Presented to Association of Anabaptist Missiologists – Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba – Oct. 13, 2007. First published in Mission Focus Annual Review 2007,52-72; appears here with permission
Forty-five years ago, I first went to India for three years. That cross-cultural and interreligious context shaped my entire adult experience—parenting and ecumenical tasks, teaching and writing. Feminist and pluralist agenda have also been sources of Wisdom. Friendships with Indians and South Asians, some of whom are not Christian, in Asia and with international students at Goshen College have instilled a yen for study and openness to that which differs. I enjoy both biblical work and interreligious dialogue. I care as much to learn from others as to tell them what gives me meaning. This paper reflects my feminist, multifaith, Asian, biblical, and reading diet, my bias and conviction. I affirm Jesus as my mentor or prime means for knowing the One God who creates and renews. Jesus the Christ’s core message of welcome to God’s Reign moves a person toward wholeness (saving) that God wishes for all people of all nations. To learn from people whose sacred experience differs deepens my faith. Openness and commitment define the process.
First, several feminist voices to hear: Carter Heyward expresses Embodied, experience-based Christology. She believes that “God’s incarnations are as many and varied as the persons who are driven by the power in relation to touch and be touched by sisters and brothers.”1 Some Korean women scholars think of Jesus as co-sufferer known for healings. He is often imaged as a shaman, as a big sister, not “Lord of all” or “only Son of God.” Because Jesus respects them or bestows self-worth and dignity, they know hope.2 Redemption for feminist theology is about liberation and wholeness—personal, social, and of the earth. It looks beyond one religion. In that stance it conveys Max Muller’s statement of over a century ago, “To know one religion is to know none.” I also value Jeannine Hill Fletcher’s view that all people are religious ‘hybrids.’3 Multifaiths shape who we are as persons intersect, as we share with and learn from diverse people. A person’s internal diversity reflects strength, shaped by location and experience. We honor those with whom we differ as we both find common views and uphold difference. Fletcher also states, “. . . ever-new perspectives on the mystery of God might constitute the ultimate human experience of salvation.”4
From multifaith voices come insight. Rather than hold God captive—through our presumed right teachings or ways to worship—we need to discover God beyond our particular limits. Ovey Mohammed, a Jesuit, notes many features that Jesus and Krishna have in common.5 He suggests that both enable there adherents to know wholeness, granting freedom from rebirth (karma) or freedom from a tendency to replace God.
While Christians may find orientation to the world through the story of ‘God,’ ‘Christ,’ and ‘salvation,’ people of other faiths describe the world in different terms . . . A Buddhist may talk about ‘Nothingness’ and ‘Nirvana.’. . . A Hindu describes the multiplicity of forms through which God incarnates in the world. . . . And Muslims and Jews defend the radical monotheism whereby none is God but God.6
Asian voices abound. Even Gandhiji valued Jesus the Jewish model for non-resistant living and Sermon on the Mount ethics. Yet, he found Hindu thought and practice adequate and faulted Christians for failure to truly pattern their model Teacher. Michael Amaladoss stresses that God saves, not a religion. Asian Roman Catholic bishops explain saving as uniting people of different cultures and religions to create love and peace. They understand Jesus the saviour as Jesus the union builder.”7 Wesley Ariarajah, native of Sri Lanka, faults the church for failure to “contemplate the possibility that God may have many ways of bringing people to their intended destiny, the Christian way being one of them.”8
Turning to biblical voices, I value John Oswalt’s review of witness to “the nations” through four centuries of classical prophecy.9 From Joel to Zechariah, Hebrew Scriptures detail salvation possible through the universal Spirit. Israel needs repeatedly to learn that God’s blessing must be shared. Not told to convert, Israel is to inform the nations, to witness to God’s mercy and power, to be the means whereby the nations choose to worship the Holy One. For Elmer Martens, witness is not restricted to verbal witness but being light to draw others to God’s way and glory.10
As we briefly turn to a few texts, I highlight three sources: Israel Selvanayagam’s Biblical Insights on Inter-Faith Dialogue, Thomas Thangaraj’s Relating to People of Other Religions, and Kwok Pui-lan’s Discovering the Bible in the Non-Biblical World.11 Pui-lan presents insight from Wesley Ariarajah, currently at Drew Theological. His strategies for interpreting the Bible include: admit that others may not comprehend the distinct Israelite perspective; emphasize God’s universal covenant with all nations and Christ’s salvation available to all; pay attention to biblical encounters between people of different faiths; and value Christian witness along with dialogue.12
Not driven by exclusive claims, we do well to present scriptural issues common to diverse people. To see ourselves more clearly—as other or privileged or exploiters—involves reading the plural ‘face’ of the Bible and looking at ourselves from the outlook of other faiths, among cultures. A Christian who chooses not to describe Jesus as superior to other channels for disclosing God or Truth does not reveal less commitment to Christ’s prime call to make God’s kingdom known.
