The “Truth” in a Pluralistic World

Post script to the post “Three Little Words”: Jesus’s answer to Thomas in the Gospel of John, that he is “The Way, the Truth and the Life,” makes a claim that is particularly hard to defend, much less understand, in today’s pluralistic and reasonably offended world. Rowan Williams, the intellectual Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-12) with the wonderfully upswept eyebrows and wizard’s beard, unpacked this challenge in a lecture he gave in 2010.

( LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)

The problem: The claim that Jesus is THE Way, Truth and Life is aggressively exclusive, asserting what Williams calls an absolute and unique “finality.” It’s a position that can embarrass sensitive Christians in the face of Jewish continuity, other beliefs, and non-belief (even of dear friends and family).

Here is the former archbishop’s lecture. It’s carefully set out, so I can’t adequately simplify it. But to try to keep it straight in my head, or if you don’t read the whole thing, here’s my outline of what Williams calls the three “great objections” and his answers:

I. Modern Objections

  1. Moral – For God to base salvation on one chancy, historically embedded “way.”
  2. Political – That it’s a recipe for contempt of, or crusades against, outsiders.
  3. Philosophical – How can the final “truth” be born in a single place and culture, and apply to everyone always?

II. Problems with these Objections

  1. Gospel is not saying “or else!” to outsiders, but speaking only about a vital relationship with Jesus as the “final” form of everyone’s full humanity – what each person was always meant to be.
  2. To say this truth isn’t for everybody is to divide humans and humanity into various pieces, condescending to some, making Christian faith relativistic.
  3. “The Way” is not an abstract principle, but is more like a walk, a personal discovery, an individual’s transformation.

III. Modest Answers to these Objections

  1. Moral – It would be more unfair to deny that all have access to an ultimate Father-Son relationship as the stamp of full humanity, the eternal in our nature.
  2. Political – This is God’s work, not ours in any particular cultural form. Understanding that, we become humble about what we know and claim, and more critical of human systems, racism, bigotry, arrogance, etc.
  3. Philosophical – There is “something about human nature which is beyond change and negotiation; something about the way we are as humans.”

So how should Christians, believing this, relate to other faiths and nonbelievers? Williams says: With open minds and hearts, on the principle that there’s much to learn from others if you are free to live in the true fullness of your human nature and in expectation of its coming to all (including yourself).

About Doug Cumming

Writer, W&L journalism professor emeritus
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