Jesus: The Way That is Open to Other Ways

It's with a particular sense of appreciation and satisfaction that I stand in this pulpit with you this morning. Your former pastor, Gary Wilburn, was one of the first people outside of Union whom I met at Union after my wife and I moved to New York a little over a year ago. I believe it was at Gary Dorrien's Inauguration. Pastor Wilburn and I happened to be seated next to each other at the dinner, and it didn't take long before we were engaged in a vigorous conversation, in the course of which, he offered me the invitation to preach at First Presbyterian in New Canaan. I said I would be honored and delighted.

Thanks to the persistence and help of Steven and Abbey Wise, I finally have this opportunity to keep my promise to Gary.

As you've heard, I have the honor of being the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture at Union Theological Seminary. What Union wants me to do in that position is embodied, actually, in the title of my sermon for today: "Jesus as the Way that is open to other Ways."

To explain that, I think it's best for me to speak personally, about my own faith journey. I hope – I suspect – that it may mirror aspects of the journey many of you are on.


I am one of those Christians whose faith has been uncomfortably challenged by a reality that has been with us since the dawning of humanity but has become even clearer and more pressing over the last century: that there are many ways to be religious. There are many religions; there always have been; and, despite two millennia of Christian missionary work, it sure seems like there always will be. The manyness, the diversity, of religions is here to stay.

This is the question that has perplexed and stimulated my religious life as a Christian and my academic life as a theologian: how to make sense of so many other religions and (perhaps even more difficult!) how to make sense of my Christian faith in the light of these other religions.

I found that I was not satisfied with the usual answers that I had been given: Either that the other religions are of no value whatsoever and are meant to be replaced by Christianity (this is the answer I was given in my Catholic catechism back in Chicago in the 40s and 50s); or that the religions are of great value but that such value is there to prepare them for conversion to and fulfillment in Christianity (this was the answer that I heard from the Second Vatican Council when I was studying in Rome in the 60s).

In light of my study of other religions, and especially in light of my friendships with Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews, I have not been able to believe either of those Christian positions – that Christianity was meant to either replace or absorb all the other religions of the world.

And in my teaching and in my speaking at Catholic and Protestant churches, I found that many, many of my fellow Christians were wrestling with the same questions.
So new questions lead to new discoveries – that, according to Paul Tillich, is the way theology — really Christian life – unfolds: it's a constant facing of new questions that reveal new opportunities for new answers, new discoveries in the Bible and tradition.

I can capture what I discovered – though there is no time to describe the theological journey toward that discovery – in the beautiful statement of John Cobb: Jesus is the way that is open to other ways. Jesus is not the way that excludes, overpowers, demeans other ways; rather he is the way that opens us to, connects us with, calls us to relate to other ways in a process that can best be described as "dialogue."

This, I believe, is the real meaning of today's reading from John's Gospel – a passage that is so often used – better, misused – to exclude others. When Jesus pronounces one of those "I am" statements that are scattered all over John's gospel, when he announces that "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life," he is warning us that to understand him properly, we have to see him as part of a bigger picture. His "I", his "ego," represents, or it embodies, the larger reality of what he calls the Father – the Way, the Truth, the Life of the Father.

This is why he goes on to answer Philip's request, "Show us the Father" with the rather curt reply, "Hey, dummy, after all this time with me, don't you realize that when you see me, you see the Father. When you know me, you know the Father." (We might say, especially on Father's Day, that Jesus saw himself as Daddy's boy.)
Therefore, when he says that "no one comes to the Father except through me, the "me" is not the individual "ego" of Jesus but the larger truth, way, and life that are represented in him. You might say that all of Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life, but not that all of the Way the Truth and the Life is Jesus. The Truth, like the Father, is embodied in Jesus, but it is greater than Jesus. "The Father (i.e. the Way, Truth, and Life) is greater than I," Jesus reminds us.

So, Jesus is the way that must learn about other ways; the truth that must engage other truths; the life that must be lived with other lives. Only by following Jesus as this kind of way, this kind of truth, this kind of life, can we come to the Father.
As Paul Tillich puts it: The particularity of Jesus' life and message points to the universality of God's love and presence. We Christians believe that God is defined by Jesus; but that does not mean, it cannot mean, that God is confined by Jesus. If we stress the particularity of Jesus and forget the universality of God, we make Jesus into an idol.

