 74, 150, 226, 288.

The power of the Lord is over all; the pastoral letters of George Fox. Jones. Pages 37, 233, 476.

Margaret Fell: A sincere and constant love. Wallace. Page 39.

Early Quaker Writings, 1650-1700. Barbour/Roberts. Page 316 (this is a quote from Barclay's Catechism.)

Robert Barclay: Barclay's Apology in modern English. Freiday. Page 23.

Isaac Penington: The light within and selected writings. Pages 45, 53.

Sarah said...

Heh, I think I'm mostly struggling so much because this came up this past Friday at my very interdenominational Bible study (we've got me, and a liberal Episcopalian, and a liberal Christian without a church, and a mainline Christian without a church, and two fundamentalist charismatics at an Assembelies of God church) . . . it came down to me and the Episcopalian on one side of that verse, and the two fundamentalists on the other, and the two searchers keeping their mouths shut. And I just came away upset. I'm considering stopping going to it, but considering that it's held at my house (my two housemates, the two unchurched, and the two evangelicals, all started it together, so it's in our living room), this may be difficult.

Robin M. said...

I think that your insight that neither messages in Meeting nor the writings in the bible must be inerrant to be valuable and divinely inspired is really important. I personally think that neither Jesus nor Paul nor George Fox have to be inerrant to be valuable and divinely inspired. (Especially when what little access we have to what they said has been handed down by generations of people with a whole array of biases and agendas. Even if this is counter to a lot of generally accepted Christian dogma.) I think being able to hold these concepts in creative tension (divine inspiration of humans is valuable even if not perfect) is key to my own understanding of my spiritual nature and Quakerism.

I like Martin's take on this specific verse.

I also think being upset is not necessarily a sign you should give up your bible study. Stretching and growing can in fact be painful. You may come to a new state of understanding, and those who seem so certain may come to a new respect for honest doubt.

One of the interesting stories from last year's PacYM sessions was from a woman from an Evangelical Friends Church who came as a Friends World Committee for Consultation visitor. She said that the bible studies at PacYM were very helpful to her. She had felt closed off from the bible for some time, since she had learned that the bible wasn't exactly what she had been told it was. But through the PacYM bible studies, she discovered a way to read the bible that was both respectful/loving and investigative.

I am inspired to hear that you six(?) even agreed to start the bible study together. Maybe I need something like this in my life.

Dave Carl said...

Sarah,

I've Googled about on this subject before, as it troubles me as well. Here's a site you may find interesting:

http://www.jesus-christ.ws/

Cheers,

David

Rich in Brooklyn said...

I think that the trouble we have with this verse comes from (a)ignoring the context and (b)overlaying it with an interpretation that isn't implied in the actual words.

The context is that Jesus is talking to his disciples just before he is to die and he is reassuring them that they will meet again. They are resistant to accepting his imminent death. They cannot understand what he means by where he is going (to God) and how they can go there also. He tells them they know the way. They say they don't. He says: you know me, I am the way. That's the heart of it.

The interpretation we lay over this roots itself in the sentence "No one comes to the father except through me." We interpret this as saying "Only Christians come to the father", or "Or only people who believe certain doctrines about me come to the father." Some people (including some commenters on this very post) try to make this more palatable by a second layer of interpreation that "me" means "love" rather than Jesus the man. But what the verse says to me is only what it says, namely that everyone who "comes to the Father" (i.e. comes into the presence of God), whether they are a Christian or not, whether they have loved or not, whether they have been worthy or not, whether they have ever even heard of Jesus during their time on earth, have in fact been brought to God by Jesus. It is Jesus' universal mission to bring people to God. And this is why it is possible to be a Christian "universalist".
- - Rich Accetta-Evans
(Brooklyn Quaker)

NYAfterthoughts said...

I'm chiming in mostly to applaud you for both wrestling with difficult passages, and for leaning on your own interpretation. Sometimes I'll read the Bible, tell people what I've just read, and they all think I'm making it up! But I think the important lesson is that Jesus talked in parables and questions because his messages are difficult. You can't just absorb the kind of knowledge he's trying to pass along by hearing it. You have to wrestle with it to be opened. For this specific passage, my reading is close to Rich in Brooklyn. He's trying to reassure them that they're on the right path, as he's about to be taken from them. The main point of the passage it to tell them that there is a destination, and that they're going to get there if they stay the course after he's gone. It's also important to remember that at that moment, he wasn't telling them not to ponder Zen koans to help unlock his message. Or saying Buddhists couldn't get into heaven. He was telling them that the other local competing heathen idolatry wasn't going to cut it. It would be silly to imagine him saying, "That, or if you've never heard of me, Hinduism could get you there, if you do it right." It's impossible to know if he would think that or not today. Perhaps the greatest lesson here is, you can make a particular sentence from the Bible mean anything you want it to mean, if you view it in isolation.

