On Facebook recently I posted this quote from the Dalai Lama and commented that I wish more Christians believed this about people of other faith traditions. I agree with something Bishop John Shelby Spong said: “God is not a Christian. God is not a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu or a Buddhist. I honor my tradition. I walk through my tradition. But I don’t believe my tradition defines God. It only points me to God.”
After posting the above photo a friend commented, “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’” (John 14:6). This friend considers this a definitive statement with no ambiguity. Another Facebook friend, my niece Kaitlynn, agreed that “God speaks very clearly through scripture and specifically in John 14:6 about how to be reconciled and receive salvation.” She didn’t see any other way to interpret that verse.
Facebook is many things, but perhaps it is not the best place to carry on a theological dialogue! However, because I want my Facebook friends (and relatives) to know that I respect and care about them, I offered the following response:
For me following Jesus is about trying to see the world through his eyes of mercy and relating to others with compassion more than it is about adhering to a particular set of beliefs. I believe in Jesus – it’s just that I don’t think my belief saves me. Christians often confuse faith and a faithful life with belief. I think of faith as trust in God. To confess “Jesus saves” is to acknowledge that we are not saved by a creed, a set of spiritual laws, or a particular view of scripture. We enter salvation by placing our ultimate trust in the Source of our life and Ground of our being. Nor are we saved so that we can personally enjoy a happy eternal future. Our lives are saved from meaninglessness and self-centeredness and saved for the purpose of living for God and loving the world that God loves.
The early Christian movement of the first few centuries was all about taking care of one another, showing radical hospitality to strangers, and being a countercultural witness of the power of God. God is much bigger than the Bible, and Jesus’ message of salvation goes way beyond individual concerns to address the whole of God’s creation and all the systems that we take for granted that have nothing whatsoever in common with God’s kingdom or Jesus’ way.
The gospels are human documents written decades after Jesus’ death expressing how particular evangelists understood Jesus. The gospels are not verbatim transcripts of historical events so much as they are stories of how the pre-Easter Jesus changed peoples’ lives and how the post-Easter Jesus continued to reveal the nature of God’s power in the world – the power of self-giving love and unconditional acceptance. They are meant to point us to the God of Jesus, the God in Jesus. The goal of the evangelists was to have their hearers receive the good news and permit God’s grace and power to transform their lives, and through them to transform their world.
The gospel of John includes many “I am” statements on the lips of Jesus. Jesus claims to be true bread, a gate, a good shepherd, the vine, and the light of the world, and I affirm by faith the truth in these claims. But they are metaphors, not statements of literal fact. In many ways they speak of a mystical relationship that exists through faith, which itself is a gift from God, lest anyone should boast.
So … I choose to see the Christ of the gospels as someone whose love embraces the whole of humanity and all of creation, and that choice moves me beyond self-interest in my own personal future to seek to embrace the whole world that is loved by God.
In this religiously pluralistic world, where people of many traditions seek the sacred and long to know God, I am helped by something New Testament scholar Marcus Borg wrote in his book The Heart of Christianity: “To say ‘Jesus is the only way’ is also the language of devotion. It is the language of gratitude and love. It is like language used by lovers, as when we say to our beloved, ‘You’re the most beautiful person in the world.’ Literally? Most beautiful? Really? Such language is the poetry of devotion and the hyperbole of the heart, but it is not doctrine. . . . [He concludes,] We can sing our love songs to Jesus with wild abandon without needing to demean other religions.”
Again, I respect those who don’t share my views, and I in no way question your faith or devotion to Jesus. I too seek to follow Jesus in my life, and my spiritual path has led me to see the meaning of faith in a different light. I trust we can still be friends.
Words (c) 2012 Mark Lloyd Richardson