I grew up with the belief that Christianity is an exclusive religion. We have the “one, true, and only way to get out of hell card.” Come to us you can experience God’s blessings.
This raised many questions:
What about those who lived before Jesus? How could they possibly be “saved”?
What about those who died and have never heard about Jesus?
What about those of other faiths?
Here are the simple steps I took in my own journey.
Step 1 – If God exists, then all truth comes from God. This is true not only of all religions, but of science as well. Thus, if science reveals a long evolutionary process of creation then I need to figure out how to read and interpret the Bible in light of this evidence.
Step 2 – I saw truth, goodness, and compassion in people of other religions (and no religions at all) that I believed came from God. If Jesus was the only way, why do I find so much to celebrate in others who don’t claim to have Jesus?
Step 3 – Do I have to believe that Jesus is the only way? I began to wrestle with the Bible, my experience, and my upbringing to see if there was a way to be a Christian without being exclusive.
So first the Bible.
The go to text is John 14:6, “Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'”
Plain, simple, straightforward, right?
Only pulling one text (or several) out of context and putting it into another context is not good interpretation.
The way or the path of Jesus is the way to God correct? Then what is that path?
I believe that path is the path of death and resurrection, which, interestingly enough, is a path found in most religious traditions. Paradoxically, the path of Jesus is a path to life, yet one must go through death in order to experience this life (resurrection). Isn’t this what all the major wisdom traditions tell us?
When Jesus talks about death, I used to think he meant that I couldn’t act on any impulses because they were all selfish. I should resist buying nice clothes, food, etc for if I denied these things that was “dying to self.” I no longer find this true or helpful, actually it is quite destructive.
The way of death and resurrection is the way to die to our own ego, our sense of superiority, our need to be right or correct, our need to see the world in black and white, our need to have clear boundaries of who is “in” and who is “out.” What I thought was “dying to self” was actually only bolstering up and feeding my ego and sense of superiority…wow!
This is also the great temptation of all religious people at the immature levels.
Interestingly enough, it was the religious leaders during the life of Jesus who seem to struggle with this the most. They did not want to die to these things for it is ultimately a death of the ego. We learn from them that one can use religion to feed the ego and go against this path.
I find it very fascinating that a religion that claims to follow the way of Jesus- the way of death and resurrection – has a strong tendency to walk a different path and to create more exclusion, bigotry, racism, sexism etc.
Marcus Borg wrote that there are three ways of seeing one’s religion:
1 – The absolutist understanding – one’s own religion is the absolute and only truth
2- the reductionist understanding – all religion is a human invention
3- the sacramental understanding – “religions are human constructions in response to the experiences of the sacred.”
Eventually, through a long and difficult journey, I have come to the third understanding and would agree with Borg when he wrote, “Each of the enduring religions is a mediator of ‘the absolute,’ but not ‘absolute’ itself.”
If God exists, then God cannot be fully known or captured in any one religion.
The question then becomes, “why be a Christian?”
For me personally, I am a Christian because this is the tradition most familiar to me. It is the tradition I was raised in and it is one I continue to find beautiful and compelling. It is “in my bones” so to speak and is very much a part of who I am. It has and continues to be the way I find a deep connection to God.
That being said, I have little interest in converting someone else. If someone is seeking a tradition, or they are wanting to go deeper, I enjoy walking with them. If they are walking along another path or tradition, I don’t feel it is my job to convince them to “change sides.” Rather, I see my job as reflecting the image of God to them and helping them along their path.
I love the story of a Christian who came to the Dalai Lama wanting to convert to Buddhism. His response was to encourage the Christian to follow his tradition (Christianity) in a deeper way.
What a beautiful story!