Via, Veritas, Vita
“I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life: Now and Always”
By Dr. Everett L. Mendoza, Former Vice President for Academic Affairs & Professor, Divinity School
(Message delivered during the opening worship service for the 114th Founders Day held August 16, 2015 at the Silliman University Church.)
Introduction: It’s good to kick off the Founders Day festivities with a worship service at the University church. And on its 99th anniversary, the church again leads in reflecting on the university motto, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Over the years of repetition in the church, the meaning of John 14:6 has come to no more than a motherhood statement that can be interpreted in any way depending on the interpreter’s perspective. So, let’s go back to where it all started when Jesus himself said that to the disciples.
When Jesus said, “I am the way,” he meant that he is the way to God. When he said, “I am the truth,” he meant that he was the truth about God. When he said, “I am the life,” he meant I am the life in God. In a very specific sense, “way” means way to God; “truth” means truth about God. When he said “I am the life,” he meant that he was life in God. As Jesus’ followers, John 3:16 is a constant reminder that no other way is more important than the way to God; there’s no truth greater than the truth about God; no life is more worth living than life in God. That’s the whole and enduring message of the Bible to Silliman University from the time it started as an industrial school for boys in 1901 to the present when Silliman has reached its highest level of property development. This message is the same from the Bible not only to Silliman but also to the church and to all who wish to follow Jesus.
Jesus is the Way to God. But there are also other ways in life that we are obliged to follow. Jesus’ challenge to each of us is to direct these ways alongside, not against, the way to God. One of these ways is the career path. We make choices, some very hard choices in pursuit of our chosen profession. Silliman University offers an environment where young people make decisions about their careers. The academic community provides space and opportunities to enable young people to make a right start towards a vocation in life.
Another path that each person must take is character path. What kind of person would we like to be? The university is also a sort of nursery for character formation. That’s why Silliman as a Christian institution of higher learning puts high premium to liberal arts courses. These are not unnecessary burdens to the pocket but essential to university education. And there is a guidance unit to assist students find a firm sense of identity as a human person. More than producing experts, Silliman seeks to nurture individuals with character.
And where’s the place of the way to God? I was wrong to say at the beginning that those other ways must go alongside the way to God. Rather, the way to God is the highway undergirding the career and character paths. Unless a career path is undergirded by the way to God, it will either lead to nowhere or to the corruption and damnation of the soul. It is our highest obligation to lead each young person who passes the portals of Silliman … to lead her or him to God rather than to hell. In the final analysis, this is Silliman’s reason for being. No one, not the most brilliant and competent of teachers, should stand at a lecture hall of Silliman University unmindful, negligent or contemptuous of this high calling.
Jesus is the Truth about God. There is this truth, and there are truths. In this diluvial age of information, real truth is the collateral damage. Society’s knowledge machine only knows how to spin more knowledge ad infinitum at such a furious rate that leaves us no time to pause, to search and discover if there is something true and enduring in all these information. But an information machine is not what an institution of higher learning, not to mention a Christian institution, is about. A Christian university is a place where seekers of truth gather around to share insights and to celebrate with great joy when truth is discovered like the merchant in Jesus’ parable who found the pearl of a great value.
Then, there is this knowledge called propaganda masquerading as truth. Propaganda is a contrived narrative intended to serve powerful vested interests. They influence opinion, shape values and beliefs and lead people to make certain decisions. Propaganda is the very opposite and enemy of truth. Those who manage the propaganda machines find universities a strategic arena for winning its war against truth. Has Silliman got the weapons to fight its battles for truth? Yes, we are armed with the truth about God.
Jesus as the truth about God is the subject matter of the Christian faith. For us who belong to the Christian community of faith, this we know about God: God is for us through Jesus Christ. Christ lived for us, Christ died for us, Christ rose from the dead for us, and Christ will return for us. As Paul victoriously declared, “nothing can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ.”
Jesus reversed the traditional and conventional truths of religions, which tell us that the world and human beings exist to serve God’s glory. On the contrary, God created us so that God would be there for us. It’s like saying that mothers exist in order to be there for the babies, which we hold to be true. It is proper for the worshipper to kneel down and bow before God. Better yet, Jesus washed the disciples’ feet to show the manner of love that God has for us. By this act, Jesus showed the real truth about God – a God who would do everything, even suffer death for our sake.
Life in God – this is the ultimate human quest. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” asked a man who was supposed to have accomplished every man’s aspirations in life. The Greek word, zoe, translated as eternal life is an extraordinary kind of life different from ordinary life on earth.
What everyone knows about life is bios, life on earth which is a gift from God. We are born and we die on earth, which is every earthly creature’s fate. As much as we appreciate God’s gift of life, we also welcome death with gratitude. As mortal beings, we are also subject to the laws of physics and biology. That’s fate. But life on earth is not just fate, it’s also destiny. Human beings are endowed with freedom and with the capacity to transcend nature’s limits and to govern the earth. We don’t simply live by the operation of nature because we’ve been created for freedom. God has given human beings freedom to overcome nature’s limits and to explore life’s infinite possibilities. Destiny is the other aspect of life on earth. Fate and destiny – the two together make up human existence. That’s life as bios.
Then, there is life in God on earth: zoe. Zoe means that person’s whole being is animated and led by the Spirit of God. Zoe is life-in-God on earth. It is not self-generated or a process of nature but an act of God, a gift from heaven. If human freedom transcends human nature, zoe or life-in-God overcomes or conquers both human nature and human freedom. In the Old Testament this is illustrated by Abraham who obeyed God’s instruction to sacrifice his only child. But Abraham seems to be following God’s command blindly. A more realistic manifestation of life-in-God on earth was demonstrated by Jesus who went through an existential struggle: “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word coming from the mouth of God.” In the wilderness where he struggled with the devil, he set aside his natural desires and his personal freedom because he put God’s word above all else. And in that fateful night in Gethsemane, he put his will under God’s will even it would cost him his life: “Not my will but yours be done.”
Jesus is the Life, pointing to us how to live both life-on-earth to the fullest and life-in-God without reservations. Life-in-God enables us to embrace our fate, our mortality, our limits, our vulnerability, our death with courage and hope. Life-in-God helps us to understand true freedom and to use it rightly to realize our calling, which is to serve others. Like it or not, or whether we recognize it or not each person lives before God. Yet, we can use our freedom to reject God from our daily life, we can delete God from our consciousness, we can plan a future where God is irrelevant and unnecessary. But the Christian faith reminds us that life on earth without God won’t reach its true destiny and in the end fate’s grave will swallow us up. Dying won’t even be a tragedy with a story but like a fallen leaf that’s blown by the wind to nothingness.
Conclusion: The founders of Silliman fervently hoped that everyone who enters its portals won’t leave its halls without having found the way to God, without having plumbed into the depth of truth about God, and without having discovered and being enveloped with the confidence and joy of life-in-God on earth. But there’s always the chance that Silliman may have lost its way, may have bartered away truth about God for other truths and may have made God unnecessary in the pursuit of a good life. That’s a point to remember as we go through another cycle of Founders Day festivities. May God’s Spirit guide us through!