Sarah said...

Robin-

Yep, six of us. I'm not surprised the Bible study started; all members of the original group leant conservative, blended well, or were just quiet. Loudmouth me and the Episcopalian (wow, sounds like a band name) came later.

I *am* surprised that we *mostly* manage to get along. I get myself into trouble far more often than I'd like. I'm the Quaker- I'm supposed to be all peaceful, right? HAH. My most inglorious moment was a few weeks ago when I lost my grip a little (well, it was a bad day for me) and went on a rant about how much I despised the 'saved' language (well, I do). It's divisive, it puts the emphasis in the wrong place, it suggests salvation only takes a second, it makes the Gospel too easy, etc., etc. THAT was divisive, and upset people. I wanted to kick myself.

Sigh.

The problem is, the six of us incredibly rarely discuss our deep differences of theology because we're so afraid of offending each other. I bite my tongue each week- I imagine the folks on the other end of the spectrum do, too- and finally it bubbles out of me in fits of frustration.

What we really need to do is actually discuss these things as they come up, calmly, and maybe we'll get more out of our Friday evenings. I feel like we're treading so carefully so much of the time that we miss a lot of possibly wonderful discussion.

. . . on the other hand, while I think hearing my more evangelical friends share their point of view is wonderful and a gift, I rather worry sometimes that they think my views are the deceit of Satan . . . but we'll never know if we don't discuss them.

So . . . maybe you need something like that in your life. Or maybe you don't. Me, I do love the chance I have every Friday to discuss God and etc., but it's definitely a commitment that frustrates me at times.

Sarah said...

Rich & NY both-

I don't have a long ramble for this, but both of your insights really helped me. Thank you.

Robin M. said...

Have you read Margery Post Abbott's Pendle Hill Pamphlet (#323) An Experiment in Faith: Quaker Women Transcending Differences?

She was/is part of a worship and discussion group of Evangelical and Liberal Quaker women that grew out of the 1985 World Gathering of Young Friends. It is fascinating, in part as she describes how they learned to trust one another enough to share deeply.

Anonymous said...

Sarah,

The way I've understood the gospel of John for awhile now is as a holistic statement, from beginning to end, on the identity of Jesus as a human incarnation of the divine will. I think that the epistles of John follow this line of argument perfectly as well, in identifying God as agape, or creative and progressive love. Your gloss of John 14:6 is close to how I've come to understand this hard saying:

Jesus, as a historical and temporal incarnation of the divine will (the Word of God from John 1:1-2 being the spoken and thus knowable will of God), is the Way, the Truth, and the Life in that his teachings of love and compassion are truly those of God, the ones God would teach through any true incarnation of the Word, no matter which faith tradition grows up around it. I feel able to follow the teachings of Jesus because it is not he, but the One that went before him, that I'm following.
Hope this helps.

- a fellow seeker

Puritan Belief said...

The love that Jesus gives is a totally different love to what people understand who are not born again.

John 1:13
Which were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh NOR OF THE WILL OF MAN, but of God.

Love is not the message unless it is centered around Jesus. His love for you that saved you. We know that he does not save everybody.

This is the context of John 14:6
"No one comes to the Father except through me"

In other words if you are born of the Spirit of God then you have Jesus in you and Jesus is the way. He is the Love and all other forms of love end in destruction.

...The way is narrow

Anonymous said...

Hello Sarah,

I read intently your discourse on John 14:6. I too have struggled with this passage, and I too have a kind of "rationalist" profession--I'm a computer scientist / systems architect.

I don't know why, but it seems to help me to think about Christianity as a path up a tall mountain side. There are other paths (other faiths), and all of those other paths can give you beautiful vistas (concepts of the divine) over the surrounding landscape, but only one takes you to the highest point, and that path is following Jesus. In this way, I can respect other faiths, and I can draw parallels with them, but I am also aware of Christ's instructions that we are to spread the word to all the nations. Being salt and light doesn't always mean that we're always loving and kind in a "happy-happy-joy-joy" shallow way. Sometimes it means that we have to draw these parallels between our faith and others, and then question those aspects of others' faiths where their "vista" is clouded or obscured by their current path. Am I 100% percent certain that my path is the absolute best path? Yes, but only through faith. I will never be able to deduce the "correctness" of this path in such a way that a rational analysis will convince anyone. We must take a leap, but thankfully (for us rationalists), it's a rather small one.

