The Way, Truth, Life: A Study in Universalism

A sacred text open, with reading glasses on top - we seek a path of understanding through scripture and other means

The Best Way

During my first year of seminary, I took a class on pluralism. I expected it to be something of a world religions course, one that taught us about other faiths so we could learn to live peacefully with those who believe differently than we do. After all, it seemed to me, when you live in a pluralistic country, you should be able to get along with people who aren’t like you.

To my surprise, the course, while it did explore other religions, focused on how Christians could best preach the Jesus’s message to these nonbelievers. After all, everyone except I understood that Jesus was the way and the only way.

When I said something to the professor about how other religions have truths, he agreed. “There are truths in other religions,” he said, “but Christianity is more true. Imagine truth as a mountain. Other religions take you partway up; only Christianity takes you to the top.”

If so, then when Jesus said, in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” he meant that he is not only the best way, but the exclusive way to reach that pinnacle of blessing, eternal salvation. From what I’ve seen, this assumption is common among those who follow Christ. I saw it in my fellow seminarians, and I see it now in the patients I visit.

The Literal Truth

Some patients quote Scripture to me and feel compelled to explain to me that only the true believers of Jesus Christ will avoid hellfire and damnation, are men. Others avoid lecturing, but they are happy to proclaim their faith, share their love of Jesus, and even acknowledge, with some sadness, that those who deny the risen Christ will burn forever. Often they ask me to pray for some wayward member of their family who resists the truth they know about their Lord and savior.

Regardless of their approach, they all believe in the literal truth of the Bible and maintain a confidence that the human Jesus and the mystical Christ are one unified, complete essence. This view colors how they interpret Jesus’s statement in the Gospel of John that he is the way, the truth, and the life, certain that this means that unbelievers are destined for eternal punishment.

But there are other ways to understand these words.

The Clean and the Unclean

It was on the even of his death, during the festival of Passover, that Jesus declared himself the way, truth, and life. Having earlier discovered, in an earlier chapter of John’s gospel, that the devil had put the thought of betrayal into Judas’s heart, the reader has some inkling that disaster is imminent. Jesus knew it, too. Yet, before they ate, Jesus calmly washed the feet of his followers, in spite of Peter’s resistance.

“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Peter asked when Jesus came to him. “Jesus answered, ‘You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You will never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no share with me’” (John 13:6-8).

Hearing this, Peter decided he wanted more than his feet washed. “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head” (John 13:9).

Enthusiastic as always, Peter wanted to make sure he had a “share” with his lord, even if he didn’t really understand what that meant. But he had bathed, so he was clean, except for his feet that had gotten dusty from the road.

One among them, however, was not clean, Jesus informed the gathering. No amount of scrubbing would remove the stain from that one’s heart. The comment went right over Peter’s head, but the reader understands that this dirty one was Judas, who had already lost his way.

This is what we learn in the story of the foot washing.

Emptying the Self

But we learn more than just this. By giving of himself in this intimate and practical way, Jesus was modeling for disciples a way to minister to the people, to take care of one another, to spread his message. Not by might, but by vulnerability ought his followers to preach the gospel; not by authority, but by kindness.

By serving every one of his followers, including Judas, Jesus modeled, also, how we might forgive. With love, Jesus took each of the disciples into himself, for he had come not to “judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47), not to condemn, but to bless.

Of course, not even God can wash clean the heart of one who clings to the dust. Is that what Judas did? Did he turn away from the one who reached out to him? Did he refuse to reconcile? Must we follow Jesus before our hearts are opened enough to be healed?

Jesus showed his disciples how to forgive, but we can refuse to take part. We can reject Jesus’s claim of being the Christ. Does this mean we will have “no share” of God, either? As Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Was the foot washing a kind of baptism, a being made new in the light of Christ?

Or was Jesus’s service more a harbinger of the greater sacrifice he would make? When one empties oneself in service to others, one lives on in them. Is that how Jesus survives? By humbling himself as a servant, and by dying to himself on the cross, did he bring us the promise of salvation and himself eternal life?

Is Salvation Universal?

Pamela Kinlaw, in her book about christology, refers to the introduction of John’s gospel, where the evangelist writes,“and the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14).

To “tabernacle” as a verb means to “dwell,” such as in a tent or temple. This means the divine became human and lived among the people, knowing them, serving them. As a human being, as the embodied Word, Jesus was special. More than anyone else, he reflected the truth and the glory of the Father. [1]

Does this mean Jesus is the only one who can bring the people to God? As he told his disciples, “[W]hoever receives one whom I send receives me; and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (John 13:20). That would imply that, if we welcome Jesus into our heart, mind, and soul, we also welcome the Father. This is the way to grace, love, forgiveness, salvation. At least, it is one way.

Is there not another?

A sacred text open, with reading glasses on top - we seek a path of understanding through scripture and other means
Photo by Timothy Eberly

Dwelling in Eternity

In a YouTube video, Richard Rohr explains that, though the first three gospels tell the story of Jesus, the man, John’s book tells the story of the Christ. This Christ is a mystical figure, a messiah born of God and woman, a being both human and divine, one who speaks in riddles and embraces paradox. For us to understand him, John must speak metaphorically. All the gospels contain metaphor, but John’s makes no sense if we deny the metaphorical. Indeed, the book begins with a metaphor: the Logos, or the Word. Obviously this is not a literal word that sprouts ready-formed from some god’s mouth, but a manifestation of idea, form, and grace. [2]

Thus, when Jesus claims to be the way, the truth, and the life, he is not being exclusionary. He speaks these words not as the man, for that would be hubris, but as the universal Christ. He is “the divine principle of Spirit acting as matter.” [3] The Father in whom we move and breathe, if we embrace this Christ, becomes more than just the God of the Hebrews. This divine being embodies every manifestation or idea of the holy in all the religions humans have imagined, throughout all time, of no gender and all genders, of no substance and all substance.

