A short time ago my two daughters were in town and the three of us found ourselves discussing my pieces for Online Opinion. The one thing they strongly objected to was my insistence on the singular nature of Christ to the exclusion of all others. Being broadminded liberal moderns they objected to my exclusion of other ways to God or enlightenment. They are supported by the current ideology that sees inclusiveness as the highest virtue.
The problem arose again in a theology class I was tutoring at Notre Dame University in Fremantle with the same result. I must have been seen as narrowly sectarian and ignorant of other cultures and religions.
The following Sunday I was down to preach at St Andrew’s Subiaco on the John 14 (1-14), the beginning of the farewell discourse to his disciples that John places after the last supper and before the arrest in the garden of Gethsemane. In it we find the words: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This would seem to support my insistence on the exclusivity of Christ as the way to God. There are many examples of such exclusivity in John’s gospel.
The problem is that such exclusivity is felt by unbelievers as judgment and my students have continued to ask whether one can live a good life without Christ. The answer is obviously yes, one can. But does this reduce the pre-eminence of Christ to just another influence on life that one can muddle along without? Does this blunt the sharp edge of the gospel and make it just another resource among many for equipping ourselves for the world?
If this is so then the totalising nature of the gospel is destroyed, that is, the idea that discipleship takes up the whole of life and is not just a moral guide or a training in wisdom.
A solution to this dilemma comes if we ask ourselves what distinguishes Christ? The answer, given by the gospel of John, is that he is “full of grace and truth.” When a child receives food from its mother, grace and truth is present. When we see enemies reach out in forgiveness we see grace and truth. We experience grace and truth in all of the relationships in our lives that are free from manipulation and power and violence. Our children learn grace and truth from the love and care of parents and begin to trace the path of grace and truth with others of their age at playgroup.
Suddenly, we find ourselves far from narrow sectarianism to a recognition of something that is universally experienced by all people. In the first letter of John we find the popular text for weddings: “God is love and those who abide in love abide in God.” Where now the exclusive statements of John’s gospel?
Part of the problem is the definition of salvation as being fitted for the next world instead of this world. This divides humanity between those who are saved and those who are damned and places belief in Jesus as the deciding factor. In this scenario Jesus is the only gateway to heaven leaving all of the billions before his coming and those in far-flung countries who have not heard of him out in the cold, or rather, burning in everlasting fire. While this seems logical it is totally inadequate as a description of the grace of God, who, we are told, loves the ungrateful.
But there is also the uncertainty that if we say that grace is everywhere then the figure of Jesus becomes redundant and subsequently the church. Us church folk take this seriously! But if the Spirit of God was from the beginning of creation then grace must have been an aspect of the lives of all people even though there were times when it almost seemed to be snuffed out.
John’s gospel and the epistles attributed to him give us exclusive statements that point to Jesus and also statements that are breathtakingly broad that include all people who live in love. I understand this as the particular of Jesus representing a universal phenomenon. He is the one in whom grace abounds to the fullest extent and thus he becomes the model of who we are in our fullest. Christ, through is grace, makes us who we are in truth, those who live in grace.
It seems strange to me that the anger towards Christianity that I encounter is directed towards this conclusion, that we are at base, graced in our lives and that to be a disciple of Christ is to become more so. This means that we reject the use of violence in the achievement of our ends. It means that we know that our lives exist in the between of self and neighbour and that if this between is poisoned by suspicion or violence then our very selves are damaged.
Who could call this evil? Who could feel judged and left out? I maintain that the anger and suspicion poured out against Christianity in our society is based on misunderstanding and/or bigotry. For when we understand it a right a life lived in the way of Christ is to be envied.
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