I am the Way
“I am the way, the truth, and the light. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). How can we reconcile this apparent claim of a singular path to God with the experiences of boundless joy and infinite freedom reported by people who do not identify themselves as Christians?
First, it is helpful to consider this question from two interconnected perspectives: the personal and the universal. From the personal perspective, this statement is best understood in the context of the conversation in which Jesus said it. He had just told his disciples, during what would be his last supper with them, that he was about to leave to go to his Father’s house to prepare a place for them and that he would come back later and take them with him so they could be where he is. Then Thomas asked him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Thomas was evidently doubting that Jesus would come back for them, and he was despairing that without an idea about where Jesus was going—that is, a mental construct separate from Jesus himself—he and his fellow disciples would not be able to find their eternal home with God the Father. Thomas wanted something to hold onto—a map, a formula, a description of the destination—that, in the absence of Jesus, would show them the way. But Jesus responded, “I am the way.” In effect, he was telling his disciples that there is no knowledge separate from knowledge of him, the Son of God, that they could use to find their way to God the Father. There is nothing—no creed, article of faith, ritual, prayer, or anything else—that they could substitute for his guidance to find their eternal home in God.
Many Christians fall into Thomas’s error and substitute their beliefs—their own culturally conditioned mental constructs—about Jesus and the way to God in place of the transcendent and eternal Person who took on human form as Jesus. They therefore assert that the only way to encounter God is to adopt their particular belief system. For them, the anchor-point of the statement “No one comes to the Father, but by me” has shifted from God the Son, the eternal and universal Logos who is beyond human comprehension, to their beliefs about God. As a result, to them this statement really means, “No one comes to the Father except by believing what I believe.”
However, from the universal perspective, Jesus is speaking to his disciples as God the Son, the universal and eternal Logos. Christ’s life on earth two thousand years ago gave expression to, but did not limit, his ontological status as the eternal Being who is the source of all created beings, past, present, and future: “He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (Jn 1:2–3). As the embodiment of the Logos, Jesus is also “the true Light that enlightens every man” (Jn 1:9). Christians believe that Jesus is the “fullness of all revelation,”[i] and the corollary of this belief is that God has also revealed aspects of his love, truth, wisdom, and grace in various forms at other times and places as expressions in time and space of the timeless and universal Word of God. Irrespective of whatever language or belief system one has, whatever lifestyle one follows, or whatever technique of prayer, meditation, or self-discipline one practices, it is through the Word of God that one passes beyond the realm of thought to the eternal source of all goodness. The Catholic Church articulated this expansive outlook in Chapter 1 of Lumen Gentium (“Light of the Nations”), which was published in 1964 as one of the principal documents of the Second Vatican Council: “Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”[ii] This understanding enables us to adopt a generous attitude toward the many people throughout history who have transcended the boundaries of their cultural conditioning, experienced pure consciousness in one form or another, and shared their wisdom with others.
Second, pure consciousness may be an aspect God’s infinite Being, but it does not encompass the totality of God. Pure consciousness is impersonal, while God is supremely personal. Christians do not conceive of God as an impersonal “it,”—even as an infinite, eternal, or absolute “it.” God is a person. (To be more precise, Christians believe that God eternally exists in three Persons—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—and that these three are one God, co-equal, eternal, and of the same substance or nature.) Christians have a personal relationship with God—a relationship between persons, not between a human person and impersonal, absolute Being. Some philosophical traditions assert that absolute Being is more fundamental than personhood, but Christians would say the opposite—that God’s personhood encompasses absolute Being but is infinitely more than that.
As liberating as the experience of pure consciousness may be, it does not in itself reveal the infinite richness of the innumerable qualities of God, and it certainly is not the culmination of the soul’s relationship with God. In fact, it is just the beginning of a truly intimate relationship with God. Pure consciousness is a simple state of oneness, wholeness, and silence. One is free and at peace. In ontological terms, one is experiencing absolute Being, an impersonal state of undifferentiated unity. But the real joy of a religious life is having a relationship with God—God as a person to whom we can offer prayers and worship and whom we can honor and thank for the blessings in our lives. This relationship becomes truly profound when we are perfectly united with God in love yet at the same time are aware of the difference between our individual being and his universal Being—a difference that makes it possible for love to flow between God and us.
[i]. Catechism of the Catholic Church: p1s1c2a1#III.
[ii]. Lumen Gentium: Ch 2 ¶16.