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John 14:6

A pluralistic interpretation

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Reminder:

John 14:6, in the King James Version is translated as: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me."

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A pluralistic interpretation of John 14:6 by a Unitarian:

"UUs" are members of congregations affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). In the past, the term "Unitarian" meant a Christian who rejected the idea of the Trinity and who believed, as do Jews and Muslims, that God is an indivisible unity. Many religious conservatives still use this definition to refer to UUs. In reality, fewer than 15% of UU's still regard themselves as Christians; most identify themselves as Humanists.

One Unitarian using the penname of "Fausto" commented on his/her understanding of John 14:6.

"That verse from the Gospel of John is taken by many Christians and non-Christians alike as a defining boundary between Us and Them, an insurmountable barrier to common acceptance and understanding. I suspect, although it is rarely discussed in UU circles, it may be near the center of many UUs' aversion to Christianity: if we can find glimpses of truth in many traditions and cultures, how can we affirm one that denies all the others?

Yet John 14:6 doesn't need to be a wall, even though many Christians do indeed understand it that way, and therefore unwittingly use it that way. I would argue that to read it that way is a misunderstanding.

Fausto suggests that the "whole premise of the gospel of John" is to develop an association between the Jewish idea of God and the Greek concept of divine Logos (Word). John saw:

"... that the "God of Israel" was merely one culture's limited apprehension of a universal divinity that was in fact available to all peoples, but also that the same divinity had already been apprehended outside the Jewish tradition, by peoples the Jews considered "Gentiles" or "pagans".

"John perceived, in particular, that in the Jewish figure of Jesus was also a manifestation of the Logos recognized by the Greeks ... Hence John wrote (at 1:14): "And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us". The rest of the Gospel is an embellishment of that idea, a portrayal of Jesus as an embodiment of that humanly accessible, cross-culturally inclusive, manifestation of the Hellenic idea of divine Logos.

"Where John (at 14:6) portrays Jesus as saying "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to the Father except through me," it would be a misinterpretation to understand those to be the verbatim words of Jesus, decreeing eternally as the one true God of Israel, that the only way to escape an eternity of burning torment in the afterlife is strict adherence to a set of abstruse doctrines about himself that would not even be defined until hundreds of years later by politically charged conferences of fallible men. Rather, it is John's attempt to illustrate Jesus' identity with the divine Logos, which the Greek philosophers believed to be present everywhere. When Jesus speaks in John's Gospel, he speaks on behalf of the universal Logos. John is saying that Logos is the Way, the Truth, the Life, and if you would know the Father, the God of Israel, then also get to know Logos. ..."

Now, John himself was only concerned with reconciling Hellenic and Jewish apprehensions of divinity. He was writing only for Jewish and Greek audiences, not Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Hindu, Taoist, or Native American ones. But as the influence of his writing spreads beyond his original audiences, I think we must apply his original attitude of inclusivity and commonality of apprehension to analogous new circumstances. We should not allow what he intended as a dissolution of barriers and fusion of disparate understanding to be used to erect new barriers instead.

What does John 14:6 mean today, then? I think this: If you would know not only the God of Israel, but if you would also know Brahman, if you would know the Tao, if you would know Ahura Mazda, if you would know Wakan Tanka, then know also that like the God of Israel, despite similar cultural differences, they too are in essence one with the Logos of the Greek philosophers, the Christ of the Christians." 3

Brahman is the Supreme Cosmic Spirit or Absolute Reality in Hinduism. The Tao is the ultimate principle of the universe in Taoism. Ahura Mazda is the name of God in Zoroastrianism. Wakan Tanka is the name given to "Great Mystery" -- often translated as the Great Spirit -- among the Lakota, Nakota, or Dakota nations.

Fausto later comments on a reader's posting:

"To read 14:6 superficially is to court exclusivity and raise barriers; it sanctifies those who are within the "club" and dehumanizes those who are not, and at its extreme it leads to Crusades and Holocausts. However, as Jesus said, a good tree cannot bear bad fruit. Since the verse is so close to the core of Christian faith, and since a superficial reading seems so clearly (at least to us nonconformists) to bear bad fruit, then either it must have another, truer meaning, or it reveals all of Christian tradition to be a bad tree.

I may not agree with sizable chunks of orthodox Christian doctrine, but I don't want to call all of Christianity a bad tree. For one thing, it is the tradition that produced our own denomination and bequeathed to us our own ideals. For another, no other religion has produced such a clear vision of those ideals -- including radical forgiveness, reconciliation, humility, service, charity, compassion, and justice -- as Christianity's concepts of "grace" and "the Kingdom of God".

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References used:

The hyperlinks below were used to prepare the above essay, but are not necessarily still valid today.

  1. Wallace D. Wattles, "Jesus: The Man And His Work," at: http://www.rgveda.com/
  2. Other biblical translations are available at: http://www.biblegateway.com/
  3. "Fausto," "Reinterpreting John 14:6" Socinian Blogspot, at: http://socinian.blogspot.com/2005/09/reinterpreting-john-146.html
  4. Brian McLaren, "A reading of John 14:6," at: http://www.brianmclaren.net/
  5. John MacArthur, "Brian McLaren and the Clarity of Scripture, Part 4," Grace to You, at: http://www.gty.org/
  6. Matthew J. Slick, "Is Christianity the One True Religion?," Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry CARM), 2005-2008, at: http://www.carm.org/questions/onlytrue.htm
  7. James Burton Coffman, "Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament: John 14," at: http://www.searchgodsword.org/
  8. Patrick Henry, "Matthew Henry Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible, John 14, at: http://www.searchgodsword.org/

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Copyright © 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2008-MAY-10
Latest update: 2007-MAY-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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