Matt Lewis from CNN writes:
Christianity is, by definition, an exclusive religion. Anyone can become a Christian, but doing so means accepting an exclusive doctrine. According to Christ, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
This, by definition, means other religions are “false.” It’s a bold claim’; there’s no denying that. But a lot of religions make exclusive truth claims..Nor is Christianity the only religion that views non-believers as adhering to a false religion.
I want to question this statement and I’ll just do so from a few angles.
A Descriptive Account
As a descriptive account, this can’t be correct. It fails to capture what so many churches have said on this subject. One of those expressions is found with the National Council of Churches USA, which represents 38 Mainline Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Peace Churches, and African American bodies, including my own United Church of Christ. The National Council writes:
Every person embodies something of the divine image and therefore may possess some ray of truth, some aspect of the Mystery of God we know to be revealed in Jesus Christ. Christians know God through Jesus Christ, but understand that all human understanding of truth is inherently limited and conditioned. The reality of God, in contrast, is intrinsically unlimited. God will always be greater than any human can comprehend or any religion can convey.
Then there’s the way Christians practice their faith.
Pew Research did polling among Americans and found 65 percent of Christians in the US believed that it is possible to relate to God in saving ways outside of their own religion. Only 29 percent said that their religion was the only true religion and only 30 percent identified true belief as the determining factor for eternal life. 29 percent said one’s actions matter the most, which cuts across religious boundaries.
Now I don’t have access to global numbers. But they do paint a portrait of American Christians such that it should make us question that “definitionally” Christianity must be an exclusive religion. It could be something of the American experience. where religious diversity is increasingly a fact of life that touches all of our lives.
In rural Montana, we have Friday prayers held at Montana State University Billings, we have an active Jewish synagogue in town, we have several Buddhist meditation groups, and we have the largest group of Montanans: those one in three that do not identify with any religion.
A recent survey found that 77 percent of Americans are acquainted with someone who is nonreligious, 61 percent know someone who is Jewish and 38 percent know someone who is Muslim.
In almost any area of the country, you will be friends with people who do not identify with Christianity. What does one do with this as a Christian; especially as you relate to genuinely good people in your lives, folks who relate well to life and to one another? Especially if they are family members, which is the experience of those 1 in 5 who grew up in interfaith homes?
I’d argue that concrete experiences like that are able to overturn any theology that would condemn some to hell. And I’d argue that such an experience should be normative in the making of our religious claims.
A Normative Account
So I’d like to address a normative account of salvation and eternal life.
If we look at scripture, we are often presented with the passage “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” Whatever the Gospel of John was doing, it was not arguing that Christian faith is required to be saved. There was no Christianity to join. There was various Jewish movements, and the “Way” of Jesus was one of the movements. But that movement had not officially come to it’s own self understanding as a distinct religion.
A more helpful rendering of this text comes from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
‘No one comes to the Father except through me’, says Jesus. In other words if you are to be reconciled as a son or daughter with the God that Jesus calls ‘Father’ then it is in association with him and in walking his way that that becomes a reality: walking his way, not just having the right ideas about him, not even just repeating what he says, but following him.
Which is to say, it is not Jesus and it is not Christianity, it is the way, the path that Jesus walked, the faith he had in God, that you must have if you are to relate rightly to God.
Which makes sense of how many scholars translate John 3:16 b “so that everyone who believes with him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Not in him as a proposition, but with him, as someone sharing the same journey.
So what is eternal life? William James writes this concerning the hope of religious faith: “she says that the best things are the more eternal things, the overlapping things, the things in the universe that throw the last stone, so to speak, and say the final word.” Or as 1 John 2:17 puts it this “world is passing away with all its allurements, but he who does God’s will stands for evermore”
Eternal life isn’t a spatial location and it isn’t something that happens after you die. It appears to be a quality of life one has by participating in God’s good intentions for the world. God’s will is eternal and when we participate in that, we share in the eternal our self. To quote the beginning of Colossians 3
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above… Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry) …and clothe yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal[there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!
A resurrected life happens now, not after you die. It happens when we die to our old selves and embrace that self that God would have for us. Verse 10 leans towards a universal vision where the very ways we cut ourselves off from one another is relativized. The divisions of race, language, nation, and dare we say religion, does not have the importance that who we are before God does.
An image of God’s good intentions then follows
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another..Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.
Paul frequently refers to the Gospel as the Gospel of Peace as he refers to Jesus as one who “proclaimed peace” Ephesians 2:17
Robert Jeffress’ language is not just impolite while being “orthodox”. Instead his language does not make for peace and is the opposite of what we find in Paul and Pauline writings in the New Testament, of how we are to relate to one another.
The book of Acts 17:26-28 has a portrayal of Paul interacting with other religions, in the form Epicureans and Stoics, and he starts with quoting their own works:
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’
The language reflects the National Council of Church’s statement, that all people have the divine image in them. It reflects the Reform Judaism’s Gates of Prayer which says that we all came from one ancestor so that one could claim their lineage was greater than another. Or to quote John Dewey we are “in some metaphorical sense all brothers, [that] we are … all in the same boat, traversing the same ocean”
This is captured by William Blake in his poem The Divine Image:
For Mercy has a human heart, Pity, a human face: And Love, the human form divine, And Peace, the human dress.
Then every man of every clime, That prays in his distress, Prays to the human form divine, Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace.
And all must love the human form, In heathen, Turk, or Jew. Where Mercy, Love, & Pity dwell, There God is dwelling too.
To see the divine image in others means that when we see 61 Palestinians murdered, many shot down by live ammunition, often by snipers, when we see that Gaza has become a virtual prison for 2 million, we can say that indeed God is being shot down, that God lives in prison conditions, that God faces occupation.
Palestinians and Israelis need salvation from the violence inherent in the region. The US needs salvation for throwing fuel to that violence and then endorsing it. Any definition of salvation that would allow us to disregard the humanity, the divine image in others is not salvation and is not good news. In this, I go with the dictionary definition of salvation as “preservation or deliverance from harm, ruin, or loss.”
When we consign others to hell, this slips readily to creating a hell for others. In that, I would reject a lazy form of pluralism that claims everyone is equally right or equally wrong. It is, as Matt Lewis notes, an exclusive claim, that I hold, in saying that any idea that can disregard the other is not salvific and should not form a normative account of Christian faith, of eternal life, and of how we relate to others.
Dwight Welch is the campus minister at United Campus Ministry at Montana State University Billings