On April 14, inspired by an article I read about the “Interfaith Amigos,” I began what I hoped would be a conversation in which participants would share the “untruths” of their religion. It is only natural that we would rather talk about untruths in religions other than ours, but three clerics in Seattle – a Muslim, a Jew, and a Christian – found that by having the courage to confess what they believed to be untruths in their own religions helped them in their dialogue and in becoming friends.
On April 16, I offered this: “The claim that God required Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in order to forgive our sin, I believe to be untrue.”
Today, I offer this: The claim that Christianity is the only way to God, I believe to be untrue.
The claim echoes through much of what Christians call the New Testament. John 3:16 is perhaps the best known:
“For God so loved that world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.” And if there remained any question about what the author meant, the next verse was even more explicit: “…those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only son of God.”The next best known perhaps are the words of the apostle Peter to the Jerusalem Council in 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.”I don’t know why it was so important to make exclusive claims about believing in Jesus being the only way to God. Other religions, especially monotheistic ones, have made claims about their being the only way. Maybe they too think that the validity of faith would somehow be diminished if they admitted theirs might not be the only way.
It matters to me that I find no serious evidence of Jesus making such a claim for himself. I have never considered the claim in the John 14:6 – “No one comes to the Father except through me.” - to be anything other than the author’s belief. And when I look at the consequences of such claims, I can only shudder.
In the fourth century when Christianity was made the religion of the empire, and in the process, irrevocably separated from Judaism, claims of exclusive access to God are married to claims of absolute political power, creating the ideological rationale for the persecution of Jews and every other non-Christian religion, the Crusades, the Inquisition, and a unique blend of politics and religion that came to be called “Western Imperialism.”
Down through the centuries, there were always Christians who did not embrace the exclusive claims of the institutional church. D.T. Niles of Ceylon, and to my mind one of the great Christians of the twentieth century, was fond of saying that our witness to Christ is not in presuming to speak for God; rather, we are like “one beggar telling another where we have found food.” If we are honest that’s all any of us who believe can say. This is not the same thing as saying that “all roads lead to God.” We’ve no more knowledge to make that claim than that our way is the only way.
In one of the best (and most readable) books on Jesus I have ever read, “Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus,” Thomas Cahill concludes with this plea:
“At the turn of the new millennium, it may be time for everyone to reassess Jesus. I hope that the progress of Jewish-Christian reconciliation will soon have progressed far enough that Jews may reexamine their automatic (and completely understandable) fear of all things Christian and acknowledge Jesus as one of their own, not as the Messiah, but as a brother who called God Abba. For Christians, it may be time to acknowledge that we have misunderstood Jesus in virtually every way that matters. [bold mine.] As Raymond Brown was fond of remarking, if Jesus were to return to earth, the first thing we would do is crucify him again."This paragraph may be worth remembering if you gather with others on Good Friday and sing the old spiritual, “Were you there when they crucified my lord?” especially the words “sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.”