I’ve recently begun a three month experiment in co-leading a small group of self-described cynics, skeptics and religious misfits engaging our questions at the intersection of life and God. Tonight we’ll be revisiting what it means that Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14:6).
This implicitly exclusivist claim makes me squirm. It only takes a brief survey of my own very messy, imperfect life to warrant deep discomfort with the idea that simply because I’m following Jesus, I’ve got more of a monopoly on truth and life- and God, for that matter- than my Buddhist or agnostic neighbor.
Just the other day I ran into an old acquaintance at the pool. One of the things I love about this friend, “Q,” is that she breaks all the molds: she’s Muslim and likes to wear string bikinis when she works out, looks a bit like a female version of Bob Marley with her long dreadlocks, and will be retiring from a career in corporate America to write children’s books. She and I were jokingly commiserating about how our life circumstances have made us a bit jaded, so that it can often feel like we’re walking around in a bit of a low-grade depression- hence our frequent trips to the pool to swim. “But you’ve got Jesus!,” Q exclaimed in jest at my own admission. “I keep asking the prophet Muhammad to help me out!,” We both had a good laugh.
Maybe the point that Jesus is “the Way” isn’t so much that those of us who would call ourselves followers of Christ have “arrived.” Or, similarly, that if Jesus is “the Truth” we Christians have some static possession of absolute truth. Or, that if Jesus is “the Life,” we will always be running around with perma-glued smiles, radiant, bubbly and high on life, contrary to what Joel Osteen might imply. (I still would like to know where he got his smile, though.)
I would venture to guess that the “direction” here is as important as the “destination.” We’re spiritually en route to God and Truth and Life like everybody else- only the particular way we have chosen is the Way who is Jesus, and this Jesus is uniquely the very “temple of God.” Like no other person who has walked this sad, old earth, Jesus is the living, breathing meeting place between heaven and earth.
And walking Jesus’ way is hard-going. The nineteenth century theologian, Sören Kierkegaard, in his own meditations on John 14:6, emphasizes that the thing that distinguishes Jesus’ Way from others, making Jesus’ way more “narrow” than other ways that also involve poverty, suffering and misunderstanding, is the element of free will. “Christ chose humiliation,” Kierkegaard writes. Those who follow Christ must choose humiliation also, and this path of humiliation is inseparable from the glory of the destination to which Christ gestures.
Kierkegaard goes on to write that like a mother teaching her child to walk, Jesus goes before us: “Jesus does not go by his disciples’ side, but is himself the goal, and turns himself toward the believer. He stretches out his arms just as a mother does, if perchance she stands so far away that she cannot get near the child, then she stretches out her arms and moves them as if she were all the time grasping the child, although there is too great a distance between them for this. So solicitous is the mother- more solicitous she could not be, because otherwise the child would not learn to walk.”
Maybe Kierkegaard is right- that when it comes to knowing our direction and destination (ultimately God) we are all like kids learning how to take our first steps. While some of us may pretend to go it alone, we all in actuality use handrails of one sort or another. All of us will stub our toes, or skin our knees, or take a nose dive. But chances are we all, if we’re honest with ourselves, could use a loving and vigilant parent to help us learn to walk. And it would seem by extension that if Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life,” He is the most reliable parent on offer.