In the beginning was the Word; in the end will be the Word, as well. Nothing else will exist, yet we will all dwell there.

Choosing Another Path

But time still flows through and around us, and we are still in the middle of John’s story of that Passover night.

Jesus had finished washing feet and had joined his followers at the table. They ate. Wanting them to be prepared for what was to come, Jesus warned them of a betrayal that would occur, though his words, as usual, were cryptic, and the disciples were confused.

So Jesus revealed that one of them would betray him. “It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish,” he Jesus, and he handed the bread to Judas.

The gospel continues, “After he received the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, ‘Do quickly what you are going to do.’”

No one but Jesus and Judas understood what that meant. By the time the disciple slipped out, “it was night” (John 13:21-30).

Thus, Jesus sent Judas off to tell the authorities where he was. It’s a strange exchange, almost as if Jesus had put an evil desire into Judas and instructed him how to use it. After all, he had to be discovered somehow. Did Jesus manipulate Judas, or did the young man choose that dishonest and cruel path on his own? Is this an example of how God gives us free will, or does free will not exist? Will God damn Judas, forever deny him a share of Jesus?

Still Beloved

If so, then where is that God of love? Judas can’t find him, that’s for sure. He is not following the way, he does not understand the truth, and, in the end, he will find death, not life.

Even so, when the time of betrayal arrived, and Judas bent to kiss his old teacher, signifying whom the soldiers should arrest, Jesus did not turn away nor push Judas aside. Though sad and perhaps in this man, Jesus would not forsake him.

Even so, Judas lost his way. Having dishonored that great bond of friendship, he would become isolated by his crime, forced to admit that gold holds no pleasure when we are beset by shame and has no purpose when we have no friends to share it with. Instead of enjoying a life of oneness with the holy, where happiness and contentment are common, Judas suffered. But does that mean he lost the share in the eternal that is the gift Christ brings?

The life we find by following Jesus is not necessarily a future life. It is a life in this body, one that nourishes our spirit and feeds our soul. Judas no longer appreciated life. Without Jesus, without truth and the Holy Spirit, he was empty. Having forsaken love, loyalty, honesty, and that deep connection with God that Jesus revealed, Judas became broken. He died inside, then took his own life. This is what it means to lose the way, the truth, and the life. God doesn’t take these from us, but we can choose to throw them away.

Yet can we throw away our souls? Can we deny Christ, God, the Father, the Mother, the Buddha, the Tao? Will healing, restoration, and love elude us forever?

Photo by John Thomas

The Path to the Holy

Jesus came to save the world, and the Christ called us to embrace the mystery. We can choose how to respond, and our hearts will reflect that choice. Will we know peace in this lifetime, or resentment and dissatisfaction? Will we take joy in the wonder of the universe, or let anger frustrate our hearts? One path leads to truth and life, the other to despair and the death of the spirit.

That doesn’t mean God rejects us, however. Jesus washed Judas’s feet. He brought the betrayer into community, invited reconciliation, and he would do it again and again until Judas finally opened himself and embraced the Christ that is the Father, that is the holy in everything and everyone, that resides in every faith and in the oneness that lies beyond all faith.

The way, the truth, and the life, then, are a path toward the holy, wherever we find it. No one reaches that heavenly being without traveling the way of mystery, embracing a truth of wholeness and compassion, and discovering life upon the path.

The God in the Bible is one who grieves, regrets, longs for, embraces, and finds himself changed by the people with whom he enters into relationship, but She is not the only god.

“My Father has many rooms in his house,” Jesus told us.

We often interpret this to mean that many individual souls live in heaven, but what if, instead, it means that the Father has space for many different ways of understanding Him, that the rooms are the different paths we take to find Truth, not the angels or deceased spirits who sleep there? Could it be that God is more open-minded than we are?

Finding Our Way Home

That’s not hard to imagine. We have a limited vision, we humans. Sometimes we prefer rules, such as that God will damn us if we don’t believe, as if believing were more important than befriending. But we won’t find God in rules. God lives through the Christ, through our interactions with others. God exists in relationship. That’s why God is love.

If Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, and if the Father represents love, that doesn’t mean we are lost if we fail to embrace the Christian understanding of this divine relationship. It does mean, though, that getting lost is possible. No matter how far we stray, however, there is a path, and there is truth. If we search for it, we will find the life that is part of the traveling. But if we can’t find the path, Jesus will wash our feet as often as necessary, and God’s love will stand steady beside us, even when we aren’t open to receiving it.

Though the mystery is mysterious and unknowable, a relationship with the holy is possible. There are many ways to seek truth and life. These ways are not the same, nor do they lead to the same place, exactly, but they are all grounded in love, and all are holy, and the god to whom Jesus points us is a god who delights in all our ways. Even when we end up lost, when we have purposely strayed from the path, we need not despair. One day, with whatever god we choose as our guide, we will find our way home.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Kinlaw, Pamela E., The Christ Is Jesus: Metamorphosis, Possession, and Johannine Christology, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2005, 119.
  2. Rohr, Richard, “Why Do We Misunderstand John 14:6?,” video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03ID8ttKa7E, accessed 2/3/21.
  3. Rohr, Richard, “The Universal Christ,” Oneing, Vol. 8, No. 1, Spring 2019, 2.

Photo by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

Copyright © 2021 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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