Friday, April 22, 2005

The way, the truth, and the life

Today’s readings present us with an uneasy mixture of comfort and challenge. On one hand, we have the stirring words of 1 Peter 2: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” And then we have the words from John 17 that are so familiar to us from funerals and have brought hope to many at the time of death: “"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. 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, so that where I am, there you may be also.”

On the other hand we have the terrible story of the stoning of Stephen. Even Psalm 31 begs the question, “If God ‘inclines’ his ear to us, then why did Stephen’s enemies take his life in such a barbarous way?”

But the hardest words in today’s readings are Jesus’ reply to Thomas, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” They’re hard and difficult because they offend our modern sensibilities. We want to believe that there are many paths, many ways, many truths. That what is true for you may be different from what is true for me. The essence of post-modernism is the idea that truth is a social construction; there is no absolute truth or objectivity.

To a large extent, this is correct, and we can credit the physicist Werner Heisenberg with this insight. Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle” states that one can know either the location of an electron or its speed but one cannot know both at the same time. The process of determining the speed changes the location and knowing the location changes the speed. It’s a very commonsense position to take. Observation always changes, however subtly, both the observer and the thing observed.

But that is not the same thing as saying that the electron is not there at all or that speed is not a thing that can be measured. Gertrude Stein famously remarked about her hometown of Oakland, CA, “There’s no there there.” But in the case of the electron (or anything else we observe), “There IS a there there.” What we have to keep in mind is that our knowledge is always partial, finite, and influenced by our self-interest. It’s an insight that St. Paul had long ago: “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Cor. 13.12)

But the person in the pew wants to know, “Is Jesus the only way to God? Will my Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist neighbor be ‘saved’?” The answer is both simple and complex. We have to take Jesus at his word. He claims to be THE way, and we are not authorized to proclaim any other way. Karl Rahner suggested that there may be “anonymous Christians,” i.e., those who know Christ without knowing him by name. That is a helpful idea but it simply moves the difficulty back one step. Not many Jews or Muslims would like to be told, “It’s OK. You’re really Christians without knowing it.”

I think what we can say is that Jesus is the way we know. We can and should acknowledge that goodness, wisdom, and even holiness are often found in other faiths (and often missing in the Christian faith) But we must maintain a reverent agnosticism about how God will deal with those of other faiths.

Now, here’s the hard part: We also need to maintain a degree of uncertainty about how God will deal with us. This is not to undermine Christian hope and assurance but simply to recognize the fact that not only is our knowledge of God impaired by our finitude and self-interest but even our knowledge of ourselves is impaired. But if our hope were that we are redeemed because we know and love God so well, then we would be (to quote Paul again), “of all men and women most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15.19). Our hope is that God knows and love us. We have hope for ourselves and our neighbors of other faiths because there IS a way, a truth, and a life. Our knowledge of that way is inevitably partial and biased and we often go astray but we are confident not because we know the Way but because the Way knows us.