If All Paths Lead to God, Why Be Christian? (1/4/04)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The religious landscape in North America has radically changed over the past half-century. One of the most important issues we must face, as Christians, is how to relate to people of other faiths.
Most of you know I have always been a student of religion, but only as an adult came to accept the Christian faith as the ultimate path to God. I still study the world’s religions, and I still find great insights in the scriptures from other faiths. And I stand firmly against Christian exclusivism—the notion that only those who adhere to the proper tenets of the Christian faith live in the grace of God.
But that leaves us with a question. If all paths lead to God, why be Christian? It’s a valid and important question, and it generates a lot more questions. Do all paths lead to God? Do all religions contain the same truths? And if God is revealed through other religions, is there anything special about Christianity?
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Why be Christian? I have wrestled with this question. When I was in seminary, this question consumed me for the first two years. You see, I began seminary as a person who was ultra-liberal, theologically speaking. I did not believe in the virgin birth, the physical resurrection, the second coming, the trinity, or almost any other claims made by many good people of faith. And significantly, I did not believe Jesus was anything more than a great teacher. I believed he was the greatest man who ever lived, and I believed that the Christian faith formed the best path through this mysterious and hurting world; but my faith was built on pragmatism much more than theology.
But then something strange happened, and it didn’t take long. After I started seminary I came to believe there really was—really is—something special about Jesus. I moved beyond the way I had seen the world before. I came to develop an understanding of truth as revealed in story and metaphor. I came to accept that the universe as we understand it through our five senses is but a tiny slice of the magnificent whole, a view supported by both theologians and scientists.
Once I got past the lightweight thinking of modern Christianity, and immersed myself in the thinking of some of the most brilliant people who ever lived—Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Schleiermacher, Barth, and Tillich; and once I was exposed to the great mystics of the faith that the modern church continues to ignore—people like St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avilla, Meister Eckhart, and Hildegard of Bingen; and once I opened myself to the writings of these great people as I prayed; well, I changed.
Oh, I still have lots of problems with some of things many Christians insist one must believe in order to be a Christian. But I came to the conclusion that Jesus is unique. Truly unique. Through my prayer life, I actually entered into a relationship with Jesus Christ—not an imaginary relationship, but a real relationship; a relationship as real as the relationships I have with each of you.
This may sound like good news for a guy who was studying to enter the ordained ministry, but in fact it had the opposite effect. My prayer life became almost agonizing after a time, because I could not reconcile my new-found belief in the importance and uniqueness of Jesus, with my strong conviction that men and women of faith in other religions stood just as much in the grace of God as did I.
For the better part of two years, this problem consumed me. It was ultimately resolved in my mind, and in my heart, one day as I prayed alone in a tiny chapel on the seminary campus. And the answer came, in no small part, through the words of John which we heard read from the lectern this morning. I will explain, but first I want to survey the religiously plural landscape in which we find ourselves.
Statistics are a bit dry for sermon material, but they can be important. The statistics I share with you this morning come from a book by Marcus Borg called The Heart of Christianity, and from a 2002 poll taken by PBS’s Religion and Ethics Newsweekly and U.S. News and World Report.
Things are changing fast. First, consider that in 1955, Will Herberg wrote a book on religious diversity in the United States. It was titled Protestant, Catholic, Jew. We were considered a religiously plural nation because we had lots of Christian denominations and a handful of Jews. But look at the United States today, less than fifty years later. Two of the most historically important American denominations are Presbyterian and Episcopal. These two Protestant denomination account for roughly six-million people. That is also the number of Muslims who currently live in the United States. In the next few years, Muslims will outnumber Jews in this nation.
Today, there are more Buddhists than Presbyterians in this country—about four million. And such historic denominations as the Christian Church—Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Christ, which includes most Congregational churches, are matched in size and number by American Hindus.
The religious landscape of America really is changing—and not just in the major metropolitan areas. All of the aforementioned religions are represented right here in Wichita—something for which I am thankful. It would have been almost impossible to imagine, just fifty years ago, that in the year 2000 you would be able to find Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist centers in Salt Lake City. But it has happened. There are Cambodian Buddhist temples in the farmlands of Minnesota and Hindu Temples in Nashville Tennessee. You can take a Tibetan Buddhist retreat in your choice of Colorado or Vermont.
