Is Jesus a unique revelation of God, or one of many sages or prophets who point us to the Transcendent? Is he God in the flesh, or just another means for my personal growth and self-affirmation?
In John 14:6, Jesus makes a claim that was as startling then as it is today:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
In the commentary from his excellent For Everyone series, retired bishop and St. Andrews professor N.T. Wright puts the ensuing controversy thus:
How dare he, people have asked. How dare John, or the church, or anyone else, put such words into anyone’s mouth? Isn’t this the height of arrogance, to imagine that Jesus or anyone else was the only way? Don’t we now know that this attitude has done untold damage around the world, as Jesus’ followers have insisted that everyone else should give up their own ways of life and follow his instead? I know people, professing Christians, for whom it seems that their central article of faith is their rejection of this idea of Jesus’ uniqueness.
I echo Wright’s observation that many Christians seem rather embarrassed by this passage, quick to dismiss it or downplay it. Such folks are especially found in mainline and progressive evangelical circles. There is a reason Lesslie Newbigin named this phenomenon “the scandal of particularity.” It is a scandal that God calls a particular people (Israel). Likewise it goes against all our enlightened notions of tolerance, of our axiomatic faith in the equal validity of every possible religious expression, to take Jesus at his word when he claims to be the unique path to truth and life.
As Wright notes, however, when we reject this truth, the medicine is worse than the illness:
The trouble with this is that it doesn’t work. If you dethrone Jesus, you enthrone something, or someone, else instead. The belief that ‘all religions are really the same’ sounds nice and democratic—though the study of religions quickly shows that it isn’t true. What you are really saying if you claim that they’re all the same is that none of them are more than distant echoes, distorted images, of reality. You’re saying that ‘reality’, God, ‘the divine’, is remote and unknowable, and that neither Jesus nor Buddha nor Moses nor Krishna gives us direct access to it. They all provide a way towards the foothills of the mountain, not the way to the summit.
This is why the overwrought sermon illustration about the blind Hindustani – in which several blind sages try to describe an elephant by touch and they each declare that their part is the whole beast – is so misleading. The only way one can argue that every religious truth is equally valid is to claim a fictional place of neutrality to all beliefs AND do violence by leveling every faith tradition. This is re-heated Enlightenment ideology run amok, and it’s as patronizing as it is false. We do not have to grind every faith down to some fictional core essence (see picture to the left) and pretend they all have the same conceptions of the divine, of values, of the ends of life in order to get along with others of differing beliefs. We actually honor our Muslim or Buddhist neighbors more by engaging the fullness of their traditions as they describe them than by pushing every religion through a sieve of modernist bias so that we can compare similar crumbs of truth.
Nothing less than the New Testament witness is at stake here.
It isn’t just John’s gospel that you lose if you embrace this idea. The whole New Testament—the whole of early Christianity—insists that the one true and living God, the creator, is the God of Israel; and that the God of Israel has acted decisively, within history, to bring Israel’s story to its proper goal, and through that to address, and rescue, the world. The idea of a vague general truth, to which all ‘religions’ bear some kind of oblique witness, is foreign to Christianity. It is, in fact, in its present form, part of the eighteenth-century protest against Christianity—even though some people produce it like a rabbit out of a hat, as though it was quite a new idea.
Another way this gets argued is by folks who describe themselves as Christians but are clearly uncomfortable with the divinity of Christ. If Jesus is primarily a sage, a healer, or a prophet declaring the righteous justice of God, then his divinity becomes
incidental. Allan Bevere notes in an importance piece,
Much contemporary theology has been quite deficient…by attempting to keep the significance of Jesus, while denying the necessity of his identity as the God-Man.
The way to clicks and headlines in contemporary Christianity is to claim that Jesus was everything BUT God in Jewish flesh: an activist, a Republican, an African-American, transgender, a capitalist, a rabble-rouser, a defender of the status quo, a teacher, a comedian, or the ideal member of the proletariat. Stanley Hauerwas, in his characteristic wit, likes to argue that Jesus was bald (because of the patristic dictum, “what he has not assumed, he has not healed”).
Of course, the fact that Jesus’ life and teaching relates to us on so many levels is wonderful, a testimony to his ongoing appeal to folks in all walks of life across time space. But all such reflection should be a celebration of the beauty of the incarnation, the radical affirmation that God has become flesh and never ceased being God.
The moment, however, that it’s more important to make Jesus affirm my identity than it is to affirm his divinity, we’ve dramatically reduced the Jesus we meet in the New Testament. To make Jesus primarily an agent of personal affirmation or some other selfish purpose is to make incoherent the Jesus of John 14. Instead of the way, the truth, and the life, we are left with a way, some truth, and my life.
Source: Wright, T. (2004). John for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 11-21 (pp. 59–60). London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Accessed via Logos 6.