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Jesus: The Way or Just Another Path?

by Drew 8 Comments
Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

Christ Pantocrator from a dome at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Courtesy Godot13 via Wikimedia Commons.

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,

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

Jesus is much less challenging as my buddy than as the way, truth, and life.

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.

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Covenantal Individualism & UMC Clergy

obedience memeA recent Reconciling Ministries blog, in which a UM pastor tells her side of the decision to conduct a same-gender wedding contrary to the Book of Discipline, was shared on Facebook with the following tagline:

“Rev. Pam Hawkins shares what led her to officiate Doug and Frank’s marriage ceremony. She will be suspended for 90 days without pay after a complaint was filed because she fulfilled her clergy vows to be in ministry with all people. ‪#‎BiblicalObedience‬

It is neither a secret nor a surprise that the recent Supreme Court decision has added heat to an already-boiling debate.  In truth, both progressive Christians, who celebrated it as a victory, and conservative Christians, who decried it as a loss, were wrong.  Allan Bevere clarifies this helpfully:

“There is a difference between the way the state views marriage from the church. According to the state, marriage is a right not to be denied, which is now extended across the U.S. to gay and lesbian couples. The church has never viewed marriage as a right, and those Christians who believe it should be so understood by the church need an introductory course in the theology of marriage. For Christianity marriage is a gift from God given to two people. No pastor is required to officiate at any particular marriage ceremony. I have the authority, which I have exercised more than a few times over the years, not to officiate at a wedding. I do not even have to have a reason why I might refuse to perform a particular marriage (though I always have). The point is that Christian marriage is not a right owed; it is a gift received.”

In a Christian grammar, marriage is a gift (some say a sacrament), not a right.  It is chiefly a spiritual, covenantal reality and not a legally binding contract (as it is for the state).

For better or for worse, the UMC has had a consistent position about same-gender sexuality (I would argue, not identity) for over forty years.  United Methodists pastors have been forbidden from conducting same-gender weddings specifically since 1996, for nearly twenty years. (Thanks to my friend and RMN board member Dave Nuckols for correcting me here). Anyone who has been ordained within that time frame, like yours truly, has had hands laid upon them and pledged to serve within a church with these particular rules on the books.**

But RMN and other progressive caucuses in the UMC have taken an interesting tack in recent years, arguing that church teaching is contradictory, that, as the tagline above implies, pastors must disobey some rules in the BOD to fulfill their calling.  Notice how individualistic the logic is:

“But I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that God prepared the way for me, as an ordained United Methodist minister, to be present in ministry with them, and that with the help of God I was able to stay focused on the gospel – the good news of Jesus Christ – and not be distracted by a few gospel-less rules of The United Methodist Church that call us, the ordained, to choose harm and discrimination above love.”

A couple of things stick out here:

Modern Christianity is all about 1 person: me.

  • The relationship is “me and God,” reminiscent (as so many poor Protestant decisions are) of Luther’s “Here I am, I can do no other.”  But UM Clergy are ordained as members of bodies called Orders and Conferences.  We are never on our own. It is always “Here we are,” not “Here I am.”  Draw the circle wider and realize that UM clergy represent not only themselves, but one another, and indeed the whole church.
  • There’s that overused word again: “harm.” The author ignores the community that ordained her, we are told, because she is choosing “love” over “harm and discrimination.” But she admits that the couple could have gotten married elsewhere.  Moreover, many clergy have been present at and even participated in same-gender weddings without doing the full ceremony themselves. (Even many of our bishops have clarified that this ministry is not against the BOD.)  The word ‘harm’ in UMC circles no longer has any identifiable definition, it is instead used to shut down conversation and justify anything controversial.  If your intent is to prevent ‘harm’ (notice the utilitarian logic), anything is permissible.
  • Clear church teaching for decades is dismissed as “a few gospel-less rules.”  Now, I am not necessarily a fan of our current language. It is inelegant and imprecise, especially by 2015 standards.  But the BOD is the voice of the whole church, and these particular “rules” have been the most hotly debated – and affirmed – for years.  To decide individually what rules represent the will of God and which can be flagrantly ignored represents a sad capitulation to the individualist spirit of our age and a direct insult to Methodists around the world, the majority of whom wish to see church teaching as it is currently constituted. I don’t have to agree with church teaching to abide by it, especially since the clergy covenant is always entered into willingly (and can be exited willingly).

One last point. I am troubled by the faux self-sacrifice of this piece, in which the author identifies with Noah and Jesus, and goes on to say,

“I will find my way through an imposed season of ministerial drought. I expect to face temptations of a hardened heart and dark nights of my soul. I anticipate discouragement and doubt from time to time while suspended from the work that I love.”

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

Cartoon via Nick & Zuzu.

The greatest irony is that contemporary progressive UM advocates play the martyr while intentionally violating the clergy covenant, knowing full well they will likely face few consequences from their superiors (and in some cases, outright support, like Bishop “Grow Up” Carcano wearing a Love Prevails pin to Connectional Table meetings) and will be lauded by their peers.  Frank Shaefer and Mel Talbert are conference-circuit heroes now.  The author – whose church has on its web page information on how to support her financially despite the suspension – will no doubt be welcomed into that Rogue’s Gallery now, as well.

So there you have it.  Today’s progressive Methodists can enjoy the benefits of the clergy covenant without accountability, pick and choose which aspects of the Book of Discipline to follow, and simultaneously build their personal brands by playing both martyr and hero, all for the price of a slap on the wrist. (See note at bottom for more.)

To conclude, a word about the title.  “Covenantal Individualism” sounds like nonsense because it is.  I believe Jesus-loving United Methodists disagree on how to move forward, and I am open to finding ways to honor those disagreements within the covenant.  But we must find that way together.  It’s not up to me or you.  It’s up to the whole body.  Continued covenantal individualism (which makes as much sense as “biblical obedience”) will only make the house of cards fall faster.

*Note: I actually do respect the decision by Nashville Area Bishop Bill McAllilly; in calling for significantly more consequences than most of his Council of Bishop peers have, he has gone against a troubling current and deserves praise for actually doing his job, however distasteful and unfortunate I’m sure it has been.

**Edited after correction by Dave Nuckols.

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