Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Let the Reader Beware

It's an old story, but the much maligned text, John 14:6, keeps resurfacing in various places in the realm of Anglican discourse -- too often in the hands of those who would hold The Episcopal Church as a whole and our Presiding Bishop in particular as somehow heretical or, in the words of one bishop, "deficient" in our Christology; that unless we take "No one comes to the Father except through me" in its most universalizing and exclusive meaning, we are not being faithful Christians.

I waded into a discussion about this at the HoB/D listserve earlier in the evening, after re-reading John 14 and the verses that come just before it.

In principle, context really matters in this case, even if we sidestep debate about what the "historical Jesus" said or didn't say, and confine ourselves fairly narrowly to the internal integrity of the Fourth Gospel.
Here's a more expanded version of what I posted to the list:

I am puzzled that conversations around John 14:6 often do not reflect more often that the verse is a direct response to Thomas's very pressing and somewhat personal question: "How can we know the Way?" The passion of the question seems to stem from an understandably fearful reaction to the foretelling of Peter's denial and Jesus' imminent death and departure.
The question posed also appears characteristic of Thomas, as he cuts through dense theological language to seek more tangible truths. The lead up to his encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20 is among the most well-known stories in the Fourth Gospel and serves as an expansion, if not the apex, of his seeking role.
Moreover, in chapter 14, Jesus is in conversation with his followers, not the unconverted. He is, even in the profoundly theological and sometimes other-worldly narrative of John, addressing a reasonably specific audience of disciples. And Jesus concludes his answer with verse 7, appearing to respond directly to Thomas not in a globalizing, but rather a personal sense: "If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him."

Taken in the broader context of John, this seems to be Christ speaking lovingly to the Johannine community of believers as they wrestle with doubts and their identity in a time of conflict. And, as so many have written (Bill Countryman's The Mystical Way in the Fourth Gospel is but one wonderful example), it is a statement more broadly given for Christians undergoing conversion, struggling with a journey of deepening faith -- a pilgrimage even -- through the sacramental life, moving into the tensions of a deeply personal and, at the same time, communal relationship with God in Christ.

To therefore use 14:6 in isolation as a litmus test for the orthodoxy of "believers" or an exclusive, narrow theological statement about how God's salvation works (through the Church only?), strikes me as bringing violence into an inspired text -- a passage, chapter 14, that seems intended to be more pastoral than polemical, and to bring comfort to a community of disciples in distress.

After all, it opens with these words, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. . ." (14:1)
Do we really dare, given this context, use it to trouble the hearts of others?

At the end of the day, John 14:6 comes alongside words that are fundamentally meant to edify the Christian community, to draw us into the holy mystery of Christ speaking through the gathering of the baptized around the eucharist, and to bring us along further together in the journey of discipleship.

Yes, it says Christ is central for us as Christians in our knowing God. But anything more universalizing or triumphalist than that may be presuming too much, and brings meaning to the text that I'm not sure is intended.
Such mis-use, as we have seen for too long of John 14:6, is a warning to all of us about proof-texting our own unarticulated agendas with scripture snippets stripped of context.
While I've said nothing really new here, it always bears repeating that scripture has been used for both good and ill by Christians over the centuries. We make spiritual, and indeed moral choices in how we interpret and use our holy texts.
Let the reader of the Word beware.


Reverend Ref + said...

To therefore use 14:6 in isolation as a litmus test for the orthodoxy of "believers" or an exclusive, narrow theological statement about how God's salvation works (through the Church only?) . . .

Yes, but isn't this what conservative "orthodox," in all their forms, have done for years?

It's the same closed-minded thought process as reciting Ephesians 5:24b ("so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything") without looking at the verses which proclaim we should be subordinate to each other, or that Paul talks about husbands loving their wives more in-depth than than about the former comment.

Which, really, is just a long way of saying we need to study and live into Scripture, and not proclaim a bumper sticker faith.

Good thoughts.

Anonymous said...


The Greek of John 14:6 says literally: "No one comes to the Father if not through me". If one simply cleans up the double negative one has: "Everyone who comes to the Father, comes through me." or, as I read it: "If anyone comes to the Father, you can be assured that s/he is doing so 'through me'."

This is a massively mystical statement, and like so many utterances of the Lord, it can no more be read literally than speaking of God's five-fingered right hand! (How does one go "through" Jesus? push one's way through his navel? or walk into his mouth? or squeeze under a fingernail?) I am personally sure that what Jesus is saying is that ALL ways to God are mystically through God's Son (who called himself 'the way') -- whether one knows it or not, whether one names Him or not, whether one has even heard of Him or not.

When those very, very rare times come when in my contemplative prayer I intuitively "sense" a "presence of God", it is not because I am thinking about Jesus -- indeed, I am trying not to think of anything at all! I go through "a mystical door", as it were -- and Jesus himself said, "I am the door" (or, as I would have it, "The door to God which you find is actually ME, because since I am both part of the Trinity and a human being, finding God means finding me - both in my humanity and my divinity.")

