Sunday, April 17, 2011

Untruths in My Religion (Part 3)

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.”

- Milo


dan said...

fantastic Easter-Passover post, Milo, and yes, Thomas Cahill said it so well. WOW.

and you for writing this:

''Today, I offer this: The claim that Christianity is the only way to God, I believe to be untrue.''

very courageous and very Christian, to write that in English on a public blog where some people might take offense. However, you speak the truth here and in your series of very good three posts.....God bless you, sir!

Yes, we must take the exclusivity claims and triumphalist claims OUT OF CHRISTIANITY's docttrines, if those doctrines and faith are to mirro the essese of the real Jesus, not the Gospel propaganda and the Vatican posturing...

But this is all for another time and another season, maybe 10,000 years in the future...the world cannot deal with your very good post above here today. It's too radical, even though you speak the truth. O life


Milo Thornberry said...

Boy, are you quck! I didn't post this ten minutes ago. Thanks!

dan said...

Milo, I am quick because here in Taiwan we are 12 hours ahead of you there in Bend, so I get the posts even before you write them! SMILE

question, re the wonderful NYT articles that set all this off, i wonder if the people in that NYT story and the reporter too, ever got much feedback pro or con from the article in 2009? did it cause much discussion nationwide or did it just disappear without much comment? because i feel that was one of the most important NYT articles about religion, ever!

and i am glad to see how you took up the theme and looked even deeper into the three amigos.....

brillaint posts! MORE MORE

Bill said...

You have to admit that holding an exclusive path to salvation is a great recruitment tool.

I can identify with Christianity because Jesus, through his ministry, showed me a path towards God. But for this white, western, man to think that this path is the only path is pretty arrogant.

You've been giving me things to think about for almost 20 years. Thanks Milo.

Susan S. said...

How refreshing! And, thanks for saying what I believe but don't yet feel free to say, as I am still serving on church staff. I look forward to the day when I can speak without fearing reprisal ... and stop feeling like a hypocrite!

Milo Thornberry said...

Thanks, Susan! When I was a pastor, I didn't feel free to speak (write) as I do here. From the pulpit, I tried to be honest without using it as a "bully pulpit," although some of my parishioners would disagree with that, especially when I spoke about gay and lesbian issues, but I had opportunities in the give and take of classes I taught to say what I thought. I suspect that you will find a way to speak the words you need.

dan said...

Susan, great comment and warms the heart of this Jewish boy, now 60.....when the time is right and ripe, you will find a way to live your beliefs the way you really feel, and it will be great!

Susan S. said...
''How refreshing! And, thanks for saying what I believe but don't yet feel free to say, as I am still serving on church staff. I look forward to the day when I can speak without fearing reprisal ... and stop feeling like a hypocrite! ''

But am curious, if you spoke out now, what kind of reprisal would you receive from church staff? Ca you you explain a bit to this non-Christian friend of open-minded Christians who do not believe the Jesus is the only way to salvation and grace? We need more people like you in the Western world, Susan. BRAVO.

Susan S. said...

Milo -- post or not, as you choose.

Here's a link to Rabbi Marc Gelman's (The God Squad) take on this issue.

dan said...


I have rewritten the antisemitic New & Improved Testament (sic) to
read: -- “I am the way, the truth and the life. But anyone can come
to the Father through whatever path they choose.” (New John 14:6) And
in Acts 4:12, the Apostle Peter now says : “There is spiritual
salvation in whichever path you choose, including not choosing a path;
for there are many names under heaven that have been given to human
conciousness, by which we must love one another.”

Milo Thornberry said...

Like you, Dan, I resist the exclusive claim put in Jesus' mouth by the author of John's Gospel, but I think we have no more wisdom/authority to say that any path leads to God that that John makes. I would edit your lines to say "There are other paths that lead to God who is Mother and Father to us all."

I have similar questions about the Acts 4 text. Although the text has been used for many centuries to claim Christianity's superiority to other religions, there is good reason to believe that is not at all what was in Luke's mind when he put this speech in Peter's mouth. It was a political speech. Rome's Caesar had made the claim that he was the savior of the world and required all citizens to assent. This speech is directed to Caesar and not other religions. That, however, doesn't justify the exclusive claim, either on the part of the church or a government.

In that context, do you really want to say that any path (political or religious)you choose is okay. By what wisdom/authority can we make such a statement?

dan said...


After reading your good and reasonable post, I have modifiled my rewrites to read:

[Better? -- Dan]

I have rewritten the [deeply anti-Jewish] New & Improved Testament (sic) to
read: --

“I am one of the ways, one of the the truths and one of the paths to grace. But, of course, there are other paths that lead to God who is Mother and Father to us all." (New John 14:6)

in Acts 4:12, the Apostle Peter [now] says : “There is spiritual
salvation in the path you choose;
for there are many names under heaven that have been given to our God who is
the Mother and Father of us all. And truly, we must learn better to love one another.”