Monday, February 28, 2011

No one comes to the Father but by me...

I am the way , and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

There are, I suppose, a variety of possible candidates, but today I submit John 14:6 as the single most blatantly misquoted saying from Jesus' entire ministry.  Lifted completely out of context, Jesus' statement is usually presented as "Exhibit A" for Jesus' establishment of the exclusive religion of Christianity as the sole route out of hell...and the reason everyone who doesn't acknowledge the speaker's version of orthodoxy is clearly hellbound.

Someone once said "a text out of context is merely a pretext," and nowhere does this statement apply more forcefully than to John 14:6.  The context is a long heart-to-heart that Jesus had with his disciples at the Last Supper (see the beginning of John 13), on the subject of his impending crucifixion.  This particular discourse actually begins at John 13:31 and continues unbroken through chapter 17.  In it, Jesus is talking about his death and encouraging his disciples to stay strong, faithful, and together through the trials that are coming.  His disciples aren't exactly tracking with his message, least not at the beginning of chapter 14.  Having just told the disciples he's going to prepare a place for them, Jesus reminds them that they know where he's going and how to get there (John 14:3-4).  Thomas, not so much "the doubter" as the guy who's willing to admit his lack of clue, blurts out that he has absolutely no idea what Jesus is talking about:  "Lord, we haven't a clue where you're going, how could we possibly know the way?"  It is in response to Thomas' spoken (and, I supect, the others' unspoken) question that Jesus states "I AM the way..."

Jesus did NOT say "I am starting a new religion with you guys, and this religion is the only way to avoid hell."  Hell's not even part of the discussion.  Nor did Jesus say "no one can be saved unless he thinks in his mind that I am the son of God and I am dying for his sins."  No, Jesus says "I AM the way" directly in the context of his having just told his disciples "you know the way."  The life they have lived with Jesus during the past three-plus years of his earthly ministry, the jobs he has set them to do, the miracles they have witnessed, the teaching they have absorbed; all these things wrapped together have taught them "the way" to the Father, which is the person of Jesus himself.  When Jesus goes on in John 14:11-14 to encourage the disciples to believe that the Father is in him, even this is not for "salvation" the way we think of's so they can do what they've seen him do and more, "so that the Father may be glorified in the Son."

Jesus' words in John 14 (really, all the way through John 17) were spoken not as a warning to unbelievers, but as a comfort to those who already believe!

When Christians loudly proclaim "no man cometh to the Father but by me," they are not talking about following Jesus.  They're not talking about obeying Jesus.  They're certainly not talking about staying faithful under hardship and persecution.  No, they're talking about how wrong Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Liberal Christians, Humanists, and sundry other "infidels" are.  They're usually talking about their certainty that all of the above are destined to burn forever in hell.  (For a current example, take a look at the discussion on my friend Kurt's blog today!)

The gospel of Jesus Christ claims things about him that are true of no one else.  Nobody else is Jesus, and no other teaching holds the stunning uniqueness of the One who rose from the dead.   I am not advocating for the feel-good universalist straw man so often the target of the self-righteous quoters of John 14:6.  But to properly frame those places where Jesus' words confront society, or other faiths, or the Christian church, we have got to start by representing Jesus' own words faithfully.  Using John 14:6 to club "unbelievers" and universalists over the head is categorically NOT faithful to Jesus' message.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Every Christian ought to be a muslim (but not the way you think)!

OK, take a deep breath.  Trust me when I say I'm not asking anybody to throw away their Bible and start planning their pilgrimage to Mecca.  I am, however, going to attack some truly damaging language that I hear from many of my fellow Christians on the subject of Islam...language that I maintain is neither edifying nor honoring to God, and actually flat-out wrong.  There are many issues that need to be addressed in Christian attitudes toward Muslims (and, I'm sure, vice-versa), but one of the first we need to face is our sloppy language.

So I repeat my title statement:  Every Christian ought to be a muslim.  Note, first of all, that I used a lower-case "m" in the word "muslim."  I am not suggesting that any follower of Jesus should change faiths.  In fact, I hope it's clear to any reader of my blog that I wish for more, not fewer, people to follow Jesus.  But while capital M "Muslim" is the name for a follower of the organized religion of Islam, lower-case m "muslim" means simply "one who submits;"  by implication, one who submits to God.

I don't speak Arabic.  I do, however, speak Swahili, which has significant Arabic roots, and while I'm going to explain in terms of the language I actually know, friends of mine who do speak Arabic have confirmed the truth of what I'm about to say.  In Swahili and in Arabic, if you take a verb and put either an "m" or "mu" prefix onto the front of it, the resulting word is a noun that means "a person or creature who does that verb."  So for example, the Swahili word "kuzunguka" means "to spin or turn around," so "mzungu"  means "one who spins around" (which hilariously is the term Africans coined to describe white Europeans and Americans).  In Arabic, the word "islam" simply means "submission."  A "muslim" is just a person who does "islam," that is, a person who submits.

Islam is, of course, not the only faith that calls its followers to submit to God.  In the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the original temptation and sin of Adam was not the fact of eating the forbidden fruit, it was the desire to " like God, knowing good and evil." (Gen. 3:5)  In deliberate contrast to the human desire to usurp God's position in Genesis, followers of Jesus are exhorted to "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped" (Phil. 2:5-6).  Jesus' example is further illuminated in Phil. 2:8 to be his humility and obedience even "unto death on a cross."  Jesus is our ultimate example of submission, "islam," to God.

Of course, the objection many Christians will immediately raise leads me to my second point of language:  submission to WHICH God?  While this may be a hard truth for some to grasp, the answer is "the God of Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad." 

Time for another deep breath, folks.  Please note that I have not said that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam are all equal, identical, one religion, or anything of the sort.  There are plenty of places where Jews, Christians, and Muslims disagree, and some of them are highly significant.  But Christians have got to get off their pigheaded high horse (dare I mix animal metaphors?) and face the reality that, whatever other important differences exist, the God of Islam is NOT a different God than that of Christians and Jews.  He is the God of Abraham; among his names are Elohim, YHWH, Father, and Allah.  Do you notice that "Elohim" (a plural of "El") and "Allah" actually have a similar sound?  There is a reason for that...both Hebrew and Arabic are Semitic languages; that is, they come from a common ancient root.  The names "El" and "Allah" are the same.  Furthermore, Arabic-speaking Christians (at least those who haven't been corrupted by fundamentalist American ideologues) have been using the name "Allah" to refer to the Father for many centuries.  When Christians in America make the claim (and I heard this in a church as recently as a month ago) that "Allah is an idol and a false God," they are at best displaying breathtaking ignorance, and at worst blaspheming the very God they claim to worship.

Many Christians will raise the objection at this point "well, Muslims say Allah is not the Father of Jesus, so he must be a false god."  Funny thing about that claim, it doesn't seem to apply to Jews, who also do not believe that God is Jesus' father (unless they're what we call "Messianic Jews").  If that criterion renders Islam a false religion, it must do the same for Judaism.  You can't have it both ways...and yet the most conservative Christians do not doubt that Israel in particular and Jews in general are still God's special, chosen people.  That's another discussion, and not for this time, but for now, accepting the deity of Christ cannot be a criterion for otherwise worshiping the "right" God unless the same criterion is applied equally to both of the other Abrahamic faiths.

There is much more to say with regard to Muslim-Christian relations, and I expect some day to take on more of it.  But at the very least, let us please acknowledge that Allah is the God we Christians also worship, and may we all strive to be small-m "muslims" to Him.