Having consulted varied commentaries and resources, I turn to a few biblical texts that cross cultures and engage across religious groups.
Genesis 9:8-17 – Then God said to Noah and his children: “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you. The sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature for all future generations is the bow.”
Chaos is not the last word. Here is unconditional promise to Israel, all nations and the whole creation. Here is God’s mercy, God’s gift of relationship, of wholeness. The bow will always remind God to honor the promise made here, never again to destroy all. The network of nations fulfills creation. Called to care for the world, Noah’s sons Shem (Israel), Ham (Canaan), and Japheth (Philistines) branched out to become all nations, Jews and Gentiles. Tension starts: over God’s universal care plus election of a people for a task, since Israel resembled other nations.
Genesis 12:2-3 – Now God said to Abram and Sarai: “I will make of you a great people, and I will bless you and make your names great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you, I will curse; in you all families of the earth shall be blessed.”
Israel, represented by Abram and Sarai, is chosen to play a decisive role in God’s historical purpose. Together, they typify people of faith. The promise includes salvation and judgment. Three religious traditions claim Abram and Sarai as faith parents. Their lives teach that authentic being is for the sake of others. Israel Selvanayagam updates their challenge: Muslims are nudged to relate to Abram and Sarai “without worrying about prime heir—Isaac or Ishmael”; Jews need to leave aside historic injustices and “rediscover their role as a blessing for all nations”; and Christians had best “develop a counter-culture which will curtail injustice.”13
Genesis 26:22 – After quarrels between herder groups, Isaac moved from there and dug another well. With no quarrels heard, he called the well Rehoboth. Yahweh has made room for us; we shall be fruitful in the land.
Here Isaac’s people solve a problem across religion and culture. Andrew Nehring suggests that Isaac’s model of release rather than to insist on his own truth claim led to harmony. At the same time, Isaac found open space. “Giving space to others sets us free too. God wants all—every culture, tribe, nation, and religion—to have its own space on earth,” our ‘global village.’14. . . Being pluralist does not only accept others as they are while being faithful to our own standpoint. We also may withdraw from traditional positions. . . God’s dialogue with the world, based on the weakness of suffering—not strong positions and doctrines—can spring into new, creative life.15
II Kings 5:15-19 –The Aramean army commander Naaman suffered from leprosy. After ‘stooping’ to wash in the feeble Jordon, following Elisha’s offensive directive, he returns to thank and gift the “man of God.” Refusing the offer, Elisha grants Naaman’s request for soil, in order later to sacrifice to the God of Israel with ‘kosher’ land. Further, Elisha blesses the ‘outsider’ “Go in peace” when he regrets needing, on return, to bow down to Rimmon—or Hadad the chief god of Aram—as expected by his master.
The theme of divine universalism—God of all nations—appears again. Even Jesus presents the story of Naaman (Luke 4:27f) as an instance of God’s mercy upon non-Jews. Whereas Israel would have banished the person with leprosy, Naaman lived with his family and held an official position within Syrian culture. Further, he willingly goes from Damascus to Samaria based on a young, ‘outsider’ girl’s counsel. This contrasts for Victor Premsager some Christians who refuse to join others’ worship or festivals, based in their exclusive faith. . . . Not a cult-figure for Christians to worship, Jesus knew God as the God of all nations. . .With mercy available to any nation, God healed Naaman and gave victory to the Syrians. . . In order for God to receive glory, Elisha neither touched Naaman, nor received gifts offered. . . “Healing and Wisdom are gifts of the Creator to [the] whole creation.”16 Elisha neither condemns nor outright endorses loyalty to the king’s religion; with divine compassion, he says, “Go in peace.”
Isaiah 45: 5, 19, 22 – [charge to Cyrus, God’s anointed/messiah] I am Yahweh, and there is no other; besides me, there is no god. . . I Yahweh speak the truth. . . Turn to me and be saved. For I am God, and there is no other.
