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Was Jesus an Exclusivist?

Thomas Whitley

I am the way, the truth and the life, no one comes to the Father, but through me. - John 14:6 This is a passage that has long bothered many progressive Christians, as Rev. Susan M. Strouse correctly points out in, "Is Jesus the Only Way?" Her involvement in interfaith dialogue led her to rethink the traditional exclusive interpretation of this passage and decided to take Marcus Borg's advice to take the Bible "seriously, but not literally."

The first thing I wanted to clarify in my sermon was historical context. John's gospel was written some 60 years after Jesus died. So when we read it, we have to interpret it in light of the late first-century world of John's community rather than our twenty-first century world. Therefore John 14:6 cannot be understood as a claim made by a major world religion, which Christianity was not yet. Rather it is the creation of a first century community forming and articulating an understanding of who and what Jesus had been and continued to be for them.

While some will never see the importance of understanding a text's context, I believe that many Christians are seeing the light, so to speak, and realizing that there is more to the text than the mere words on the page.

Strouse also speaks to the very obvious, but also very often overlooked, reality that the literary context doesn't lend itself to an exclusivistic reading:

Note that Thomas' question is not "Jesus, what about those non-Christians?" Jesus is not responding to a question about people of other faiths. His response is to Thomas and the others who were looking for comfort and reassurance for the days ahead.

So, if Jesus was not talking about other religions, but rather offering words of comfort to his followers, then why are we so keen on reading this text as pushing exclusivism?

What is it in us that makes us feel so strongly the desire to prove that everyone else is wrong and we are the only possible group that can be right?

How do we justify Christianity (as we know it and practice it) as the only true way (to be "saved") when Jesus wasn't a Christian, never worked to start a new religion, and included the very ones that we most often exclude?