Can all religions be true?

Chuck Queen, a good progressive Christian writer, posted a very thought-provoking text on religious pluralism.

 

Keeping Jesus, Letting Go of Christian Exceptionalism

The degree to which Christianity will contribute to a more equitable and just world will depend largely, I believe, upon the degree to which Christians can let go of their exclusive claims on God and deepen their actual commitment to the way of Jesus.

This letting go will not come easy for many steeped in traditional forms of Christianity. Christian exceptionalism is deeply entrenched within the general Christian culture—and often feeds upon American exceptionalism, which our political leaders use to justify all sorts of intrusive and unjust polices and actions, such as drone strikes in other countries.

The wave of controversy sparked by a Coca-Cola ad which ran during the Super Bowl is a good example of how embedded in our culture American exceptionalism is. The ad featured diverse voices singing America, the Beautiful in languages other than English. Apparently, some (or perhaps many) Americans believe that true Americans must speak English regardless of what other languages they may know.

Many Christians believe just as strongly that God’s true people must speak the language of Christian faith.

An English teacher once told me that in the original version of the Wizard of Oz, the Emerald City was not any greener than any other city. The wizard had put green spectacles on everyone so that to them everything appeared green.

Many of us were taught to see the world through Christian-colored glasses. Those who taught us were not bad people who were intentionally deceitful. They were simply passing on to us what had been passed on to them.

Surely the time has come in the evolution of our spiritual development to take off our singularly-colored glasses so that we can see the rich colors, textures, and beauty of a diverse world filled with diverse traditions.

Harvard religion professor Diana Eck was once asked by an elderly friend in India: “Do you really believe that God came only once, so very long ago and only to one people?”

Professor Eck said, “This very idea that God could be so stingy as to show up only once, to one people, in one part of the world, exploded my understanding of incarnation.”

Truth is not singular; it is multifaceted, multilayered, and multidimensional.

Truth is truth wherever it is found.

This means that Christians like myself who take the Bible seriously need to evolve in our interpretation of biblical texts once considered pillars of Christian exceptionalism.

Take John 14:6 for example, where Jesus says:

I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.

How can this text be interpreted by those who relinquish Christian exceptionalism? There are several possibilities:

1. It can be applied to the risen, cosmic Christ who works anonymously through many different mediums and mediators. The Gospels, remember, were written from a post-Easter point of view. What others call by a different name may actually be the cosmic Christ.

2. The statement “except through me” can be understood to be a reference to the values and virtues Jesus incarnated. In other words, anyone who embraces the values and virtues that Jesus embodied can know God regardless of what their particular beliefs may be.

Acts 10:34 supports this interpretation:

In every nation anyone who fears (reverences) God and does what is right is acceptable to God.

3. Perhaps the best way to understand this verse is in terms of Christian particularism. The phrase “no one” can mean “none of you.”

In other words, “This is not true for everyone, and doesn’t have to be—but it is true for Christians.” John 14:6 says nothing about how those outside of Christianity can know God. This is, however, how Christians know God, namely, by following the way of Jesus into God’s truth and life.

All three of the above readings of John 14:6 are at the heart of the reasoning we find in John Shore’s popular animation below:

On one hand, letting go of Christian exceptionalism means that the God of Jesus is the God of the whole earth. This world and everything in it constitute God’s household. We all belong to one another as sisters and brothers in God’s family. So we must find ways to work together for the common good, and learn how to dialogue about our differences without claiming to have all the truth or seeking to impose our beliefs on others.

On the other hand, deepening our Christian commitment to the actual way of Jesus means taking his life and teachings seriously as “the way” to live, not just a doctrine to be confessed or believed.

Anne Howard of The Beatitude Society shared recently how John 14:6 bothered her as a child. When she was 10 years old, a group of foreign visitors came to her little Minnesota town for a weekend visit on their tour of America. Her family hosted Yuri, a friendly Russian man with a thick accent who went with her family to their Lutheran church on Sunday.

She was sorry when the visit ended, but something Yuri said during the visit really troubled her. She asked her mother about it.

“Yuri said he doesn’t believe in Jesus, or even believe in God,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s not going to go to heaven. What’s going to happen to Yuri when he dies?”

Anne’s mother wisely responded, “Christianity is not a club, Anne. It’s not about who’s in and who’s out. It’s about how we live.”

Yes! A transformative faith is a faith that transforms how we live.