The phrase “There is no other” was a known formula. As Israel’s mission is to all nations, God’s call is universal. This is the only Hebrew text where ‘messiah’ refers to a non-Israelite (Cyrus); those who question whether the choice is proper hear Woes. The context extends salvation to all. Since the nations’ rival gods are powerless, let the nations bow before God is the gist.
Isaiah 56:6-8 – Thus says Yahweh [to foreigners, eunuchs and outcasts, to all who are faithful to the covenant, all who minister to and love Yahweh’s name]: I will gather even more to give all an everlasting name. I will bring you to my holy mountain, my house of prayer for all peoples.
Whereas earlier law had excluded eunuchs and certain foreign peoples from membership among Israelites, here Third Isaiah assures their full involvement. In God’s house of prayer for all peoples, they could even perform cultic functions. This universal salvation oracle announces good news; with power, goodness, and fullness of life, why would faithful people fear? Recalling the first covenant with Noah, this text reconfirms that God never had interest in one nation or one type of person alone. Susannah Heschel reminds us to affirm that without Judaism, there would be no Christianity. God challenges religions to forsake superior attitudes, to credit others.
Jeremiah 31:31-34 (also Genesis 9:8-17, Luke 22:20) – Believe me, days are coming—Yahweh’s word—when I will make a new covenant. . . not like the covenant that I made with their (ancestors) when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, which covenant of mine they broke. . . But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, Yahweh says: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Writer Selvanayagam expands on Swedish Goran Larsson’s insight into covenant: Covenant relationship affirms both the distinct and universal. Not to be separated, the post-flood, Noachide covenant for all peoples of the future and the agreements with the nation Israel reflect God’s plural approach. Later installments of vows confirm, never cancel, earlier versions. Again, God initiates the vow. The promise of mutual knowledge—mind and will—with commitment finds no one with special revelation or preferred closeness to God. A religious few cannot dominate. That New Testament writers fail to refer to Noah’s cosmic, unconditional covenant with God is Christianity’s loss. Today’s world would benefit if the largest religious group upheld an inclusive stance toward all peoples and sacred traditions.17
Amos 9:7 – Are not you Israelites like Cushites to me? Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor, the Aramaeans from Kir?”
Rhetorical questions expect a ‘yes’ response. God’s rule over all the nations is evenhanded—not a lack of interest in Israel but equal interest in others (even when they do not acknowledge God’s authority). Because Israel was special to God did not exclude God’s having special relationships with others. Nor do Christians alone possess God; such a lesson can be hard to learn.
As God delivered obscure, distant Cushite or Ethiopian tribes that had been enslaved and exploited, so God brought up Israel from the land of Egypt. An ‘exodus’ experience was not unique. As God uprooted and gave land to little known Aramaean nations, so God controlled Philistine’ destiny, alongside Israel; God helped to settle them all. Though with different ethnic, cultural, and religious features, they were not favored differently by God (god Elyon was suzerain over the entire region). Amos denies special status to any one community in the Kingdom of God, without discrediting Israel’s election to a distinct purpose.18
Walter Brueggemann’s fine article focused on this text notes Israel’s problem as excessive belief—that Israel alone is Yahweh’s people.19 Amos perceived the need to counter Israel’s “mono-ideology” with a radical pluralism. Enemies of Israel, not unlike Judaism or Hinduism for Christianity, have history with God too. Not exceptional or not with monopoly, Israel dare not define (therefore limit) God, for the Divine is pluralist in mode and expression.
Jonah 1:7-16, 4:10-11 – When Jonah in fleeing God’s call experienced a great storm at sea, the sailors from Joppa asked, “What is this that you have done!” With no option but to throw him overboard, they cried in fear, offered a sacrifice, and made vows to Yahweh . . . Later, God spoke to Jonah’s anger about a dried up bush, “Should I not also be concerned about Nineveh?”
If Jonah felt sorry for a plant that died, why might he not expect God’s greater care for Nineveh? . . . Wesley Ariarajah sees the point of the book as God’s profound relationship with humanity while Jonah represents a single religion’s limited, biased perception of people of other faiths. Jonah is annoyed: by ideas that Nineveh was beyond repentance; that God’s response could shame him; that God could be less than reliable. . . Although absolute sovereign over the whole creation, God prefers to forgive than destroy. Such mercy is not confined to any one nation or people. Nineveh’s repentance is as acceptable to God as anyone’s.20
Micah 4:2, 5 – Many nations shall come and say: “Come, let us go up to Yahweh’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that we may learn to walk in God’s paths.”. . . all peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of Yahweh our God forever and ever.
