Different religions: they can’t all be true? Or can you be a Methodist Buddhist?
I don’t think religious tolerance is good enough anymore. Certainly we need to move past intolerance and prejudice. In later life, my father embarrassedly told me stories of some of the physical fights and mutual rock-throwing between Catholic and Protestant schoolboys, and the vicious names they called each other in his generation. (Ironically, most of the combatants were not particularly faithful followers of either brand of Christianity – the battles were mainly culturally tribal.)
Tolerance is not enough. It’s what we do to something unfortunate, uncomfortable or unappealing. It’s inherently patronising. I believe we are called to actually value, learn from, and appreciate the best in all faiths (including those amazing folk who believe they don’t have any faith).
Does this mean I am apologising for my own faith? Absolutely not. If I was born in another culture, there may well have been other faith stories and wisdom I would be more familiar with, and better able to draw upon. But born in a Western Culture, even though not a religious home, I am most familiar with the faith stories and wisdom of Christianity and find it immensely helpful for my spiritual journey. I literally cannot imagine living without it. I especially appreciate how Christianity has been understood in the Methodist tradition – after shopping around among a few of the alternatives (check out our page, ‘What on earth is a Methodist?’, for more on this).
While some followers of The Way (of Jesus of Nazareth), as the original Christian community was known, have used Christianity to promote toxic messages, and have weaponised it against various ‘outsiders’, I find it an amazing, challenging and provocative call to radical love and inclusion. I especially appreciate its inherent ‘activism’ for social justice. While Christianity has been used (for a while) to defend slavery, apartheid, totalitarianism, patriarchy, anti-semitism, Islamaphobia and homophobia, many of the leading campaigners against these very same forces for hate, oppression and dehumanisation, have also sprung up from the Christian community, compelled by the life and wisdom of Jesus, and especially the understanding of us all being created in the image of God.
Of course, this is not a message unique to Christianity, which is why we should appreciate it where-ever it is found. But other faiths also emphasise aspects that (while I believe can still be found if we dig hard enough) have been long neglected or under-emphasised in large swathes of Christianity – for example, deep meditation, humble compassion, respect for all living things, connecting with all of nature, and others still in my blind-spots.
However, as Roger Wolsey argues, “Conservative Christianity asserts that, unlike other religions, the Christian God provided unique knowledge about himself [sic] for people. Knowledge that can only be found in the unique revelation of the bible. In my opinion, besides arrogantly asserting that God didn’t speak through other texts of other major religions, this viewpoint denies the messy variety and inconsistencies in much of that biblical revelation. Again there is no one consistent presentation of God in the bible. As I see it, the God of many conservative christians embraces one far similar to the anthropomorphised ancient Greek God of Zeus, or even the angry volcano God, than the more mysterious and compassionate God of those in whom we move and have our being (Act 17:8). Those Christians seem to support the view of God as a stoic, independent, sovereign, majestic, spartanesque, retributive, kick-arse king, believing certain passages of scripture that they read literally.”
But what about Christianity’s claim to be the one and only way? As the linked post by Roger Wolsey puts it, the message is often boiled down as: “Unless you believe that Jesus died for your sins and that he physically rose from the grave, you are a heretic, and will go to hell when you die.”
“There are numerous problems with this line of thinking from a progressive Christian perspective: 1. The lack of emphasis upon Jesus’ 30-33 years of life – his way, teachings, and example; 2. Reducing the faith to a cerebral matter of what individuals accept as accurate information; 3. The view that salvation is largely a matter of where we’ll go when we die; 4. The idea that it is Jesus’ death on the cross that allows anyone to experience salvation; and, 5. The notion that hell is even a Christian concept – it isn’t.”
In short, the post argues: regarding (1) and (2), one can believe ‘all the right things’ and not be able to love their way out of a wet paper bag, and it’s the loving that matters (1 Corinthians 13). Regarding (3) and (4), in Hebrew, salvation means healing, wholeness, and well-being – it’s not about accepting certain intellectual assertions. And, of course, Jesus was a Jew who practiced Judaism. In the Gospels, Jesus provided salvation to numerous people long before he was killed. In the Gospels, salvation is experienced when someone accepts God’s healing, grace and love and responds in ways that show it. Jesus also referred to this state of being as experiencing ‘abundant or eternal life’ and living in ‘the kingdom of God.’ Regarding (5), the author suggests ‘to hell with hell‘ – it’s not Christian nor Jewish; its a pagan concept.
The linked post by Roger Wolsey is essentially a summary of his book “Kissing Fish: Christianity for People Who Don’t Like Christianity”, so if you want to dig deeper or challenge these ideas, his book might be a good place to start.
You may also be clobbered with the sixth verse of John 14 out of context. It is true it sounds pretty exclusive: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” until you realise it’s in response to a specific question from a follower of Jesus, Thomas, who asks how will they know what they should do to find God. Jesus’ clearly exasperated answer is simply to follow the way that he has been showing them – the way of unconditional love; nothing else is needed nor will do. Jesus was not talking to people of another religion, nor even talking about people of other religions. The closest he came to interacting with another religion was his encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, where (uncharacteristically for his time and people) he treated her with respect and as an equal (John 4:1-42). And the story he tells of a heroic good Samaritan, as unpalatable as it was to his original audience, is a biblical meme for what we should emulate (Luke 10: 25-37).
“Jesus is ‘the way, the truth, and the life,’ and all who follow Jesus’ way, teachings, and example — the way of unconditional love, of radical hospitality, of loving-kindness, of compassion, of mercy, of prophetic speaking truth to power, the way of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and the pursuit of restorative justice – by whatever name, and even if they’ve never even heard of Jesus, are fellow brothers & sisters in Christ and his Way.” (Roger Wolsey)
- honors their religious culture and traditions (‘I see that you are very religious’);
- quotes their poets and philosophers (obviously having previously read and learnt from their artists and thinkers); and
- includes them in the ‘we’ (in both verses 28 and 29).
This blog, in part, was prompted by a respectful discussion about whether it was offensive in a gathering that included people of other faiths to include an old favourite (ecumenical) hymn with the repeated lyrics, ‘One church, one faith, one Lord’. In the past people have been insightful enough to see that ‘Thy hand, O God, has guided thy flock from age to age’ is not the claim of a single Christian denomination alone, but what has been achieved together – despite all our differences among Christians of various brands and traditions, we are still one church, of one faith, with one Lord.
My prayer is that today we may draw the circle even wider, moving beyond ecumenicism among different Christian churches to inter-faith relations that appreciates (despite our differences) all faiths share different insights into one great faith, we can relate together in friendship and genuine respect as one great community of faith, and with one great spirit of God to guide us.