We Christians are not exceptional because we are chosen by God over others, or because we possess the truth while others do not. However, if we truly follow the way of Jesus we should be exceptional

– in the ways we love and forgive others,
– in the way we pursue truth wherever the truth leads us,
– in the ways we care for the suffering, indentify with the marginalized, and engage in social justice,
– in the ways we practice hospitality, generosity, and invest in the common good.

If more Christians could let go of their Christian exceptionalism while deepening their commitment to Jesus, we could lead the way forward in helping to heal and give hope to our world.

 

OneWayToHeaven-300x300

Here was my response to this:

 

Hello Chuck, that’s really a terrific and awesome post you just wrote 🙂

I think there are three things which needs to be distinguished here:

1) Will God only grant everlasting bliss to those dying as Christians?

2) Does God only manifest Himself in the Christian and Jewish religions?

3) Are all religions legitimate ways to get closer to the Almighty?

I passionately reject 1) and do believe there will be many conversions beyond the grave. I find it profoundly blasphemous to assert that the Good Father will eternally torture anyone who perish without believing in Him.

I also find that 2) is utterly wrong.

Conservative Evangelicals like quoting the parable of the sheep of the goats for proving the alleged eternity of torments in hell.

 

grazers

“31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

But they are facing a HUGE PROBLEM.

Taking this parable at face value would lead one to believe that works play an important role in salvation, a doctrine Evangelicals passionately detest.

More importantly perhaps, this parable teaches that people having never heard of Christ were serving Him while doing good deeds and will usher into His holy presence.

Interestingly enough, the apostle Paul himself thought that Pagan poets writing about Zeus could get important things about God right!

However I don’t think that 3) is true. God cannot simultaneously endorse religions whose core messages are contradictory .

If Jesus was really (in some mysterious sense) God’s incarnation whose death and resurrection reconciled us with Him in some way (which is not necessarily the same thing as penal substitution), then it naturally follows that a Muslim does not get to paradise by following the Koran or a Buddhist through the careful use of meditation. I do believe that many will find God on the other side of the grave ( along many noble atheists ) but it will be through Christ rather than through what they subjectively considered true during their earthly life.

Conversely, if Christianity is wrong and Buddhism is true, Christians won’t be saved through Jesus but because they (more or less unconsciously) followed the Eastern path of enlightenment.

I applaud you for wanting to give a more human face to American Christianity, but I don’t believe that the problem lies in the uniqueness of Christ BUT in the widespread conviction that all of those passing away as non-Christians have earned an eternal stay in God’s torture chamber .

HELL-ETERNALLY-104841758075

Once one has dropped away this abhorrent doctrine, one is free to express one’s humanity through art and creativity and by working along Atheists, Budhists, Agnostics, Muslims… of good will to change the world even while thinking that important points of their belief systems are wrong.

Taking an agnostic stance is, of course, another logical possibility, but thinking that all these religions are true at the same time is irrational.

I hope you won’t take this as a personal critique. I really admire your strong willingness to spread God’s radiant love everywhere and I do hope we’ll have opportunities to interact in the future.

Progressively yours, Marc 🙂

 

To which Chuck answered:

 

Marc, you have shared a lot of food for thought here and raised some important issues. Maybe I can comment on what I think are the crucial ones. I would answer “no” to all three questions. What I like about Christian particularism as oppossed to Christian exceptionalism is that I can only say what is true for me as a Christian and my Christian community. I believe God speaks in all sorts of ways and means and there are many other ways of encountering God other than the Christian way. But certainly all religions have their toxic expressions. I like to say that while not all paths lead to God, God will travel down any path to get to us, to make known to us God’s love and grace and vision of human possibility.

I am still growing, evolving, changing with regard to my understanding of the uniqueness of Christ and the ontological relationship between the human Jesus and the living Christ. My thinking recently is that the “the living Christ” is more of an an archetypal symbol of what it means to be truly and fully human. I’m finding it more and more difficult to believe that the human Jesus in a resurrected state actually functions as God functions, though it does seem that the early Christians came to this view fairly early. Maybe I’m getting way too theological here. And I’m not sure what we believe about such things matters much.

What matters for me is “the way” of Jesus as presented in our sacred tradition — that “way” is truly transformative. I’m sure the core elements of the way of Jesus (compassion, love of neighbor, nonviolence, self-surrender, humility, commitment to a just world, etc.) are part of other paths as well, but I am not knowledgable enough about other religions to speak with any authority here. You might note in my comments to Wolf that I refer to myself as a hopeful universalist. I can’t say for sure everyone will eventually choose to face the many ways they have hurt and offended others and choose to love, but I hope that is the case. I don’t believe God ever gives up on a person, however long it takes, though I cannot imagine what that might look like in a different sphere of existence (afterlife).