And, for instance, when one discovers God in another person -- a person in great need/pain, or a person with awesome insight, or a great teacher -- one is still making that discovery 'through God the Son', because God in Creation and Jesus in redemption have identified God-ness in humanity.

We blithely call it "the image of God" -- and it means that God - and the mystical Christ - dwells in some incomprehensible way in every human being. And if it is through some human being that I 'come to the Father' that coming is still 'through Jesus the Son' because that Jesus returned all humanity into the original one-ness with God, including that human being through whom I came to the Father.

I wish so often that we could remember that Christianity is a mystical "Eastern religion", not the codified, scientific, objective, institutional thing the western/Roman mind tried to turn it into. And coming to the Father truly does not happen simply by adding " the name of JEEEZuss" to the end of a prayer.

We humans experience two divine presences: first when we are created 'in God's image' (and that very creation is 'through God's Son' - "All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being"), and the second when that presence is sacramentally re-signed in baptism where we are utterly "drowned" in God, immersed and submerged in Divinity, identified as one with the Body of Christ, the Body of God.

And those who have only the first (i.e., the creational) union with God already have that union 'through the Creator Son', and when/if they 'come to the Father' consciously, they do that 'through the Creator Son' notwithstanding their not having experienced the second signifiying (i.e., baptismal) union.

The Christ/Son is the mystical door through which ANY human being comes consciously to the Father/God. That is what the Incarnation meant to teach us: that all our various human ways to the Father, all of those ways ARE the Christ. Christ is everyone's way to the Father, no matter what the way is called or what names are used.

Someday the institutional western Church may wise up and return to its "eastern" mystical roots, and young people will no longer have to seek 'spirituality" without 'religion' because our religion will have reclaimed its spirituality.

And none of that has anything to do with moral rules of behavior. Starting with 'moral laws' will never lead to spirituality -- but starting with spirituality will unfailingly lead to high moral behavior (although even then that behavior may not satisfy the law-yers) - witness Graham Greene's "The Power and the Glory" or "The Potting Shed" where "mere" morality is as nothing compared to holiness.

Sorry for the length of this, but I'm reaching for what is not ever easily defined.

R said...

Dear reverend ref+ and John-Julian:

Many thanks for your thoughts!

revered ref+
I prefer the PB's use of the word "narrow" versus "close-minded." As others have pointed out, focusing on a singular interpretation of any text is really a modern phenomenon, as we are emerging from an age that demanded narrow, specific (i.e. scientific) meaning from written material.

Of course, this is not at all what the author of John, nor many other biblical authors intend. I'm not sure those who assembled the canon intended it either.

A parallel to this is the sad loss (I hope it is temporary) in the West of engaging in the rich language of metaphor and poetic image to embrace wide bodies of meaning and draw people into the story of faith. This loss is one reason mysticism engenders suspicion sometimes, and perhaps tempts us to do violence to and with a text like John.


No apologies necessary! Your beautiful reflection, and indeed "reaching for what is not ever easily defined" is precisely what the Gospel of John calls us into, it seems to me. It is the mystical way, as fine scholars have described it.

I'm profoundly grateful for your sharing the depth of the spiritual life that emerges in such reflection.

And the translation of the Greek in 14:6 you offer is most enlightening, as it seems to better fit with the tone of the context in which it appears.

R said...

I also wanted to share I particularly appreciate how you both define and bound morality here -- and how true Christian holiness transcends the conventional definitions of the word "moral."

I could not agree more that the holiness, the morality into which Christ calls us, leaves legalism cowering in a corner -- or perhaps better put, reminds it of its proper place.

To add something (and hopefully not detract from) your thoughts:

As Jesus teaches, the great commandment is the foundation of the law and prophets. It is the opening in relationship through which the Spirit breathes new life into us and draws us into holiness.

If we lose sight of this, as we so often do, we risk blindly embracing false prophecy or narrow legalism, both of which pose dangerous consequences for the Body of Christ.

Yet the Good News is that grace will out!

Jane R said...

Many thanks to you, Richard and John-Julian! Much needed reflections on this much used and abused text. Thanks for helping it to live again.

KJ said...

No, your take on it may not be new in the context of this discussion, but it is still wonderfully good news.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful summary, Richard. It does bear repeating. When we use scripture verses as weapons, we might as well be beating someone in the head with a 2x4; the wounds are just as real.

The Word is not a weapon!

Paul said...

Thanks for your post and to commenters! What may well not be new may nonetheless be new and good news for some who have not heard (or read) it put that way.


johnieb said...

Fine work, all, and most helpful to one seeking a deepening transformation of his experience of Godde.