Although, if you read Bonhoefer's works, we're all wrong. His idea of discipleship is significantly more testing than you or I would probably consider necessary. However, being a 20th century martyr does lend a person a certain amount of credibility, eh?

Bill Samuel said...

I think Rich is pretty close to the early Quaker understanding on this. They believed Christ spoke to everyone, regardless of whether they had heard of the historical Jesus or not, and that each person could respond to that. They believed it diminished Christ to believe that he could only reach people if some human told them the story of the historical Jesus.

A couple of weeks ago, Matthew Dyer, the pastor at Cedar Ridge Community Church where I am now, spoke about the Parable of the Good Samaritan. He noted that the Samaritan would have been a heretic in the eyes of those to whom Christ was speaking, and that the Samaritan was cited where the question was how to inherit internal life. I think Matthew was right on. I think this could inform your view of John 14:6.

Regarding the Bible study - it is helpful for folks to wrestle with their faith understandings - and to do it in a respectful way. So hang in there, and be honest, but try not to vent in a way that will seem to put down those with a different perspective. But on the saved question, the view that upsets you doesn't really have any basis in Christ's teachings. The moment of decision that gets you a ticket to heaven view is hard to square with a serious reading of the gospels.

There's a new book out that might help you on the Christian message, The Secret Message of Jesus: Uncovering the Truth that Could Change Everything by Brian McLaren. One of the things Brian deals with is the warped view of salvation that much of the institutional church has.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Sarah.

I'm not a blogger. I don't even know what an appropriate comment in this space should look like. But I saw your first post as a blogger, and I'm approaching my first "Comment" in the same uncertain way.

I'm a 60-year old Christian man trying to be obedient to God's will for my life. Right now, God is leading me to put my faith to the test of attempting to consider the differing and conflicting views of others with respect to the basic tenets of Christianity, as I have understood them since I was "saved" at age 31. Obviously, my internet research relating to John 14:6 led me to your site.

Your comments were among the most cogent I've ever read on the subject. While at present my search of the scriptures, illuminated by the Holy Spirit that indwells me, leads me to a conclusion that is probably different from yours, I'm convinced that God wants me to do something more than merely state my "position" and declare a standoff.

One of the most important things you said is that you believe that there is One God and One Truth. I agree 100%. And, if that is so, and if each of us seeks that Truth with a pure heart, willing to be transformed, then I have every confidence -- not in you, or in myself, but in my God and his Person the Holy Spirit that indwells me -- that God will lead us to a common understanding of this verse and its application for our lives.

Lee
Scottsdale, AZ

Linda said...

Thank you for this post. It, and the comments it inspired, speak to my condition.

URfriend, Dean Johnson said...

This topic also came up on my blog


URfriendly Reflections


The John 14 passage is Jesus comforting Peter concerning his coming thrice denial of the Christ. Jesus comforts Peter by explaining the way to God. Christ who is the temple and the house of God with many mansions returns to the Father. Peter is included in the temple, and in the Christ. And so Christ is the way to the Father, not only for Peter, but also for all who are included. In Ephesians 2 Paul explains this more explicitly by stating that all humanity, Jews and Gentiles, are included in this body that returns to the Father, and this temple that that has many mansions. Jesus words are far more inclusive than is commonly understood.

Check it out if you like.

URfriend, Dean Johnson

Shekinah said...

Hi Sarah. I REALLY loved your blog on John 14:6
I agree with you wholeheartedly on that idea, that the passage means Love, not necessarily Jesus the person, but what Jesus TAUGHT and was/is!
Not about worshipping HIM, but following his TEACHINGS!
I would love to chat with you more on this subject! I tried to send you a personal message but I dont see any way to do so...
Anyways...my email is angeliclive@yahoo.com
and I have several youtube videos...one that is somewhat pertinent to this blog is http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VcuqJL84_nw#GU5U2spHI_4

Let me know what you think!
And Id LOVE to hear from you!
Namaste
John/Shekinah Love

Luke said...

i'm doing a exegetical paper on this passage because i've really struggled with it.. and i'm in seminary!!! ugh! nothing makes my congregationalist heart pitter-patter in fear than the mention of this quote.

thanks for your insight. i really have enjoyed reading your blog from afar.. really great insights. have you considered seminary?! we'd be blessed to have you here at lancaster (www.lts.org).

here's the most recent post from my blog where i sorta tackle this.. albeit quite sloppily (if that's a word)

http://toothface.blogspot.com/2008/02/lets-not-and-say-we-did.html

rawk on! thanks!