Micah’s oracle envisions when peoples will live in peace and not pursue war. When they will shape a hoe to raise crops rather than destroy orchards. When all will gather with, claim and learn from the One God. With each nation or religion on its distinct journey yet able to influence others, God guides them together toward the perfect destiny. Selvanayagam suggests that whether the pluralism noted here is temporary or long-term, it is the only biblical text that makes space for diverse gods. Perhaps then, as possible now, there will be diverse names, forms, and expressions for Divinity, all reflecting Ultimate Being. Intent to worship in truth and open to difference, the global movement of nations appears to journey in faith, in the name, and therefore presence, of the Mystery. To so live without fear or judgment, with trust and vision strong, sounds like a miracle worth pursuing.
Almost needless to say, so many biblical texts ‘qualify’ for insight into relating across cultures and religions; useful ones simply need to be left for a larger project. My own work has been extensive with accounts such as Ruth and Esther, with Jesus’ and the Samaritan woman’s deep religious talk at the well. Many of Jesus’ personal interactions crossed boundaries. For example, at Capernaum appeared the centurion or army captain, himself a man of authority. Concerned for his sick servant, the humble client believed that Jesus’ Word could heal from a distance. Jesus duly praised his faith, not having found equal vision among Israelites. I highlight several more gospel accounts before focusing a few accounts from Acts of the Apostles.
Matthew 15:21-28/Mark 7:24-30 – A foreign woman pleads for her daughter’s healing. Alongside the disciples’ frustration with the mother’s persistent shouting “Lord, have mercy,” Jesus ignores her need. “Let the children be fed first. To take what belongs to the Jews and throw it to dogs is unfair.” “But sir,” the foreigner humbly rejoined, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Her stark faith prompted Jesus to turn about. “Let what you wish be done.”
Tired, Jesus headed north from the Sea of Galilee toward the urban center of Tyre, to rest. Of neither Jesus’ culture nor religion, a bold, Gentile woman tried verbally to get God’s messenger to notice her. With respect for his difference, she used the title, “Son of David.” In pain, she cried for her troubled child. Then she knelt to beg: “Cast it out.” Perhaps the child’s mind was disturbed, her response convulsive.
He had healed others; she knew that. What he knew was that his mission centered on the unsaved among Israelites. “Help me too,” she repeated. “Let the children be fed first.” His caustic riddle meant the Jews: Jews first. Proper order marks tradition. Jewish contempt for the ‘outsider,” those loyal to another religion, pierced the air. To throw to dogs what belongs to Jews—a pure excuse—was not expected of Jesus. Gentiles, those without salvation, scavenge like dogs. When fearful, what better tactic than name-calling? Make clear the boundary—who’s in, who’s out.
Not wincing or whining or even refuting, the nameless one brought God’s word to the one called Son. She spoke. Hated by righteous Jews, without shame or arrogance, her theology dripped out. The ‘outsider,’ the one not expected to have truth, certainly not to express it, said: “Even the Gentiles eat crumbs dropped under the table by the ‘insiders.’ Crumbs. Leftovers. Not meant to satisfy basic needs. Rebuffed, Jesus heard her faith. Because of who she was, of whom he and the ‘insiders’ perceived her to be, he had refused to heal. She knew that too.
What he knew in a new way was profound. God’s inclusive breadth stood boldly before him. It knocked the boundary, the wall that separated them. What the woman knew in faith—her consistent, resistant, persistent faith—she calmly shared. Not arrogant or ignorant, she, with courage, referred to broken bread, as a way to get through. A way to appeal to layers of tradition. To outwit an alibi, she set the story straight. With her word conveyed, his mission came to new light. Her trust in a healer’s power, because of the Divine within, prompted his readiness to reverse a stance, the same Divine work a-tuned. And, the daughter was healed at once.
What a window to crossing cultures and religious loyalties!
Mark 12:28-31 – One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that [Jesus] answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
The first part of Jesus’ response to the friendly scribe affirms his Jewish heritage, the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4. Whereas Jesus spoke out of an established religion (Judaism), the early church was a small group among less than friendly neighbors. Does our world re-shape insight into this text? To assert God’s Oneness prompts the command to love God alone. Then, as Selvanayagam suggests, any claim to “love God” becomes false if it is not expressed in “loving others.”. . .If God’s universal love transcends categories like neighbor or friend, good or evil, then Jesus’ followers will extend unforced love to Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and others, he suggests.21
World religions have promoted what we call the “Golden Rule” for centuries. From ancient Hindu thought: “This is the sum of duty: do not do to others what would cause pain if done to you.” From Confucian thought comes: “One word which sums up the basis of all good conduct . . . loving kindness. Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself.” While Taoism suggests: “Regard your neighbour’s gain as your own gain, and your neighbour’s loss as your own loss,” Islam instills: “Not one of you truly believes until you wish for others what you wish for yourself.”22
John 14:6 – When Thomas admitted not knowing how Jesus would reach God’s dwelling, Jesus provided a confession for believers. He confided, Follow my path of rejection and suffering. Jesus (perhaps) said to Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”23
The teaching of chapters 14-17 of John, called the Farewell Discourse, took place following the Last Supper. The context of the writer decades after the Supper was filled with conflict between Jesus’ followers and some leaders within Judaism. Christians to whom John wrote sorely disliked opposition toward their movement. They knew injustice when driven from the synagogue. Lumping all “The Jews” into one despised group and faulting all for the actions of “some,” John caused further negative vibes while commending belief in Jesus. No doubt we understand the tactic, the prejudice, the outgrowth of ill-will.
During the Last Supper, a close meal with the Twelve (minus one or perhaps plus more), John’s text records Jesus actions: he washes their feet, predicts his betrayal, warns that the world may hate them, and tries to comfort their emotions. He says that he would soon return to God. His intent was to prepare room for believers to relate further with God before returning to mark the end-of-time. He said, “I go.” How could he refuse to take them along? Thomas, often a figure to represent common views, later declares “My Lord and my God.” Here he admits lack of know-how for reaching God. “How do we know the way if we don’t know where you’re going?” (Let alone if you’ve not gone there before.) They presumed that the end was immanent, that getting to God might require more than a simple map. They feared how they would manage or survive without their Leader for whom they had left all else. Whether Jesus’ counter registered— but you do know how to go; at least, I’ve been telling you for three years—remains unclear.
Jesus turns destiny into route. Not boasting or setting up a dictum to denounce world religions, Jesus claims to be the way to God for all who follow him. For loyal Christians, he shows and lives the way of suffering love. Having lived intimately with God, Jesus shares truth learned from God. For example, God is impartial; no one is favored over others. For the way which is open to God’s Ways lets God decide whom and how to include. Even Thomas would see the idolatry of trying to decide about others, in God’s stead, I think.
The writer uses questions to allow Jesus to explain further. Not only Jesus’ way of suffering and upcoming cross, the uncharted way for believers matters. The two are linked as people look to eternal life with God. Robert Kysar calls Jesus the medium. Jesus reveals God’s love so that people understand and relate with God in peace. Either truth and life then explain way or way names the goal, which is truth and life.
Interpreters provide varied schemes for the trio of words. Raymond Brown suggests that the disciples’ way is already their goal; truth is the divine reality; and life is reality shared by all people. With the center of interest being the disciples’ going, Barnabas Lindars notes: to follow Jesus, even to death, is the way; to believe in Jesus as one sent by God is truth; and to relate with God, enabled by Jesus, is life. For Leon Morris, Jesus is the way as he redeems or connects God with people. While he finds utterly dependable Jesus’ actions and being, the truth of the gospel, he claims Jesus as both life and source of life. Recall Psalms 86:11:“Teach me your way, O Yahweh, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.”
For Craig Koester, “Jesus is the way” is “one of Christianity’s most essential teachings.” For Jesus to go the way to God and back, via dying and rising, means for him to be the way. He believes that the phrase “no one comes to God except through me” serves to level people. Not a Christian privilege of being in, in contrast to those loyal to other faiths being excluded, sin separates all people from God.
For James Charlesworth, the early church conflict with segments of Judaism forever shaped the meaning of this text. He calls the portion about Jesus being the only way to God “Jew-hating.” Imagine the setting: Jews convinced of their on-going covenant with God being told that Jesus himself excluded their tie with Yahweh of Hosts. Offence par excellance! Imagine mostly Jewish Christians telling the majority Jews “You do not know God!” That judgment rained spite and delusion. It continues to justify anti-Jewish thought among Christians. Charlesworth believes that “negative views of Jews and exclusive, divisive words reflect later alterations” to texts. Not Jesus’ words or reflective of his attitudes, the denial of salvation or a way to God other than through Jesus “violates much of biblical theology.” Whereas Jesus’ claim as way/truth/life damns no one who believes in the Divine, the ‘no one comes’ phrase betrays Jesus’ core welcome and limits whom God may choose to include.