The Jesus-way can be, and needs to be, deepened through other ways. … Let me give you an example of how this has happened for me. For me, the way of Jesus has opened me up to the way of Gautama the Buddha.

In my dialogue with different religions, Buddhism has been the religion that has most attracted, bewildered, challenged, and therefore enriched me. It has enabled me to understand, and therefore to live, my Christian faith in two ways: On the one hand, it has deepened and expanded my Christian beliefs; but on the other, it has also clarified and, if I may dare say, corrected my Christian beliefs. Buddhism has helped me, I think I can say, to see more clearly, or to remove the misunderstandings about, what the message of the Gospel can mean for us today.
Very briefly, and inadequately, let me give you two examples of how this has happened. They both have to do with difficulties I have faced in imaging, talking about, and experiencing the Reality that we Christians call God.

God: the Holy Mystery beyond All Words.

Buddhism, as you know, does not talk about God. But to therefore call it an atheistic religion, as some Westerners have, is to grossly misunderstand it. It doesn't explicitly deny God. It just doesn't want to talk about God. To talk about God, for Buddhist, creates more problems than it solves. Why?

The Reality that Buddha experienced in his Enlightenment was something, he realized, that could never be put into words; never be put into ideas, and certainly not into images that made this reality into an object or a person. And yet, Buddha did speak about what he experienced. But he always prefaced everything he said with the warning that his words were meant to be means to and end; never the end in itself. The end was the experience of Enlightenment. In the well-known Zen saying (which Pastor Wilburn uses as the title for one of his sermons in his wonderful collection, The God I Don't Believe In): all our words, all our images, are fingers pointing to the moon. Don't make them the moon itself.

This insight of Buddha has helped me tremendously. It's reminded me and made even more real for me what Tillich always insisted on: all our language, all our words, about God are symbols, even the word "God" itself. And as my colleague at Union, Roger Haight, S.J. reminds us, even Jesus is a Symbol of God. For us, he's the perfect symbol of God. That's why we say he is divine.

Therefore, when we use words for God, we are to take them not as pictures of God, but as pointers – fingers pointing to the moon. That means we are to take these words seriously, but not literally. That applies to words like "Father" or words like "you." God is not literally a Father or literally a you.

When I realized that, it both freed me from having to take language about God literally and challenged me to ask what that language really means for my experience – which brings me to the second way in which Buddhism has helped me understand the God I do believe in.

God: The Connecting Presence

What, then, is the reality we can experience through and behind such words as God, Father, Lord, you?

While Buddha did not talk about God, or an almighty Being, he did talk a lot about, in the Sanskrit, pratitya-samutpada, which is awkwardly translated as dependent origination. What he realized in his Enlightenment was that nothing exists as a being, an entity, unto itself. Everything comes to be, and continues to be, through relationships with other beings, or better, other always-relating beings. Or as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it more clearly and engaging: we all live and move and have our being within a marvelous process of Interbeing.

For me, this a much more meaningful and helpful finger by which I can point to, and feel, the Mystery we call God, or the Mystery we call Father (or Mother): The Divine is this energy of Interbeing, this loving activity that requires us, and enables us, to connect with others and with the physical world around us. It's the energy, the Presence, we feel when we are connected with others, when we love and are loved, when we open ourselves and when we give of ourselves.

And this, from a Buddhist perspective, is exactly what our first reading from John's first letter is telling us. It's the only "definition" of God we have in the New Testament: "God is love." Love is an interconnecting energy. Love is inter-being. When we love we know God, we feel God, we are God. And I realized that we Christians and Jews (Muslims, too) already have a finger, a symbol that points to such an experience of the Divine: Spirit. God as Spirit is our way of pointing to God as Interbeing. But it has been the Buddhist image of Interbeing that enabled me to clarify, to deepen, perhaps to correct my understanding of what Spirit really means and how I can feel it in my life.

So I think I'm a Buddhist Christian. Still primarily and fundamentally a Christian, but because of Buddhism I find that my Christian beliefs make better sense and therefore they make deeper demands of me.

If Jesus really is the Way that is open to other Ways, then dialogue with other religions and other believers, should be part of what it means to be a Christian. As many Asian bishops and theologians are saying, today dialogue a new way of being church. Today we are called to be religious interreligiously. Committed to Jesus and the Gospel we must also be open to other religions and believers.

That is both challenging, and exciting.


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