"I am the Way"

As I reflect on the ending of the winter term at EOU, I also find myself thinking about the students in two of my courses, one on world religions and the other an introduction to the study of religion. For some students the courses are mind opening, but for others the courses are a significant challenge to their conservative Christian faith. I try to open those conservative minds without simultaneously challenging that faith, but naturally for some students that is simply not possible.  Their Christianity is exclusivist – all other faiths are simply wrong.  It makes me wonder why they even take a university level course on religion.

The repeated sticking point is their literal reading of John 14:6:

Thomas said to Him, "Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him."

Salvation (ie, knowing the Father) comes through Jesus and from no other source or person.  Period. They just cannot imagine that this message could have a deeper meaning, that some interpretation can be applied.  That the divinity in Jesus is making that statement, not the personality. That only the Holy can lead a person to the Holy and that the Holy is unlimited by nature. From my point of view the rigid, conservative Christian interpretation is actually a significant limiting of the divinity of Jesus. But of course they are incapable of understanding that perspective, and with such minds they will go through life convinced that all non-Christians will go to hell.

As a scholar I know that in Jesus’ time the Buddhists of India were transforming their bodhisattva doctrine.  Now bodhisattvas were not simply persons who were significantly advanced on the path to Buddhahood, they were expressions of the Holy Buddha-mind in human form.  Ultimately this view took the form of guru-yoga, that the spiritually advanced teacher is an expression of the Buddha-mind. 

The power of this view, and the meditation practice which cultivates it, is that one can develop a relationship with a person/mind in one’s immediate environment, and not have just an abstract relationship with a Buddha who entered Nirvana some centuries ago; a Buddha whose (continuing?) existence cannot be comprehended because the categories of is and is-not do not apply to the Buddha after his death.  For the Buddhist, many teachers can be the Way and the Truth and the Life which leads to Buddhahood (ie, the Father), and not just one person in the distant past.

How do I equate Buddhahood with the Father?  I am reminded that Geshe Rabten wrote that while voidness/emptiness is nothing special, as it is simply the character of everything that exists, the wisdom mind which knows voidness/emptiness is quite special -- indeed is Holy. The Father is all Holiness.

Even non-Buddhists in India recognized the power of devotion to human manifestations of Divine Reality, and around the same period developed the notion of the avatar.  Rama and Krishna were understood to be human manifestations of Vishnu. Through devotion to them one could cultivate a relationship with a personality that was divine, but also had a human face.  This personal relationship of course is the power of Christian devotion as well, but for Hindus, there is not only one human manifestation of the divine.  

Perhaps these are reasons why Hindus and Buddhists have been more comfortable with other religions than have Christians.
I fear for a future in which so many people are utterly irreligious and attach all their devotion to family or the idols of materialism or state, etc. But I may fear even more for a future in which “I am the Way” means everyone else is going the wrong way, and is in need of rectification.  We know how this plays out in the Islamic world


  1. I am not sure the students are 'incapable' of understanding that perspective (3rd paragraph), perhaps it is as we have discussed in relation to the divisiveness of political parties, religions etc of the modern day, that it feels safer, more protected to agree with the 'tribal mentality', than to voice one's own thoughts or emotions on controversial topics. I'm afraid we have become a nation of sheep and cowards, in regards to having open, inclusive and compassionate minds. But never-the-less it's an honorable task to play the dance master and show the many sides to things, cracking open the box of rigid perceptions of reality. As a woman poet (whose name this old brain has forgotten) would say; "What would happen if one woman caught a glimpse of reality?...The world would split open..."

  2. I really appreciate your eloquence and your passion for diversity. I also agree with you that atheism and materialism are quite empty and unsatisfying. But I also think some clarification is needed.
    1) Do you believe, keeping in mind his context and the very specific Hebrew references he applies to himself and ways in which he communicated about himself to his audience, that Jesus believed he was only one of many ways? It seems to me that you are superimposing an Eastern worldview on the text that just doesn't fit with his setting.

    2) Are you suggesting that belief that one idea is wrong and can lead to hell leads to actions like those of ISIS?
    As you yourself are suggesting, not all ideas are equal. People are, but not ideas. Surely we can disagree on something, with a view that there is wrong and right, and still respect each other while discussing the truthfulness of one idea over another? I think the future of civil discourse depends on this.
    The work of ISIS is terrible. I met a Christian pastor in Iraq who shared with me the living hell they are making in his homeland. But to suggest that believing Jesus said those who don't know his forgiveness and Lordship will go to hell produces atrocities in some way similar to ISIS is to take Jesus completely out of the picture! Anyone who does atrocities in the name of Jesus is blatantly defying him. Jesus' entire life in the Gospels is an account of God's compassion for those astray and revealing himself to them so that they might know him and be saved. This is wildly different than the intolerance and hatred of ISIS.

    Thanks again for an intriguing article.


    1. I appreciate your comments Cal, and apart from answering your questions, I wonder if perhaps I might need to edit this post a bit.

      You asked "Do you believe, keeping in mind his context and the very specific Hebrew references he applies to himself and ways in which he communicated about himself to his audience, that Jesus believed he was only one of many ways? It seems to me that you are superimposing an Eastern worldview on the text that just doesn't fit with his setting."

      I really am not even sure if Jesus made the comment I quoted, or if it comes from one of the early church fathers. I know scholars have tried, with mixed success, to sort out such questions, and on this one, I don't actually know the scholarship. When I wrote this post to which you replied I was thinking more about what the statement means to my students, and the sort of attitude it expresses. So I think about the statement in the modern context, rather than presuming anything else, and in that that sense of what I hear from my students, contrast that with my own view -- which is that the Holy is many faceted, appears in many forms, expresses Itself in many ways, but still is just one Holy. So I think of the Holy as what is speaking in the form of Jesus, and hence wrote that "only the Holy can lead a person to the Holy" ..... but since I cannot believe that the Holy only appeared in one human, I conclude that It has spoken through many mouths. Never the less, there is only one way (here I sort of agree with the biblical passage, though in an interpreted way), in the sense of the cause of the Holy is nothing but the Holy, but since the Holy appears in many forms, there APPEAR to be many ways, which, as Ramakrishna used to say, are suitable for different types of peoples, in different places and in different times.

      Does that help clarify my intention?

      You also asked about this "Are you suggesting that belief that one idea is wrong and can lead to hell leads to actions like those of ISIS?" I personally believe that there is room for all sorts of ideas, and to presume otherwise is to believe one has a claim on absolute certitude, which is beyond any human as far as i am concerned. Even beyond any system of theology or philosophy. With this comment I was thinking of a long article written by Bernard Lewis for The Atlantic Monthly magazine, May 2003. You can check it out here, and I am going to link it to the blog for others who might want to follow that line of thought: