In my Introduction to Theology class the past several years, I have asked students to read a book that contains interactive essays that address questions related to Christian faith and religious pluralism (Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World). We then have several vigorous discussions about how we think of these different approaches. We focus on three from the book: “pluralist” (Christianity is not any more truthful than other religions; salvation is possible separate from Christianity); “inclusivist” (Christianity is the one true faith, but others may gain saving faith outside of Christianity in ways that ultimate do lead them to Jesus), and “particularist” (Christianity is the one truth faith; one finds salvation only by explicitly trusting in Jesus).
These discussions have stimulated me to reflect on my own understandings of these issues.
Religious pluralism as a fact of life
This issue of Christian faith in relation to other religions grows ever more challenging for Christians in our globalized world. Here in the United States, we can no longer avoid asking about different religions. Many of us travel around the world, doing business with people from many cultures and religious traditions, and, if nothing else, rub shoulders in grocery stores and ethnic restaurants with other-than-Christian religious folks.
I teach at a tiny Christian college in small, pretty isolated city in Virginia’s Shenandoah valley. I have had students who are Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist. Our favorite places to eat include restaurants operated by recent immigrants from Nepal, Vietnam, China, Thailand, Mexico, and Ethiopia. Our local public high school, in 2006, had students from 64 different countries who spoke 44 different languages—and surely represented numerous different faiths. Religious pluralism has become part of our everyday life, like it or not.
So, what do we think of the various religions of the world? How do we relate our own Christian faith to Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism, and so on? How does our understanding of the religions fit with our broader theological convictions?
Jesus and religion
Does it matter if we think self-consciously about the religions as if Jesus matters? If we keep Jesus’ hierarchy of values central, will doing so influence our approach to the issue of religious pluralism? I suggest that, following Jesus, we should place at the center of this discussion the call to love God and to love our neighbors. We should orient our reflections more in terms of serving Jesus’ love command than of devoting our best energy to dividing lines between different religions.
In this light, one of my first thoughts is that we should recognize that the category “religion” is a human category. We seem to think that religions exist as fundamentally real things, rather than as labels we have created to try to place some kind of ordering framework on to our experiences. We do need such labels, but they are artificial, they exist only in our minds.
The universe does not explode when my friend Sallie identifies herself simultaneously as a Quaker and a Buddhist. The universe does not explode when my friend Dan has membership in a Jewish synagogue and in a Mennonite church—both at the same time.
Jesus did reportedly say, so famously, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). But I don’t think he meant to say that Christianity is the one true religion. I don’t think he meant to say that a person must pass some kind of doctrinal test that clearly identifies one as a Christian and gives one a token to use for exclusive access to heaven after one dies. I don’t think these words from Jesus were ever meant to negate his call to love our neighbors.
Perhaps a key point is to reflect on what it means to think of Jesus as “the way.” What is the “way” Jesus tells us about? He gives us a very important criterion for discernment in the story from Mark 2:23-28 about the Sabbath. Jesus states that the Sabbath (a religious practice par excellence) is meant for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath.
Let me apply this thought to our thinking about religions. Viewed in light of Jesus’ words, we could say that religious identity, religious practice, religious faith—these are meant to serve human well-being. The “way” of Jesus as a religious leader, as the object of religious devotion, focuses on the question: Does our religiosity serve human well-being or not?
I would say that our religion has to do with the practices, rituals, and such that reflect and sustain our theology. I want to use Jesus’ life and teaching as our criterion for discerning how “Christian” (or how befitting of Christ-followers) our religious practices are.
“Christian theology” is not an exercise in buttressing the human religion we call Christianity. Theology with Jesus as its center does not focus on religious structures, institutions, doctrines, and ideologies of exclusion. Rather, “Christian theology” has to do with reflection that empowers us to follow Jesus and his way of love of God and neighbor. Good theology empowers us by clarifying God’s mercy for us and guiding our response embodied in our faith faithful living.
The Old Testament and Jesus’ hierarchy of values
The Bible gives us a wide-angle look at Jesus’ hierarchy of values. His core message was not esoteric or out of the blue or an absolute departure from what went before. Jesus anchored his message directly in the broad message of the Bible, the message God had given to Israel through God’s prophets. The Bible teaches that God desires peace (health and wholeness) for the whole world, that God has formed a people to know this peace and to share it with the rest of the world. The religion that God endorses embodies this teaching.
We see this basic message at the beginning of the story in Genesis 12:1-3. Just before these verses, we are introduced to Abram and Sarah, and told that Sarah was barren. God would change that condition.
God shows mercy to the barren couple, gifting them with offspring. In doing so, God calls Abraham and Sarah to establish a community. Their descendants will carry the promise of God. God promises, through these people who know God, to bless all the families of the earth. We could understand this calling of Abraham as the beginning of a religion. However, these verses make clear that the purpose of this religious vocation had to do with “blessing all the families of the earth” not simply the edification of the chosen people. The religion here is centered on service toward others regardless of their religious affiliation.
The story continues with another founding moment. Following the journey of Abraham’s descendents into slavery in Egypt, God liberates the people under the leadership of Moses. God then gives Moses an extended set of commands (Torah) to guide the people in their common life and to order their religious practices. These practices in some sense did have exclusive elements—setting the Hebrews over against the surrounding nations. However, at the beginning of the revelation of the commands, God reiterates the calling to Abraham and his descendents that includes the task of mediating God’s love to the rest of the world (Exodus 19:5-6).
The priest’s task includes serving as a channel of God’s message to the wider world. God calls this “holy nation” to know God and to share that knowledge with, and thereby bless, all the families of the earth. The exclusiveness serves to protect the Hebrews from reverting to the unjust ways of the Egyptian empire. And, this distinctiveness should enable God’s people to witness to God’s way of peace in order ultimately to bless the nations.
Abraham’s descendants do form a people who hear again, from the prophet Isaiah, about their vocation (2:2-4), in an echo of God’s words to Abraham and Sarah. The faithful religious practices of God’s people will bring men and women from all the nations of the earth to learn the ways of peace. God’s will for God’s people is that they will lead the way in the conversion of swords into plowshares, of spears into pruning hooks. God’s people are to help all the families of the earth break their addiction to violence and to study war no more.
This vision in Isaiah, which the prophet Micah also repeats word for word (4:1-4), does not speak of the “many peoples” converting to a different religion (though that possibility is not precluded). The emphasis is on the ways of peace, the transformation of weapons of war into tools for peace.
Isaiah’s “the word of the Lord,” as mediated to the nations through Israel, has potency. This potency may be seen in the word’s ability to bring social and political healing in a world all too often at war. The locus of the prophet’s concern lay not with religion as an exclusive, closed community, but with changes in how people live—people from all the world (and, presumably, from all the faiths of the world).
Jesus’ affirmation of the prophetic message
Jesus gives a similar message. Near the end of his ministry, he addresses themes of salvation and condemnation in his parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Like with Isaiah, he focuses not on religious beliefs and membership, but on practical living.
Jesus presents his message here in almost shocking terms. Those who practice the kind of religion that unites them with God, those who inherit the kingdom, are the ones who give food to the hungry, who give drink to the thirsty, who welcome the stranger, who clothe the naked, who care for the sick, who visit the prisoner.
The kicker here is that the faithful people don’t even recognize the significance of their actions. It’s not the overt acts of religiosity that matter here, it’s the simple acts of caring. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40). In this parable, Jesus clearly subordinates explicit confessional religious practices to concrete ministry. Jesus does not picture an ethics-less religious universalism where everyone finds God no matter what. However, he likewise does not picture an ethics-less religious exclusivism where only those with the correct doctrine find God.
Jesus, instead, does differentiate between those who will be welcomed by God and those who won’t. If we deduce a kind of religious pluralism from this passage, it should not be a religious pluralism that makes no distinctions between faith and un-faith. The distinction that matters for Jesus is not a distinction that separates different religious traditions from each other. The separation Jesus speaks of follows from faithfulness in how we live. Those who bless others with water and food when needed go with God. And those who do not….
At the very end of the Bible, Revelation provides a concluding vision of the New Jerusalem, the fulfillment of God’s healing promise, and finds the nations being healed—also clearly an echo of the original calling given Abraham and Sarah.
The kings of the earth, who are God’s enemies throughout the Bible, find healing (Rev 22:1-2). These former enemies bring their “glory” into the circle of God’s community. The witness made by those who followed the Lamb’s path of persevering love contributes mightily to this final healing.
In these various passages, representative of numerous others that could also be cited, we have a clear message that the religiosity that matters to the God of the Bible finds expression in works of service and social transformation. This religiosity, we could say in our context today, has very little to do with formal membership in any particular religious institution. Such membership has authenticity before God only insofar as it serves the practices that truly matter: beating swords into plowshares, giving water to the thirsty and food to the hungry.
From these several passages, we see bases for understanding biblical faith to center more on acts of love and healing justice than on formal institutional confession and membership. So, we may say that what matters most, biblically, about religion is that it serve human wellbeing. This service is our core criterion—and provides the positive calling of all people of faith. Understanding religion in this way does provide great potential for mutuality among different organized religions.
Once consequence of this understanding of the Bible for Christians is to perceive a challenge toward faithfulness—that our religious practices conform to God’s will. We run a high risk of profoundly violating God’s intentions for our faith communities when we center on excluding access to God. Our task, instead, is to center on the love and healing justice that our religious practices should serve. When we do so, we will thereby bless all the families of the earth.
Religiosity and injustice
We may also see a shadow side to the Bible’s call for our religiosity to serve love and healing justice. This shadow side is that all too often God’s people have failed to let their religion serve do so. To the contrary, all too often God’s people have allowed their religion to co-exist with, even, reinforce, injustice. We see this concern clearly in the prophets. Isaiah 1:2-20 begins a book with a litany of critiques of injustice mixed with religiosity. Similar passages in Amos, Micah, Hosea, and Jeremiah, among others, also emphasize the blasphemy of religiosity that disregards practical love and justice. Perhaps the most famous example comes in the book of Amos. Amos sharply critiques Israel for its blasphemous combination of social injustice and active religiosity. Because of the injustices, when Israel goes to worship, they actually reinforce their alienation from God.
Amos provides sarcastic directives to the people. Go to the religious services at Bethel and Gilgal—and sin, and multiply your sins (4:4). Simply the act of public worship is itself blasphemous and sinful when injustice prevails so blatantly in the wider society. Because of their injustices, God says, “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies” (5:21).
According to the prophets, the kind of religious practices that matter to God are caring for the needy and resisting injustice.
Jesus reiterates this emphasis, also voicing words of sharp critique toward exclusivist religiosity (see Matthew 23:23-24).
These critiques demand that we recognize how dangerous religion can be. Religion may actually push us into rebellion against God. So we should be very careful about setting our religion over against others as the “only true faith.” Religion, to be acceptable to God, must serve mercy (not seek to monopolize it).
The heart of Torah (and the gospel)
The heart of Torah, according to the prophets and Jesus, may be found in the concern for serving others and opposing oppression and injustice. These are the commitments that religious faith and religious practices are to serve. Consequently, Jesus and the prophets surely provide a basis for Christians making common cause with people of other faiths who also are committed to caring for others and opposing oppression and injustice.
The Bible places the highest priority on such commitments—much more so than on fostering religiously sanctioned boundary lines that imply that formal religious affiliation matters more to God than works of love. The prophets at times do emphasize the need for boundary lines—but these are for the sake of protecting faithfulness to Torah’s message of justice, mercy, and shalom over against the injustices of surrounding empires.
We see the emphasis on works of love when we return to the well-known passage from the Gospel of Luke we have seen throughout this book as central to theology done as if Jesus matters. This story of the “Good Samaritan” captures the general message of all these other texts.
Jesus was asked about eternal life. How is this found? The gospels tell on only one other occasion of Jesus being asked this same question. On this other occasion, Jesus’ answer first summarizes the commandments then zeroes in on an ethical demand: “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (Luke 18:18-25). Here in Luke 10, Jesus’ answer also summarizes the law and the prophets. Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor. That’s it, in a nutshell. “Eternal life” is not about membership in an exclusive religion nor about correct creeds. It’s about being loved and loving others in return.
The story does not end there. Jesus needs to spell out in a more pointed way what he means by love of God and neighbor. Jesus’ questioner presses him. So who is my neighbor? That is, “isn’t this what we all do, love our neighbors who share our same religious practices and practice formal worship of God?” Jesus answer could not be more radical. He tells the story of the Jewish man traveling to Jericho who is mugged, robbed, and left for dead. Several people pass him by, including leaders of his own religion. It seems quite likely that these religious leaders placed a higher priority on the avoidance of impurity than on compassion.
Then, unexpectedly, the beaten man is helped, his life is saved, by the extraordinary generosity of a traveling merchant. Jesus’ story makes it clear: the neighbor is the person who especially needs your help.
There’s more to it, though. The exemplary neighbor, the one who shows what Jesus has in mind (that is, the one who finds salvation!) is not even a Jew. He’s not a part of the religion of Jesus and his listeners. Jesus makes clear here that saving faith that finds expression in works of mercy is available to all people of good will. It does not follow from formal membership in any particular religion. In fact, the people who are “members” of the correct religion in this story fail to help the person in need. That is, they are not neighbors; they disobey Torah’s most important commandment.
Jesus takes it yet further. The person who models neighborliness in this story not only is not a member of the correct religion, he is a member of the most incorrect religion imaginable to Jesus’ listeners. He’s a Samaritan, their sworn enemy. The saved person in Jesus’ story is the one who does genuine justice, the one who loves his neighbor—not the one who is a card-carrying member of the correct religion.
Christianity’s exclusive truthfulness?
Now, let’s think back to the core text for those arguing for Christianity’s exclusive truthfulness, John 14:6. In light of this story of the Good Samaritan, would we be willing to go so far as to see this story as an explanation of Jesus’ famous saying about being the way, truth, and life? Is the “one way” to God that he proclaims in fact the way of the Samaritan in this story?
When Jesus asserts that he is the way, the only way to God, could he be actually asserting that this “way” is precisely the way followed by the “good Samaritan”? Is the Samaritan giving evidence of his own love of God by his actions? Are any who practice that kind of costly, risky love for others in need in fact following this one way to God?
Jesus’ attitude toward religion seems to center on its danger. Religious practices can (and should) serve human wellbeing. However, often they do not. Too often and too easily, religious people (including Christians) imitate the Levite in the Good Samaritan story and simply pass by people in need.
Jesus, in the context of the entire message of the Bible, challenges his followers to find inspiration in texts such as Isaiah 2:2-4; Matthew 25:31-40; and Revelation 22:1-2. Our task is not to focus on boundary lines that separate us from other religions. Rather, our task is to witness to the ways of peace in order to bring healing to the nations.
How do we understand this inextricable link between “loving God” and “loving neighbor”? Let me suggest, on the basis of the biblical emphases I’ve summarized in this essay, that we should see in people loving their neighbors evidence that they are also genuinely loving God. Such love, when unaccompanied by overt trust in Jesus, does not make a person a Christian. We have good reasons to believe, though, that such love does reflect harmony with God. We may wonder whether this harmony might not ultimately be more important than formal religious affiliation.
The Jesus-oriented view of religion I have tried to articulate here does not necessarily fit neatly within the three-part typology I mention at the beginning of the essay (pluralism, inclusivist, or particularist). Each of these options seems to understand “religion” is a more rigid and easily-identified way than I do with obvious boundary-lines. Probably the conclusion my discussion points to is actually to see the debate about pluralism as potentially a distraction from the core focus Jesus and the prophets had—on living out shalom and drawing common cause with others who do likewise.
[An earlier version of this essay was published in Theology As If Jesus Matters: An Introduction to Christianity’s Main Convictions (Living Issues Discussion).]