|Is any religion the exclusive, only way?|
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When I pastored the Methodist Church in Bertram, it was a town of 600 souls with six churches. Four of the six preached that their’s was the only way to go to heaven. Aside from Sunday mornings, I saw no indication that people took such claims seriously. It was a closely knit community with people helping each other. For example, funerals drew friends from many of those four churches. These who professed to believe their’s was the only way to heaven voiced their comfort and hope for heaven for the Methodist who had just died, who on Sundays they said was doomed. Their good neighborliness was stronger than narrow religious beliefs. What an irony!
I know a family that belongs to a denomination that teaches it is the only way, and their daughter is distraught by that, because she says when she gets to heaven, she wants to see her grandmother, who belongs to a different denomination!
That is an aphorism of our nation. People of many Christian and non Christian religions now build their homes and their houses of worship in our neighborhoods, and work with us in offices and shops. Some like the four churches in Bertram believe that only those who believe their way can have eternal life. Others believe Christianity is more neighborly — humane, open, welcoming.
Diana L. Eck is a life long Methodist who has studied religions of the world and their impact on America. She writes, “Through the years I have found my own faith not threatened, but broadened and deepened by the study of Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, and Sikh traditions of faith. And I have found that only as a Christian pluralist could I be faithful to the mystery and the presence of the one I call God. Being a Christian pluralist means daring to encounter people of very different faith traditions and defining my faith not by its borders, but by its roots.”
If our concern is borders, then we rub against others' borders so feel friction. Roots are the deep source of our nourishment and strength. Our roots remind us of our sources — the founders and nourishing strength. Roots tell of their work becoming religions then institutions.
All three world religions that look to Abraham as our roots have this enigma. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all have some leaders who claim their’s is the only way. Osama bin Laden is an example of the Islamic view, while some Christians preach this view. By contrast most other world religions share their way to enlightenment with few condemning or rejecting others.
Thomas Jefferson said, "I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that whoever steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ.…"
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in June 2008 found that 70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life, and 57 percent of those who attend evangelical churches agreed that theirs is not the only way to heaven.
People are primary
To begin to understand this enigma of opposite views within Christianity focus on people, and think about two questions about people.
First, Ghandi is one of many people who most agree are or were very good and holy people, who were not Christian. Ghandi was a Hindu who read and appreciated the Christian New Testament, but he remained Hindu. Muhammad Yunus pioneered "village banking" that led millions out of poverty; both won the Nobel Peace Prize. Abraham and the many holy men and women of the Old Testament could not believe in Jesus, unless you have a time warp. I have colleagues who are agnostic who are warm and compassionate. Perhaps you have colleagues or friends like these. What kind of a God will doom all of these?
Second, countless people were so abused or neglected as children that many find it very difficult to trust other people, so that trusting in an unseen God is problematic. Because they were heartlessly treated are they doomed?
Are exclusivists or triumphalists ready to accept the realities of these people — the holy of other religions, non-believers who live good lives, and survivors who find it is difficult to trust?
The major Bible passage for the exclusivists is Acts 4:12, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” This was said by Peter to the same religious bureaucrats who condemned Jesus to Roman crucifixion weeks before, who now charged Peter and John of heresy. So, Peter was confronting the enemies and killers of Jesus. Would he say the same words to people who are not hostile, but pondering and interested? Like Jesus would he instead quote the Shema Israel (Mark 12:29–30)? When you find strange, difficult sayings, study the context.
The other triumphalist favorite is John 14:6: Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This was said the evening before Jesus knew he would be taken before the lynching court to be condemned and killed. He was encouraging his followers. He knew them well enough to know they needed more courage and more trust than they now had. Scholars who study the original Greek have many reasons to doubt that Jesus actually said John 14:6.
There are some other sentences exclusivists appeal to that emphasize the uniqueness of Christ Jesus, but do they make exclusivist claims? Major ones are Matthew 11:27, 21:43, John 1:18, 3:13, and 6:46. Read these and consider the context to ask what do they really say.
Exclusivists claim that Jesus in unique, but is he more unique than Buddha or Plato hundreds of years earlier — or Galileo or Bach or Shakespeare or Bono? Jesus joins the prophets Amos and other prophets of that era in condemning tribal religion to direct us to an inclusive, compassionate God.
In writing about the work of God through Christ he did not say anything exclusivist. Instead he invited every one to be reconciled to God — invited us to be deputized to make an appealing invitation. He warns against judging others in Romans 12:17–21.
Jesus’ teachings have many images from family life, such as, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? (Matt. 7.9–11)” I cannot imagine this Jesus being exclusivist. He talked bluntly about how hard his way is, and the sufferings of those who follow him. And certainly nothing like the statements of a few church leaders who say people of some religious groups are bound for hell.
Overwhelmingly the New Testament supports the “welcoming” view rather than the “exclusivist.” Now, as Paul says, we see dimly as in a riddle (1 Cor. 13.12). Jesus invites us to be neighborly to one another and to love and support one another as we develop trust in God and in one another as fellow pilgrims. I believe we may glimpse God in many situations and in many people. And I believe we cannot be concerned about their religious labels.
Finally, Gamaliel, "a teacher of the law respected by all" said of the early Christians in Acts 5:38f, "If this movement is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it." Buddhism and Islam have grown for 2,500 years and 1,200 years and are belief systems for many followers. Does that suggest that these movements could be of God?
Copyright © 2004, 2007 John F. Yeaman
For example, Southern Baptist Convention leader Bailey Smith said several years ago, “God almighty doesn’t hear the prayer of a Jew.” Recently that denomination said Hindus are “lost in the hopeless darkness…who worship gods which are not God.”
Diana L. Eck's books reveal her life long study; her latest book from which I quote explores what this new burst of religions means to America: A New Religious America: How a "Christian Country" has become the most religiously diverse nation.
Thomas Jefferson's letter to William Canby, 1813. ME 13:377