It has become more and more difficult—and more and more offensive—to make the claim that every person who refuses to accept Jesus as his or her personal savior is bound for hell. It was much easier to make that claim when the people of these religions were more or less ideas that we confronted in our reading. But television brought these folks up close and personal, and our open society allowed then to move in next door, and the next thing we knew, the people so many Christians easily condemned to hell were the wonderful folks who helped us fix our flat tire, or who joined us on the food drive for the poor, or who picked up groceries for Uncle Bob after he broke his leg.
It is much easier to send an idea to hell than it is to send a real life flesh and blood person. And something wonderful happened. Our attitudes changed. You would never know it by listening to the public voice of Christianity—the radio and television personalities who continue to beat people down with the same old message of judgment and condemnation—but we became a more accepting and understanding society.
Some more statistics. In the poll I mentioned, people were asked to answer some questions, and the answers are encouraging. Question: Is your religion the only true religion? Only 17 percent answered yes. Less than one in five believe their faith is the only true path to God.
Question: Do all religions have elements of truth? 78 percent said yes. Almost four out of five people admit that truth can be found in religions other than the one they practice.
Question: Should Christians attempt to convert people of other faiths or leave them alone? 22 percent said we should try to convert people. 71 percent said we should leave other people alone.
The good news in all this is that we are getting past our claims of exclusivity. I have always held that the original sin of Christianity is the claim that non-Christians are bound for hell. That is an ugly way of looking at the world. But once again, we are left with the question: If all paths lead to God, why be Christian?
This notion that all paths lead to God is called “religious pluralism.” And while it is an important idea, the fact is, it is often used by people who don’t take religion very seriously as a way of justifying their indifference toward faith.
The great religions of the world all bear some truth, but they are not all the same. There are certainly similarities. Marcus Borg points our four similarities in the great faiths. First, they all affirm that there is something sacred; something more than meets the eye; something that can be known or experienced, but not entirely understood.
Second, they all agree that there is a proper path through life, and that path is found through a transformation of the self—a dying to an old way of living and being born into a new way of living.
Third, they all provide a practical way of finding the path through life. This practical way involves a religion’s distinctive methods of prayer, ritual and worship.
Fourth, they all agree that love—compassion—is the primary ethical virtue of human life. This truth is found both in the scriptures and in the saints of each tradition, who invariably embody compassion.
Those are the four things that the great religions share in common. Actually, there is a fifth common element, but it is the thing that makes them different. Each religion has a written collection of beliefs and teachings. And that is what makes them different.
Consider again the idea that all paths lead to God. The best metaphor for this involves paths up the side of a mountain. Envision a great mountain, miles across at the bottom, and narrowing as it reaches into the sky and disappears into a peak in the clouds. As each religious path makes its way up the side of the mountain, they grow closer and closer together. At the top, they meet. The destination—the peak of the mountain, the sacred, God—is the same. But at the bottom, the differences are great. In fact, the paths are farthest apart at the bottom, where we have the easiest access to the paths.
This is where our religions are differentiated. They are not the same thing. They are very different paths. The differences between the paths are based largely on culture and language—on the written collection of beliefs and teachings that form a religion’s foundation.
How often have we heard people say, “I’m a spiritual person, but I am not religious?” I hear it all the time. And I understand why people think this way, because I said it myself for many years. But I have come to believe that it is important for a person to be on one of the paths. Every major religion is a marvel of human spirituality. It does not make sense to try to forge your way to the top of the mountain by creating a brand new path. Whatever path a person chooses, it will be a very personal and unique path for them, because that is the nature of the spiritual journey.
But if you think about it, it is the most egocentric thing imaginable to say, “Well, I know there have been brilliant minds in every religion who have left behind a legacy of spiritual writings, and who have walked one of the paths to almost unimaginable heights; but I don’t need them. I have my own religion. Jesus had his religion; Buddha had his religion; the authors of the Upanishads had their religion; and I have my religion.”