Charlesworth raises questions for us. Will Christians value being exclusive about the One God? Why? Notably when based on a phrase that Jesus our Mentor perhaps never uttered? What internal need prompts feeling superior to others? What power issues are threatened? Why distort the God of all nations to insist that only Jesus saves? What witness to Jesus’ radical inclusion, combined with his deep agony for all injustice, merits being so skewed? Why might people be drawn to that which excludes? What makes power and privilege attractive, or threatened? When salvation or wholeness is at stake, why do people wish to usurp divine tasks?
Others have studied this key text. D Moody Smith also notes the polemic between Christ-confessing and Christ-denying Jews. He wonders if people presumed to say that no way to God existed until Jesus opened one (Hebrews 10:20). Not a universal statement for all time, verse 6 for Robert Kysar reflects the Johannine group’s intent to affirm their leader over against Judaism, as part of a survival technique. David Scott warns against using any text as a pretext, hiding the real reason with a false one. But, mixed, intense emotions do shape the context of John. 14:6. Not triumphal, Jesus invites followers to discover the way of the Cross with courage.24 Through deep intimacy with God, Jesus assures them that the truth of a suffering God leads to life in its fullness. Knowing that he soon would hang on a cross, he declared himself en route to God. John nudged his Jewish Christian audience, those who already accepted Jesus, to continue their belief. He did not aim content toward people with other faith loyalty. Devotion or undivided commitment to God’s kingdom of justice does not provide space to negate or bow to other gods, even as they might reflect on the One God.
Paul Knitter suggests that first generation Christians, when afraid that they might not survive the nearby Jewish majority or the vast Roman Empire, may more easily have overstated features about Jesus. Deep commitment likely prompted them to nudge others to take Jesus seriously, to declare him worthy to reveal the One God. For them or Christians today to confess commitment to Jesus the Christ rather than imply that no one else deserves commitment enables more open exchange with believers “equally committed to their saviors.”25 Arvind Nirmal expressed concern that a plan of salvation that allows for only one way presents God as stingy. Furthermore, it deprives God’s freedom to pursue and achieve salvation in chosen way(s).26 To re-define the plan could mean to value the place that world religions have within God’s richly diverse Being. Nirmal expects different world religions to correct and enrich each other.
Cynthia Campbell, President of McCormick Theological Seminary, urges readers to focus what or who Jesus is, not to go beyond what is stated such as to status of or difference in other religions. She sees John’s purpose in part to move believers toward a unique doctrine of the triune God; Jesus is a window into the Mystery of threeness in one.27 Edward Kessler, involved with Jewish-Christian Relations in the United Kingdom, wishes for Christians to be distinct from Judaism without being triumphalist, without either opposing Jews or presuming to fulfill Judaism.28 That the church derives from Israel does not mean that God’s covenant with Israel breaks down. While Jesus expressed Jewish concerns, John 14:6b rejects claims that rivaled Jesus. But in 10:16 Jesus refers to other sheep, not of his fold, who will listen to his voice when he “lays down his life for them.”
A writer whom I hope Mennonites in mission have read is M. Thomas Thangaraj, Professor of World Christianity at Candler School of Theology, Atlanta.29 He finds Fourth Gospel material more a sermon on Jesus than what Jesus actually said. The author places words in Jesus’ mouth that convey the confession of the early faith community. In the Synoptics, Jesus never claimed anything for himself, titles or statements like John 14:6. In fact, he responded to one who called him Good Teacher, “No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:17-18) Context in the Fourth Gospel finds Jewish and Hellenistic Christians trying to define themselves. So, a text like 14:6 defines what being a follower of Christ means. Thangaraj believes that judging the destiny of all people beyond church walls based on this text totally misrepresents its intent and the context.
Thangaraj offers two ideas from John for a multireligious context: 1. “that God is accessible to all through God’s own reaching out to humanity through the Logos,” and 2. that readers look for where Jesus begins to proclaim being the way. To Peter’s question “Where are you going?” (chapter 13), Jesus explains the way of suffering love. So, 14:6 points to the central place of sacrifice for the sake of others as the way, truth, and life for reaching God.30
I hope that mission-oriented people will approach John 14:6 and the first one from Acts that we examine next with a humble spirit, open to multiple insights rather than use them to insist that only Jesus Saves.
