This is the ninth post interacting with Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christianity. Please remember that I cannot reproduce the book in these posts. I will do my best to summarize without being overly simplistic or reductionistic. Each post will be two parts. The first will be a summary of McLaren’s discussion and the second will be my reflections.
The Pluralism Question: How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?
McLaren begins his chapter on pluralism by setting the stage with this statement:
“If we want to get on the right side of the life-and-death divide, we need to start with some sober, serious, old-fashioned repentance, starting with this admission: Christianity has a nauseating, infuriating, depressing record when it comes to encountering people of other religions (and a not much better record when encountering people of other brands of Christianity either). (208)”
The question he determines to answer is, “how do we find a better approach to the religiously other in our quest for a new kind of Christianity?” This is in contrast the various genocides, abuses, and oppression that Christianity has perpetrated over the course of the centuries. The answer is straightforward:
When I’m asked about pluralism in my travels, I generally return to Jesus’s simple teachings of neighborliness such as the Golden Rule, “Our first responsibility as followers of Jesus is to treat people of other religions with the same respect we would want to receive from them. When you are kind and respectful to followers of other religions, you are not being unfaithful to Jesus; you are being faithful to him.” Then I ask them how they would want people of other religions to treat them. They typically say things like: “I would want them to respect my faith, show interest in it and learn about it, not constantly attack it, find points of agreement that they could affirm, respectfully disagree where necessary – but not let disagreement shatter the friendship, share about their faith without pressuring me to convert, invite me to share my with them, include me in their social life without making me feel odd,” and so on. After each reply, I generally say, “That sounds great. Go and do likewise.” (211-212)
McLaren goes on to discuss John 14:6, “And Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father but through me.” First, he argues that the context is talking about the Temple and not heaven. John 14:1-3 reads:
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.And you know the way to where I am going.”
Here he argues that the phrase “Father’s house” is in reference to the Temple because the last time the phrase is used in John’s gospel is when Jesus “cleansed the Temple” in John 2. McLaren argues that unless it is explicitly stated otherwise we should assume continuity in the terms. However, Jesus has said that he is changing the rules from an earthly temple to his body. Therefore, he is calling them into a “new-people-of-God-as-temple”.
He goes on to state that the disciples concerns are not in reference to others but themselves. They want to know where he is going. They do not understand. Therefore, the words that Jesus states in verse 6 in response to Thomas’ question about what to do after he dies. McLaren argues that Jesus is saying, “Thomas, you know the way, the truth, and the life. It’s me. Just remember me and do what I did and you will find your way into my new temple, my peaceable kingdom here on this earth.” The “no one” then of verse 6 is the disciples, only. That if you look at Jesus you see the Father and all is well. This alternative understanding of John 14:6 should make us realize that the Christian faith is in no way calling for a soul-sort between other religions, but to serve, love, and respect them.
I appreciate that once again McLaren is able to bring to the surface again a huge issue that makes many Christians squeamish. I am also thankful that he calls the institutional Church to the dock and finds them guilty of great horrors in the name of Jesus. I think he is right that we as the corporate body of Christ needs to continue the process of repentance for our ancestors and own them as part of our history. I also agree that we are called to treat people of religions with respect, charity, and grace.
Unfortunately I think that he has done violence to the text of John. Let’s take a moment and look at this. First, the context of John 14 is Jesus’ preparation of the disciples for his death and what comes next. In chapter 13 Jesus washes their feet and tells them about his betrayal and Peter’s denial. But, he wants to raise their understanding from the immediate circumstances to the bigger picture.
We come to John 14:1 and Jesus’ comforting words that proclaim his preparation on their behalf in his father’s house. The most likely and simple understanding of this is that he is referring to heaven. Why? Because the context is his death. There would not be place for him to prepare for his disciples anywhere else. Then he refers to his return and his calling the disciples to himself.
Thomas asks the “what’s the way” question. Jesus responds with “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but through me.” How do they get to the Father’s house? They get there by embracing Jesus. There is no other way. It seems here that Jesus is making a point here by repeating the article three times (which would have been unnecessary in the Aramaic and is unnecessary in the Greek). To come to the Father there is but one way.
I agree with McLaren that the key to the passage is not John 14:6 but John 14:9b: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” This points to the divinity of Jesus and his uniqueness.
The argument that “Father’s house” relates to the earthly temple does not jive. Jewish understanding of the Temple was that it was a shadow of heaven. Therefore, it makes sense that Jesus is turning their understanding upside down. It is no longer through the sacrificial system that people get right with God but through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, God the Son. The earthly Temple is replaced by full entrance into the real Father’s house. No longer would his people be worshiping in shadows but in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).
If we really love people then we must call them to faith in Christ. Again, McLaren leaves us wanting more. If a man is about to drink poison we can respectfully ask him to stop. But, at some point there is a necessity to stop him from killing himself if we really love him.
I think that Penn Gillette said it well, “How much do you have to hate someone to not proselytize them?”