Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today


November 2012

John 14:6 simply isn’t about other religions

I love John 14:6. I take so much encouragement from it and it challenges me deeply.

I love John 14:6 but I do not like what many today are doing with it: hiding behind it as a catch-all explanation for other religions...

Here is what I love about the passage and the three things I don’t like that people do with the passage:

What I love – this is a disciples invitation. It happens within a story, it is in dialogue that Jesus’ famous sentence “I am the way, the truth, and the life”. It comes in response to a very specific question. Here is the thing – the question is not “What about other religions?” The question was a disciples’ question about following.

Three things people do that scare me – My first concern is that people only quote John 14:6 and not John 14:1-5 or even 14:7. They have ripped this one sentence out of its narrative context and acted like it emerged in a vacuum. This is never a good sign. In fact, the only way this famous sentence of Jesus works as an answer to the question ‘What about other religions?’ is if you isolate it from the rest of the story and place it in a vacuum.

The second concern is that our inherited (non-Hebrew) concern with substance and our language’s (non-Hebrew) lack of relational emphasis really handicaps us when reading the scriptures. I have to explain to people all the time that when Jesus calls God ‘Father’ he is speaking relationally – he related to God as one relates to one’s pappa (or abba). He is not saying that god IS ontologically a Father. Language about God is not univocal, it is equivocal. Or, if you prefer, as Nancey Murphy points out, language is not representative of God, it is expressive. Language does not represent God is a 1:1 ratio – it is merely expressive of some aspect or nature of God.

The third concern is that in John 14:6 Jesus could not possibly have been talking about Muslims. He had never met a Muslim (as Islam didn’t exist yet) and therefore could not have been talking about them. In fact, once one comes to terms with this reality, one has to question whether Jesus would have even know about Buddhists or Hindus either. No, Jesus had probably never encountered them and certainly wasn’t referring to other religions in John 14:6.

(Unless of course you are retroactively ascribing attributes … at which point you are going to have to explain why you chose this one over other preferable ones.)

This sentence was uttered:

  • in conversation with his disciples
  • in response to a very specific question
  • as an invitation to his disciples
  • to relate to God as Jesus related to God

Where the problem seems to lie: When people miss the relational language (come to the Father as related to God), remove the sentence from its narrative context (as if it emerged in a vacuum) and assume that Jesus was referring to things he couldn’t possibly have known about … then irony sets in.

The ironic thing is that quoting John 14:6 as a stand alone explanation – without receiving it as a disciples invitation – one may actually be doing the exact opposite with that passage as Jesus was asking one to do: follow his way.

Having said all of that: Maybe Prophet Isa was talking about Muslims in John 14:6. Maybe he was saying that if they want to relate to God as he did – that they could only do so by walking his way and following his life.  In fact,  if you take away the univocal  calling God Father (ontologically) and see it as expressive (or equivocal) of relating to God as one relates to a loving father … you would remove the biggest obstacle Islam has to Jesus – namely that the Quran tells Muslims not to say that ‘God has children’.

You may think that I am way off here – but until we:

  1. stop quoting John 14:6 in a vacuum
  2. stop thinking that Jesus was talking about other religions
  3. stop thinking that Jesus’ Father language is univocal (instead of relational)

We won’t even be able to have the conversation and explore the possibility.



Mormons: Still Made In America

I’m taking the opportunity on this holiday Monday to take care of a whole bunch of stuff I have been neglecting. I was looking back over my HomeBrewed blogs from the past little while and was enjoying seeing this post-election.

No – we don’t have our first Mormon president yet … but it might just be a matter of time.  OR  it could never happen because of the eccentric nature of the religion and how it might never be that mainstream …

As a proud and dedicated ‘contextual theologian’, I have never been quite sure what to with Mormonism.  As in any field, questions will always come up from concerned listeners about ‘what if we take this too far’ or ‘where do we draw the line’.

In  contextual theology – since it started as a movement within missiology – the thrust has generally been about appropriate translation and inculturation between different nations, languages, and cultures. The move toward contextualization makes perfect sense within a typical framework whether it is inter-cultural or not.

In fact, in recent decades the conversation within contextual theology has moved from the old colonial missions idea of bringing a potted plant and putting it in native soil, to bringing the seed of gospel and planting it in native soil, to a more post-contextual idea of learning from the native people ‘what grows there’ and then partnering with them to integrate and advance a new crop. [for more on this listen to the podcast with Randy Woodley]

But that is a conversation about foreign missions. What do you with those who are not inter-cultural but which arise from within your very culture?

What got me thinking about all of this was a very strange little sentence in Stephen Prothero’s book God Is Not One.

In the middle of his chapter of Christianity he dedicates 3 pages to Mormonism. Among all the regular and expected material about their founder and their practices – which you can find almost anywhere – was this:

 Though long seen as dangerously un-American, Mormons are now widely viewed as quintessentially American.

He then goes on to detail the huge presence of mormons within pop culture (mostly TV).  This was, of course, before Mitt Romney becoming the presidential nominee.

