07/12: Still the Way, the Truth, and the Life
Still the Way, the Truth, and the Life
By John Franke
By John Franke
A couple of years ago, I participated in a conference in which two prominent postmodern philosophers addressed a group of Christians on a range of theological, philosophical, and practical issues. Those attending were largely committed to addressing some of the postmodern challenges in North America.To read the full article, click here
I was happy to hear some commonly held misconceptions of postmodern thought—like texts can mean anything that readers would like them to say—decisively critiqued and corrected. At another point, presenters demonstrated how deconstruction can be an ally of vibrant Christian faith.
On the last day, the discussion focused on Christian engagement with other religions. I resonated with much of what was said: the need for respectful dialogue, the willingness to listen and learn, and the intent to promote peace and understanding. But I also experienced a growing sense of unease. As my concern crystallized, I asked our distinguished guests: As those who self-identified with the Christian tradition, how did they understand the uniqueness of Jesus Christ?
Their response was that of course Jesus is unique. But, they continued, so are the leaders of the other world religions. While it was certainly true that Jesus is unique and different from other religious leaders, they said, it is also true that they are unique in relation to him. The uniqueness of Jesus was no different from that of any other important religious figure. Only in this way, they suggested, is equality among religions established as a basis for interreligious dialogue.
This view is not held merely by those in the lofty climes of the academy. I was once with a group of Christian students who were happy to maintain that Jesus was unique, but also quick to affirm that so is every human being, since all are made in the image of God. This reminded me of a statement from George Burns, playing the title role in the 1977 movie Oh, God! When asked if Jesus was his son, he says, yes, Jesus was his son—and Buddha was his son, and Muhammad was his son, and in fact, all human beings are his sons and daughters since he created them all.
This is predictable Hollywood fare, but Christians have historically affirmed much more than this when we confess the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. We believe that Jesus is nothing less than the incarnate Son of God in whom the fullness of the Deity dwells in human form; fully divine and fully human—and the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
However, recent evidence suggests that what Christians have historically affirmed is now up for grabs. According to a 2008 national survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 52 percent of all American Christians believe that non-Christian faiths can lead to eternal life. Further, despite a recent countertrend, the number of evangelicals who believe this remains remarkably high. While many factors may account for these findings, it seems clear that a surprising number of Christians, including evangelicals, are not convinced of Jesus' unique nature.
Some Christians even argue that, in the midst of our pluralist and religiously diverse culture, it might be better to ease off the talk about Jesus as exclusively unique. Aren't such assertions "hegemonic" or "triumphalistic" in a multicultural society?
In fact, there is a great deal at stake in denying that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
As we try to witness to our relativistic world about the uniqueness of Christ, we have to abandon the idea that this is something we can demonstrate with definitive proof, particularly to those who are predisposed to deny this. It is beyond the scope of human ability to produce in others the faith to see Jesus as he is. But it is the church's calling to continue to bear witness to Jesus and demonstrate the significance of his person for the whole fabric of Christian faith.
The belief that Jesus Christ is none other than God come in the flesh shapes our understanding of every point of distinctive Christian teaching. I've argued in a recent book that the diversity of the church is not a problem to be solved but is, in fact, the blessing of God. Indeed, the proper expression of orthodox, biblical faith can only be characterized by plurality. But in the midst of our diversity, we must remain unified on this point—Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If we fail to stand fast here everything else will be in vain and the Christian church will lose its bearings. We will fail in our missional vocation to be the image of God and the body of Christ in the world.