Posted by: smstrouse | May 21, 2011

The Tao of Jesus

It was a defining moment. Some years ago, when I attended a funeral, I happened to sit next to a friend from my women’s interfaith group. Kay was Jewish; the service was Episcopalian. When the priest read the gospel, as I have done at countless funeral services, I heard the words ‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me‘ through Kay’s ears – and I was appalled.  And thus began a process of wrestling with this troubling, exclusivistic text. I know many people struggle with this one, so perhaps these insights can be helpful.

In wrestling with John, I had to (as Marcus Borg puts it) ‘take the Bible seriously but not literally.’
It’s not a history book!  John’s gospel was written around 90 CE, some 60 years after Jesus’ death. It’s the last gospel to be written and has the most highly developed theology of the divinity of Jesus. It’s even less of a history book than the other three gospels. The ‘I am’ statements refer back to God’s response to Moses’ question of what to tell the people when they asked who had sent Moses to be their leader. “Tell them ‘I Am’ has sent you.”  So – these are not words of Jesus but words of a 1st century community forming and articulating its understanding of who and what Jesus had been and continued to be for them.

John is all about incarnation!
For John, Jesus was the Logos, Wisdom, Sophia, the Christ, the great “I Am”. We could also say that for John, Jesus was what eastern philosophy calls the Tao – the primordial essence of Being (which literally means ‘Way’).

What helps me understand John’s Jesus better is to see a differentiation between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Christ. In John, the two merge, and so Jesus is the Way. But I believe that the human being Jesus embodied and exuded the Christ, but was not the totality of the mystery and essence of the Christ. I have learned of the Way through Jesus. As Borg writes: To say ‘Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life’ is to say ‘What we see in Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life’. (Speaking Christian, HarperCollins, 20111)

It’s not about getting into heaven!
Borg has described a ‘heaven and hell framework,’ which says that Jesus died for our sins so that we can be forgiven and go to heaven. In other words, the Way is about being ‘saved.’ But when we discard heaven/hell, reward/punishment aspects of being Christian, then we don’t have to worry about who’s saved and who’s not. We are free to find the message of liberation and transformation that John has Jesus talking about.  We are free to include everyone in each one’s understanding of Wisdom, Sophia, Christ, Logos, Being, and Tao.

‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life’ isn’t an answer to a question about other religions!
John was not addressing interfaith concerns in this text. He was creating a lofty Christology meant to lead us into the very mystery of Being, not to create boundaries of who is in and who is out. If we use it as an excuse for an exclusionary position toward those of other faiths or of no faith, we neglect the real message of the text:

“In the beginning was the Tao, and the Tao was with God, and the Tao was God. The Tao was present to God from the beginning, and through the Tao, all things came into being, and apart from the Tao nothing came into being that has come into being. In this Tao was life, and that life was the light of all people.


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