The reason that comment caught my attention is that several years ago I had that exact conversation with a seminary professor. This professor was not a big fan of contextualization and said mormons were the most contextualized form of American christianity. I argued that no, they were actually a cult (as I had been taught this growing up) and he countered that this is what cults are – contextualization taken too far.

In the years since that encounter I have kept an eye on the ‘mormon thing’ and while I have evolved and adapted my views on so many things (including religious pluralism) I am still not quite sure what to do with the fact that Mormonism is truly the most American of religions.

I’m not talking about their unique beliefs or their novel practices – I am thinking more about their history and organization. It seems to me that whatever the conversation about missions and indigenous expressions that Mormonism remains that one group you have to hold out an exception for. They are exceptional in that sense. They don’t fit into neat categorization or wholly lie outside the issue either.

 Mormonism is an anomaly in this sense. They are just enough different than other groups that they can not be accounted for in predictable ways but they are similar enough that they can not be dismissed outright.

The Next Pat Robertson Gaff

With the election season over, the frequency, intensity and insanity of conservative white men making outlandish statements will hopefully die down …  I’m moving a bunch of blogs over there this week and found this cheeky little blog I wrote in the middle of the fire-storm.

 Pat Robertson topped even himself in the category of ‘insulting-inflammatory- stupid comments while the tape is running’ this morning. That may seem difficult with all of the previous entries that have earned him elite status in the gaff Olympics.

The most recent entry was in response to a question from a man who apparently wanted to know what to do with his non-submissive wife.  Robertson started with suggesting that the man could convert to Islam … and as tough as it might be to top that one, he did. After conceding that the Bible does not allow for him to divorce her, Robertson gave him the option to move to Saudi Arabia – thereby indicting not only an entire religion but an entire nation.

I know that many will want to jump on Robertson with disdain and scorn but … maybe we should not be so quick to jump to judgement. As often happens in cases like this, there is a good possibility that there is something we don’t know behind the scenes. There might be more to the story that at first meets the eye.

  • Robertson might have undiagnosed Tourette Syndrome.
  • He might have a serious drinking problem and been under the influence when he made those egregious comments.

Now, before you dismiss this outright – just keep in mind that many preachers and politicians who rail against homosexuality later turn out to have been involved in illicit same-sex affairs at the very time they were railing. This pattern can be seen in leaders of many self-righteous and sanctimonious movements.

With public figures, we just don’t know. So I am suggesting that we might want to hold off judgement. Sure, right now it looks like crazy Uncle Pat has come unglued and betrayed the very gospel that he is supposed to be a minister of and a spokesman for. But … let’s just give it time.

That is plan A.

If you can’t wait for that, there is a plan B. As I proposed a while ago, it is possible that words for fundamentalist christians are like dialogue in porn movies. They play an important role in allowing us to suspend our suspicion and get down to the real business at hand.

I said that the real activities were nationalism, capitalism and militarism. One of our deaconesses added patriarchy. This accusation would stick to Robertson’s many gaffs like a field of burrs on a cheap pair of cotton dockers.

 Here is the thing: I want to be a generous and gracious purveyor irenic ecumenism. But there are times when you hear something like this and realize how many people are genuinely injured by this stuff. Like it or not – he is a spokesman for our religion, my tradition and Jesus’ name. This is why I go so far out of my way to say that we need to stop waiting for Superman and start sticking up for causes that don’t directly impact us.

Here is a conversation that I have had repeatedly in the past 20 years.

 Me: I’m not against guns for hunting, but we have to do something about assault rifles and semi-automatic handguns.

Guy: It’s our God given right to bear arms.

Me: Wait! You probably still believe in things like depravity and original sin right?

Guy: It’s right there in the Word.

Me: Umm… those aren’t actually in the text of scripture but anyway … IF you believe in depravity, don’t you think we should account for that in our gun laws?

Guy: The second amendment protects our God given right to defend ourself.

Me: I get that, I’m just trying to say that we could revisit some things that were written in the era of muzzle-loaded muskets and flint lock rifles.

Guy: Liberal.

People don’t like when I am critical, negative, dismissive or adversarial. Neither do I.  All I am saying is that I am very nervous about what gets broadcast on christian radio and TV these days and the impact that it has on thousands and thousands of people.

So here is the question: If, and I am only asking ‘if’, there was a machine that was fueled by a different vision of the world and different priority structure than that fleeting Galilean vision – but it was covered with a thin veneer of Jesus talk as a mask for the true agenda … shouldn’t we say something at some point?

If the Jesus-paint was only a mask on a monster, or a series of brushstrokes on a Hollywood set facade … we should say something right?

That probably is why plan B in this case is not so popular.

THE most important thing in all of this is that we are very clear about people who have simply bought into a bad brand of christianity and those who are up to something with it.  It is one thing to have merely inherited a flawed-limited-unaware religious product and those who openly promote a product that injures people and harms those who need what Christ provides the most.  We have to be careful.  This stuff is wicked, acidic, and cancerous. We can’t paint with a broad brush or be dismissive of folks who are just walking the same road we are all walking together – trying to figure it out.

May God give us grace in the journey.  We need it.  Lots of it.

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