Honestly, most people who say this aren’t giving their faith life a whole lot of time and effort. They are usually like those religious pluralists who hide a lack of faith behind a philosophical argument. And what about those religious pluralists? Why claim any one path as your own when all of those paths lead to the top of the mountain?
The Dalai Lama was asked by a Christian seeker if he should become a Buddhist, and the Dalai Lama told him said, “No, become more deeply Christian; live more deeply in your own tradition.” The logic is simple enough. We can appreciate the beauty and value of the other paths. And we should study and learn from the other paths. But we can only walk one path, and if we lose our focus, we will lose our way. If we try to walk two of three paths up the mountain, we will never get far from ground level.
Huston Smith inverted the mountain metaphor and put it this way. What is the best way to find water? By digging ten wells six feet deep, or by digging one well sixty feet deep? I like that analogy, although I repeat my belief that my Christian journey has been greatly strengthened by the study of other faiths. Still, I recognize that the cultural and linguistic elements of the Christian faith make Christianity the most natural and inspiring path for me to walk.
And that was why, in those years before I entered seminary, I chose the Christian path. But as I mentioned, the farther up that path I got, the more I came to believe that Jesus was truly unique. The deeper I dug that well, the more I got drenched in the truth of the Christian message. I discovered that Jesus offered me a path directly into the heart of God. And I found that for me—for this flesh and blood guy in Wichita who has spent his life wrestling with faith—I found that Jesus is the only way for me. I came to believe that I could not have entered so fully into the presence of God on any other path.
From there, it was very hard to stand in the pulpit and say, “All paths lead to God.” From there, it was hard not to fall victim to that original sin of Christianity—the claim that Christianity is the one true faith. And so, as I approached the end of my second year in seminary, I was faced with the notion that I might not become an ordained minister. I mean, this is serious business. I wasn’t going to stand in the pulpit because I Iike the way I sound, or because the robe looks impressive. The only way I could be ordained and still look myself in the mirror was to resolve this issue. If Jesus is absolutely unique, and I believe he is, then how can I say that all paths lead to God?
The question was resolved as I prayed alone in that tiny seminary chapel. What happened was this. Remember how I said that when I started seminary, Jesus was simply a great teacher—the greatest man that ever lived, but still, just a man. As I studied and prayed over the years he became more and more. And then, that passage from the Gospel of John that we heard read this morning suddenly came alive for me.
It’s amazing how that can happen, and it happens often. Something that we’ve heard or read a hundred times suddenly takes on new meaning. But that passage from John indicates that God created the universe through the Word—Logos is the Greek term—and that the very power with which God created the universe became flesh. What this is saying is that Jesus embodied the very power of God; the very truth of God; the very love of God.
What this says is that the universe was created with redemptive love. Before a single being was ever created that could stray away from the perfection of God, God’s love was already in place. God’s forgiveness was already there. Before a single one of us was born, God knew that we would ultimately return to God; that any evil the universe could muster would be no match for God’s love.
And I realized that day in the chapel that it is our purpose in life to surrender ourselves to that redemptive love. We will never be at peace until we surrender ourselves to God’s love. And when I see a person of the Hebrew faith, of the Muslim faith, or any other faith, who prayerfully surrenders himself or herself to that love, I believe they have done exactly what they were born to do. Their path has taken them where they need to be.
For me, I take it a step further. I say that I have found that redemptive love of God embodied in Jesus. I can put a face on that love. But the fact is, that doesn’t mean I win and somebody else loses. We are surrendered to the same thing—the love of God. I simply give that love a name—the Christ—and I believe it was amazingly present in Jesus of Nazareth.
And that’s when I knew I could be ordained. Because I actually laughed right in the middle of my prayer. I laughed because I had a mental picture of Jesus and God, somehow side by side, arguing over a person’s soul. God wanted to place that person in a state of grace, but Jesus wouldn’t let him, because that person was not calling God’s love by the right name. It occurred to me that Jesus and God are not in competition with each other. In fact, it occurred to me that in a very mysterious and very mystical way, Jesus and God are the same thing. At least in my prayer life. And that is why I am standing here today.