Acts 4:12 – When asked by Jewish religious officials by what power or name he and John had healed a man lame for forty years, Peter said, “There is healing in Jesus Christ. Listen to this Jesus!” Or translated, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”31
The context was a Jewish healing event. As Peter and John enter the temple, they meet a man lame from birth. Peter offers all that he could for the circumstance—“in the name of Jesus, walk.” The meaning for healing and salvation resemble each other. Peter offers a symbol of Jesus’ presence—healing. To which act, the Jewish temple leaders ask, “By what power or name did you do this?” Name suggests another’s presence to liberate. The miracle symbolized wholeness, being healed or saved.
Convinced that God’s Spirit had acted through Jesus’ name—through life, death, and resurrection—followers like Peter confess how he had transformed them. Spirit-filled, they celebrate faith. They express love language, like the child who confesses, “My parents are the best in the world!” Not knowing all parents, and far from all-knowing about how God relates to people of all nations, the child or Peter or we believers confess to the extent that we are able: Jesus is the one through whom Christians best know God. Not for privilege or power and not with freedom to oppress or exclude, Peter confesses the name of Jesus the Healer.
Biblical scholars find the religious rulers and elders to be ‘worn down’ or upset as Peter and John influenced hearers about Jesus and resurrection. Arrested, the two came to testify, to defend the healing, before the Sanhedrin known for contempt. The Greek root word used here, not soteria, is sothenai which means “being made whole.” The term can be translated either saved or healed. Thangaraj notes that Peter’s confession relates directly to the healing. He cautions: “We would violate the integrity of the passage if we were to place it within today’s multi-religious setting and draw conclusions.”32
Cynthia Campbell notes Beverly Gaventa’s comment about the phrase “by which we must be saved.” This attempts to translate dei which means “it is necessary,” a word that Luke uses for things that occur according to God’s will.33 Campbell, Hans Conzelmann, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Paul Knitter all see the context here as God’s gift of wholeness. It was not an occasion to negate or compare religions or to imply that God could or would never work in people’s lives through other means. Rather, fearful yet convinced early believers call others to both listen to and accept the power available in Jesus—the power to mend, make whole. That too does not suggest that no one else should be heard or a valid teacher of religious truth. Selvanayagam believes that those who base an exclusive view on this text fail to study it carefully. The ultimate aim of life and liturgy is to praise or enjoy God, not make absolute claims . . . To note Jesus’ qualities is to confess faith; people of other living faiths project their confessions.34
Stanley Samartha’s study of segments of Acts 3 and 4 is forceful. This being a healing text reminds him of the link between poverty and religion. Implications of this story for Samartha affect general suffering among people, the beggar healed, and power relations between the church and other religions. For the healed of the text, there is freedom to move, new independence, new self-respect and dignity. God’s saving act restores total wholeness—personal, social, and cosmic. To claim salvation in no one other than Christ negates and judges neighbor religions. It divides people into ‘we’ and ‘they’ in ways that disrupt common tasks. Combined with economic, political, and military power, it prompts tension and warfare. From the context of multifaiths, Samartha declares:
Exclusive claims, coupled with power destroy the religions and cultures of other people. . . . But people of different faiths and opinions are all to receive God’s healing power. Peter and John confess on behalf of Jesus’ name, not against others. . . . To shift the crucified Christ into the Christ who conquers leads Christians to pride and self-right-ness. Exclusive claims for one’s own faith put fences around God’s mystery. They stress power over others and mar respect for cherished beliefs of those others. Such claims threaten world peace. So, Christians who wish to invite others to God’s healing must express commitment without negating others.35
Acts 10:34, 35 – Through a devout, God-fearing centurion named Cornelius, Peter was freed of his prejudice. Peter then spoke to those assembled: I truly understand that God shows no partiality. But in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to God, the Lord of all.”
More than about Cornelius’ conversion, this story captures Peter’s conversion to awareness that religious laws set by religious traditions are not boundaries within which God operates. The problem surfaces when such laws are given universal value or used to define the limits of God’s movement. Peter needed to turn to God’s way of looking at people. He first shifted to readiness to be a missioner with ‘outsiders.’ Like Jonah, Peter discovered God’s direct relationship with others. . . Ariarajah reminds readers that Christians have always been slow to affirm a Muslim’s sure faith and complete dependence on God, a Hindu’s deep devotion to God through prayer, and a Buddhist’s devotion and compassion.36
Act 17:22-28 – Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an Unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. In God who made the world and everything in it . . . we live and move and have our being.