What I am very confident about is that the way of Jesus as presented in our Christian tradition could change us and our world if we followed it.
I suspect that is what God cares about – that we become mature, loving, good, caring, etc. human beings. I look to Jesus as the definitive image of what that looks like. I’m sure there are other images and “icons” — but Jesus is mine.

 

I think it is vital to have such respectful and friendly discussions about these issues without resorting to rhetoric and loaded words.

 

 

 

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21 thoughts on “Can all religions be true?

  1. Your loyal opposition again Marc

    (I haven’t got the money to go out to the pub tonight :-D). The idea that everything in another religion that is True comes from God and is a manifestation of Christ as Logos is actually a very ancient one on Christianity- you can find it in the writings of Justin Martyr, Clement and even in Augustine believe it or not. It resurfaces during the Reformation in the Anabaptist spirituals such as Hans Denck and becomes big in the Quakers. Today if we work in this tradition we would have to say that anything that is True spoken by an atheist or even a New Atheist is also of the Logos – although a New Atheists might find this maddeningly patronising.

    But for Christians Christ has to be the standard by which we judge other religions – and it is perfectly fine for us to dialogue with people of other religions if we are so gifted – but we are to hold our ground for we have a gift for the world. An obvious and over done example that we can learn much from is Ghandi – who was inspired by Tolstoy’s Christian ascetical anarchism as well as by Jainist ahimsa (harmlessness), Islamic Sufism and the Hindu Bhakti Marga (loving devotion to the personal God – in his case Rama). He taught us so much about turning the other cheek as political protest against oppression. I also note that he did much to liberate the Hindu untouchables – calling them Children of God.

    But when it comes out his disdain for lepers as unclean a Christian has to protest. Likewise I think his celibacy in which he demanded huge sacrifices of his wife but engaged in some very esoteric practices sleeping with his pretty young nieces to show his self control not beckoning aroused his and ability to conserve the spiritual power of his semen would meet with criticism from within Christianity. FO course Christ must also be the standard by which we judge Christianity. Just a thought – 🙂

  2. I think fixating on eschatology misses the issue of how to live in a world of religious pluralism – as the early Christians did and some had fairly respectful dialogues with members of other Religions too, For instance Paul on the Hill of Ares/Mars where he cited pagan poets to press home his message to the Gentiles (indeed he used Hellenistic learning in a number of his Epistles’).

  3. Yes Sheila – and dialogue works the other round way too –

    This is what the Gospel looked like in the early church in China in the sixth century –

    So God caused the Cool Breeze to come upon a chosen young woman called Mo Yan, who had no husband, and she became pregnant. The whole world saw this, and understood what God had wrought. The power of God is such that it can create a bodily spirit and lead to the clear, pure path of compassion. Moyan gave birth to Ye Su, which is the Messiah and whose father is the Cool Breeze. Some people claimed they could not understand how this was possible, and said that if the Cool Breeze had made Mo Yan conceive, then such a child must have been created at the bottom of the world….

    The Messiah gave up his body to the wicked ones for the sake of all living beings. Through this the whole world knows that all life is as precarious as a candle flame. In his compassion he gave up his life…

    The highest skies are in love with You.
    The great earth opens its palms in peace
    Our truest being is anchored in your purity
    You are Compassionate Father of the Three

    Everything praises you, sounding its true note
    All the Enlightened chant praises –
    Every being takes its refuge in you
    And the light of Your Holy Compassion frees us all

    Today I reflect on Your Compassion and Grace
    I delight in Your Delight which covers our land
    Messiah, Great Holy Son of the honoured One
    As countless of the Suffering are saved

    Everything looks to you without thinking
    Shower us with Your Healing Rain
    Help us to overcome, give life to what has withered,
    And water the roots of kindness in us.

  4. I love it too Sheila; saying ‘all religions are true’ is a different proposition from saying ‘there is truth in other religions’ – I stand by the latter. And I think that people from other religions can remember truths that Christians mostly forgotten – like Ghandi and his non-violent resistance. And even radical atheists like Christopher Hitchens can remind us of things long forgotten and challenge us with them – lie his revulsion at theocracy and religious violence – share by many of the Church Fathers. He did us a great service I think – and I have a lot of respect for him and his passion for truth however one sided I believe that was.

    When we come to abstract notions of eschatology and how a Christian one can be compatible with a Hindu or a Buddhist one – well it all depends on what type of Buddhism or Hinduism or anything else we are talking about. Religions are variegated. Christianity is variegated.. Between the Mahayana school of Buddhism and Christian monks there have been interesting debates about how the concept of ‘Nothingness’ – the void that is full of compassion – has some resemblances to the Christian mystics idea of the Cloud of Unknowingly – the God perceived as beyond comparison, and beyond rivalry with human affairs and ordinary human concepts; the unknown God of Mars Hill who is found by ‘unkonwing’ – ‘By love God is gotten and holden, by thought alone never’.. On a different note that I, me, myself 😀 can see just who much Christina Fundamentalists of an authoritarian temper actually would love to imitate Islamist extremists with the imposition of barbaric laws supposedly mandated by scripture – while Muslims who live in the West and grow to love and respect their non-Muslim neighbours are looking to the rich vein of Islamic traditions which teach that God will save all people – or at least very many who are not Muslim – and that Jesus is the model of the true lover of God.

    It’s a complex picture. But we should hold fast to Christ – we get more respect in religious dialogue if we are true to what which has inspired us and healed us and we own both the good bits and the bad bits.

    • I agree–hold onto Christ’s teaching. I really am intrigued by your important points of view. Nice discussion! It also undermines the concept that a person who has never heard the name of Christ is doomed to hell. I do not believe that.

  5. That’s so kind of you saying my views are important Sheila. They accord with the broad tradition of Christian Universalism which i follow outside of sect, denomination or party. I know quite a lot in my head – I’ve taught history of Christianity, study of world religions and moral philosophy amongst other things at university level. I hope I cherish some things in my heart too – Christ our Victor and Christ our Hen chiefly.

    I post here because my friend Marc has asked me to – we’ve met up elsewhere. I think Marc’s interviews are so excellent and he’s such a sweet and intelligent man and puts so much skill and effort into his blog. Mark knows we have our eschatological differences 😀 And I josh him about this. He also known I think he raises high stakes here – like the ‘evil kinivel’ of internet blogging – and I josh him about this too. Marc says I should have my own blog – and I take it as a compliment from a skilled craftsman. Och it’s not my style at the moment – I’m involved in other sorts of work on the internet like thinking through non violent communication and negotiation strategies etc. But as long as Marc still want me here – I’ll continue to post and get embarrassed about being thought ‘important in ideas’. And it’s lovely to chat to you.

    At your service Sheila

    Dick

  6. 😀 😀 😀 – we’ll have fun in purgatory suffering in good hope and good courage:-)

    Well here’s one on Islam and Eschatology then –

    Of the Classical authors of Islam

    Al Ghazali – although he taught that fear of hell was a virtue – also taught that most of humanity will be saved. God’s mercy will cover the unreached and those sincere non-Muslims who actively investigate the message after having been properly exposed to it. Only a small minority, iniquitous unbelievers, should expect everlasting torment. Indeed in his exposition of the divine names ‘The most Compassionate, the Caring’ he seems to leave the door open for universalism –
    ‘Never doubt that God is the most merciful of the merciful or that ‘His mercy outstrips his wrath’ and never doubt that one who intends evil for the sake of evil and not for the sake of good is undeserving of the name of mercy. Beneath all this lies a secret whose divulgence the revealed law prohibits, so be content with prayer and do not expect that it to be divulged’

    According to the ‘Greatest Sheikh’ of Sufism – Ibn Arabi, because Allah is a God of overwhelming mercy and love, He excuses those non-Muslims who do not recognise the message for what it is, not to mention those who have never encountered it. Yet even the wicked, those who can see the path of perfection but refuse to take it, will be delivered from the pain and anguish of the Fire – without having to move an inch. The inhabitants of Hell may be forever veiled for God, but they will find both pleasure and contentment where most would least expect it.

    According to Ibn Tamiyya the gates of hell are lose. Anyone who has encountered the message is destined for the fire – because the message should be inherently convincing to the sincere. But the gates of hell are so lose that all those inside will eventually make their way out. Mercy will triumph over wrath and all humanity will one day walk in the Garden.

    Rida – a more recent authority – held that all people will be judged according to what they know to be good and true. But even those who chose evil will all likely be restored to goodness and saved from the depths of hell

    Of course Islam has is many defenders of eternal hell (particularly amongst the Islamists)and even defenders of annihilationism – and the way in which Islamic thinkers discuss eschatology is from an Islamic perspective. To them Islam is the true religion (or the truest religion) and the concern of thinking through eschatology is about how a God who is merciful can be compassionate to non-Muslims. But I think this concern is evidence of natural revelation at work in Islam. Muslims are human – the revelation of our solidarity as human beings created in the image of God and of the God who wishes to save and restores and is able and willing to do is present – however dimly – certainly in Muslims universalism. And I reflect that George de Benneville one of the fathers of modern Christian universalism had his first conversion experience to universalism when observing Moorish sailors in Algiers caring for one of their wounded ship mates with tender concern. They showed love which put him to shame – so he realised God also loved them and his view of God’s love had been too limited (and he was only twelve when he had this revelation).

  7. A final post on truth and the religions – while I have a mind for it.

    I find it amazing that Sectarian Fundamentalist Christians who rail against Yoga as demonic because it come from Hinduism. Yoga in its Hatha form is a system of physical stretching and breathing exercises that are beneficial to health and easily use to complement a Christian discipline of prayer that honours the body in an incarnational way. These exercises in no have to be coupled say with a belief in the caste system or in God as an impersonal being into which we will all be absorbed (which the majority of Hindus don’t even believe). These same Christians watch and participate in gymnastics and competitive sport that have their roots in sacred pagan games – the same lot that martyred the early Christians, The prejudice is absurd and is based on a xenophobic double standard. The Aryan Greeks and Romans are cool. The brown skinned Hindus are off limits and have no gifts for us.

    The same is true of Buddhist meditation. However, here’s an interesting thing. Oppressive forms of Buddhism have borne some very rotten lotus flower fruit too – and not a lot of people know this. For example this is true of the Rinazi sect of Zen Buddhism which inspired the samurai cult – much idealised in western fiction and by romantic hippies. The Zen emphasis that Nirvana is here and now if we did but see it can be seen as equivalent in some sense to Jesus’ words about ‘considering the lilies. However, in the Rinzai sect the realisation that Nirvana is here and now came to mean that the hierarchical social order – as it is and always will be -manifests divinity (with the emperor at the top). The Emperor became the greatest Bodhisattva (the compassionate Buddha to be)and killing without passion or desire in the name of the Emperor was seen as the path of the greatest Bodhisattva and a valid meditation on the spiritual truth that life and death are one. This mindset lead to millions of deaths in Northern China during the Japanese occupation in the second World War – and to the Kamikaze cult etc. So Buddhism has been in no way immune from rendering the things of God to Caesar in its own forms of twisted topsy turvydom. But it has also inspired great souls and lives of compassion. Zen when practised in tandem with the Eightfold Path of Morality as it is in the gentle Soto School and the Burmese and Vietnamese form of Zen – has borne good fruit. And again is its awareness meditations are used by some Christians in prayer. In the Rinazai form – the form in which it has been appropriated in the West largely – it is toxic.

    Ironically Susan Blackmore – the parapsychologist who debunks parapsychology, was an early exponent of the reductionist version of meme theory, and a friend of Richard Dawkins is a fan of Zen and somewhat naive about the Rinzai teachings. Also there is an Australian conservative evangelical clergyman – Mark Duire – whose urbanity and scholarship in classical Arabic cannot be faulted but is keen to paint Islam as responsible for more violence than any other religion in the twentieth and twenty first centuries. He’s also big on arguing that gentle peaceful Muslims are somehow complicit in Islamist atrocities by remaining Muslims. He is good at calling accusing people of lies, smear and insinuation who argue with him – and of accusing them of irrationality. But he’s sure wrong about one thing – Zen has been responsible for the biggest number of deaths in the recent past to date, That’s a fact. Discernment is required. Christ is our standard. We must balance the great commission with the Great Command to love our neighbours and extend this to the stranger and to the enemy.

    End of long posts no religion. Hope I’ve given food for thought here. 

  8. Marc – if you want me to make any other posts – for Shiela and others on this subject – I do have a number of relevant posts I’ve made on another site which weren’t that popular/widely read because a lot of people there are exclusivist Christians. with a little bit of polishing I could drop them in here without spending lots of time and energy – but I don’t want to overload. ITs’ good to set out the inclusivist view as opposed to mere mushy pluralism. Everything is a question of balance and discernment in this life. I’m probably the best you’ll get fro the time being to comment on this – so you’ll have to grin and bear it if you want me. 😀

    IN Christ our Hen

    Dick

  9. I agree entirely with Chuck Queen’s article.
    The globalization of religion is upon us.
    Christians must relinquish all claims to exclusivism.
    And commit to universal values.

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