The Way, the Truth and the Life: A Confluence of Asia, Europe and Africa in Jesus of Nazareth

The declaration by Jesus of Nazareth that he is at once "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6) is a rich statement. This, according to some, is "a ringing affirmation of his own role as the one access to the life-giving truth of God" (Harper's Bible Commentary). According to others, the statement "combines in one sentence the most fundamental ideas that have been brought out in the Gospel," that "[t]hrough Christ one comes to the possession of the Father, which means the possession of truth and life" (The Jerome Biblical Commentary). At the heart of this matter is, therefore, the necessity of the way, the truth and the life for our salvific union with the Father, all of which converge in the person of Jesus. But what is the way, the truth or the life? To simply utter "Jesus" as a response to this critical question would hardly satisfy an inquirer.

In various traditions, humanity's quest for God has been characterized by a sustained search for the right way, the complete truth and the fullest life. Furthermore, quite inadvertently, different traditions have focused more, although not exclusively, on one or another of these three values that converge in Jesus. For example, probably more readily than can be seen elsewhere, in various Asian traditions one can observe a particular accent on the "right way" of going about things. Thus, a recent (2006) rendering of the Dhammapada—a collection of sayings from Siddhartha Gautama, the great founder of Buddhism—has been titled The Way of the Buddha. Another recent (2009) illustrated translation of the Tao Te Ching—originally the basis of Taoist philosophy and in many ways a practical guide for daily living—has also been published as The Path of Virtue. Indeed the Jesuit spiritual guru, Anthony de Mello SJ, laid bare the richness of Asia to the rest of the world when he proposed "Sadhana"—a set of exercises drawn from eastern spirituality—as "a way to God". Insisting on getting "away from the head and from thinking", de Mello taught people a method of prayer as opposed to the content of prayer.

If Asia placed an accent on "the way", Europe—or, more generally, the West—seems to have emphasized "the truth". In a way, the long western philosophical tradition has been shaped by a singular search for an objective "truth" that would be accessible to all those endowed with reason and could quench human quest for ultimate meaning. From Plato to Augustine of Hippo, and from Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, the truth, argued for by reason, dominated western intellectual production. In recent times, popes have leaned on this tradition, finding it necessary to link the enduring scientific search for the truth with the practice of religious faith. In the opening sentence of his encyclical letter Fides et Ratio, John Paul II used the word "truth" three times: "Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation truth," he said, "and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves." In the same vein, Benedict XVI declared: "To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity" (Caritas in Veritate, no. 1).

Unlike Asia and Europe, Africa seems to have put significant emphasis on "the life". Scholars have repeatedly discerned a central place for life in nearly all religious traditions of Africa and her adjacent islands. When, in the early part of the twentieth century, Placide Tempels said for the Bantu the supreme value and central purpose is "life, force, to live strongly, or vital force" he attracted a barrage of criticisms. Yet, the "life" theme has remained central to the thought of many Africanists to this very day. Arguing that African Religion affirms and celebrates life, John Mbiti says that Africans "dance life, ...sing life, ...ritualize life, ...drum life, ...shout life, ...ceremonize life, ...festivize life, for the individual and the community." In a book that he aptly titled African Religion: The Moral Traditions of Abundant Life, Laurenti Magesa says "the foundation and purpose of the ethical perspective of African Religion is life, life in its fullness." The life theme is so ubiquitous in Africa that any visitor can observe it nearly everywhere. In an interview held in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Fr Adolfo Nicholás, S.J., the General Superior of the Jesuits, affirmed the continent's accent on life and said: "These are the most profound human values which the West, the East and the world in general are greatly in need of."

Fr. Nicolás' observation about "life" in Africa could also be applied to "way" in Asia and "truth" in the Europe or, more generally, the West: What Asia has in abundance, Africa, Europe and the world in general are greatly in need of; what Europe has in abundance, Africa, Asia and the world in general are greatly in need of. "A Confluence of Asia, Europe and Africa in Jesus of Nazareth" is bringing together three competent scholars to discuss how these three traditions can enrich one another and contribute to a more complete understanding of the one Jesus who is at the same time the way, the truth and the life.

The Jesuit Historical Institute in Africa (JHIA) counts itself lucky to have gotten three outstanding scholars for this purpose:

Gerard-HughesDr Gerard J. Hughes, S.J., author Fidelity Without Fundamentalism: A Dialogue With Tradition (Paulist Press, New York, 2010) and for many years tutor in philosophy at the University of Oxford; 

Michael-AmaladossDr Michael Amaladoss, S.J., author of The Asian Jesus (Orbis Books, New York, 2006) and currently director of the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions which based in Chennai, India; and

Laurenti MagesaProf. Laurenti Magesa, author of What Is Not Sacred? African Spirituality (Orbis Books, New York, 2013) and lecturer in African theology at Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya.

Each of the three scholars has written an extensive essay for publication and will make a 45-minutes presentation at the conference that is scheduled for Saturday 21 November 2015 at the Hekima Institute of Peace Studies and International Relations, Riara Road (off Ngong Road), Nairobi, Kenya. The presentations will be followed by lively discussions. It is necessary to pre-register for this event, and registration is currently going on (please click here to access the online registration form).

The three papers will eventually be published by the JHIA for broader circulation. This will be done in honor of Fr Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., who will be retiring from office towards the end of 2016. It was Fr Nicolás's inspiration to establish the JHIA as a commitment of the Society of Jesus to the preservation of memory and the promotion of historical knowledge in Africa and Madagascar (please click here to view the vision and mission of the JHIA).

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