Might Paul’s theological discourse here be a New Testament model for engagement within urban settings?37 Insight into proclaiming a message and relating to culture recur. Of three key speeches of Paul’s in Acts, this one engages Greek or Gentile people. He speaks to Jews in chapter 13 (16-41) and to Christians at Ephesus in 20 (17-35). The renowned, ancient city of Athens enveloped diverse god forms, Greek philosophy, and thirst for knowledge. Beverly Roberts Gaventa describes residents of Athens as “obsessed with telling and hearing something new.” Having heard his ability to exchange ideas at the agora in the heart of the city, the bemused Council invites Paul to present his case at the Aeropagus (or hill of Ares). Where gods were thought to convene and dispute, he could introduce his rather strange ideas about a god (or two) more clearly. He qualified as a “herald of foreign deities.”
Himself of ‘high culture’ from the key city of Tarsus, Paul walked Athens’ streets and learned of its valued philosophers. Close attention led to observations. Strong piety based in many statues and temples, plus a pantheon of gods including Zeus’ daughter Athena, impressed him. He also noted an altar inscribed, ‘To a God Unknown.’ No doubt numerous altars referred to foreign, unknown gods of Asia, Europe, or Africa. Paul reminded the talkers of Athens that they already know the God of creation—whose temple is the world, who orders the seasons. They know the One who is ever nearby, who sustains all life, therefore needs nothing. To reinforce their knowing, he quotes two poets. One, Epimenides, had said “in him we live and move and have our being”; another (Aratus, 315 BCE) had disclosed “For we too are his offspring.” Although God had in the past overlooked ignorance or failed loyalty, God’s coming judgment through a person will affect everyone, Paul said. To prepare for that event, knowing Jesus the resurrected one is crucial. Paul’s creedal statement with mention of resurrection brought on sneers; the thirty Council members could wait to hear more from this guy.
Bruce Winter further explains the aborted meeting. A herald would introduce his god, including how to fund land to build an altar and endow an annual feast of honor. Adding a new god might cause people to neglect another. The courteous Councils and Demos (people) questioned and judged a herald, to be convinced. But Paul, rather than proclaim something new, reminded them that for God nothing new was needed—land, dwelling or feasts. Even Stoic/Epicurean poets had said that those involved already belong to the divine—the giver of life, breath, and all things. When informed that all needed to change because of guilt toward God, support decreased.
J. Daryl Charles commends Paul for adapting his preaching to the social context of his audience. He practiced Stoic reasoning; he observed nature in seeking after God. He used common ground to address both Athenian inclusion and Christian distinction. Charles sums the Apostle’s features as: dialectical, well-read, relevant, skilled in rhetoric, and willing to adapt. He models retaining religious integrity as he relates biblical truth with culture and moves toward moral duty.38 Conversant with traditions, he built on and adjusted known folk insight to express universal, divine self-disclosure as he called for change.
Although Indian Christians today do not see altars to “unknown gods,” Dyanandan Francis affirms seeing special reverence and devotion among people loyal to diverse religions. Belief in One God does not endorse talk of “our God and your God.” For while Muslims declare “God is Great” and Hindus perceive a multiple Being, Sikhs know God’s name as Truth, but Jains, Buddhists, and others find Truth to be higher than God. Affirming one God and common humanity, Christians are free to proclaim Jesus as a further gift of wholeness from God.39
Clearly, religions deal with Mystery. Mystery suggests that not all is known. I believe that God, also called Yahweh or Allah or Brahman, is the Way for all nations. But I do not claim to know the breadth of God’s form nor how the Way transpires for all. Nor do I choose to limit God’s Wisdom in offering wholeness.
To confess that Jesus truly saves and makes salvation available on a universal scale does not limit God from providing other channels for wholeness. Unique and universal do not exclude each other. To confess Jesus as unique Lord and Christ need neither counter dialogue with world religions nor claim that all religions say the same thing or achieve the same goal. As Peter confessed what he knew—the name of Jesus the Healer—I know and confess Jesus as the one who best mediates to me God’s healing and freeing power. With Paul Knitter, I confess that “Jesus truly embodies and expresses God’s love,” not that he does so only, solely, or fully. Not the whole of God, Jesus is wholly God.”40 Other people of faith know other ways that give life deep meaning or wholeness for them. With so much need for care of oppressed people and earth, I choose to join, not negate, people loyal to diverse religions.