Is Christianity the only way to God? [Questioning faith #23]

Ted Grimsrud—May 11, 2023

A number of years ago, my wife Kathleen and I visited a Sunday School class in a large Mennonite congregation. The speaker was a member of the congregation who had just returned from a year in the Far East, and he was reporting on the experience. He talked about how he found the religious beliefs and practices that he had seen so interesting. He then told how he tried to encourage his new friends to be the best Buddhists (or it could have been Hindus) they could be.

I learned later that this comment caused a bit of a furor. People who believed that faith in Jesus as Savior is the only way to find salvation were distressed. The speaker’s embrace of religious pluralism, his implied belief that any number of religions can lead a person to God, raised concerns.

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, ethnic restaurants, and even in our own neighborhoods with other-than-Christian religious folks.

I taught for many years at a tiny Christian college in small, fairly remote town in Virginia’s Shenandoah valley. I had students who were Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Buddhist. Our favorite places to eat in town have included restaurants operated by recent immigrants from Nepal, Vietnam, China, Indonesia, Germany, Thailand, India, El Salvador, Mexico, and Ethiopia. A few years ago, I heard that our local public high school had students from sixty-four different countries who spoke forty-four different languages—and represented many 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?

In my Introduction to Theology course, we would spend several class periods discussing questions such as these. I asked the students to imagine a hypothetical person from, say, Mongolia. This person is exemplary in every way, loving, kind, morally upright, active and faithful within her religious community. Then I ask them to imagine a similar American (perhaps someone they knew) who is also exemplary in every way and an active and faithful Christian. The Mongolian is utterly ignorant of Jesus Christ, has never heard of Christianity. We assume the American is right with God—what about the Mongolian? … Often, we would have a pretty lively discussion.

Jesus and religion

Does it matter if we think self-consciously of our theme here, the religions, as if Jesus matters? If we keep Jesus’s 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 focus our reflections more on serving Jesus’s love command than on 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 mainly 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. In fact, right after his statement about being “the way…to the Father,” Jesus goes on to respond to Philip’s request that Jesus would “show us the Father” by asserting that when the disciples saw Jesus, they indeed saw the Father. Jesus’s way of life is how he revealed to the world the character of God—in his works of love. He encourages his followers; they will do the same works (John 14:8-12).

Viewed in light of Jesus’s teaching in the gospels, we could say that religious identity, religious practice, and religious faith are meant to serve human wellbeing. The “way” of Jesus as a religious leader, as the object of religious devotion, focuses on the question: Does our religiosity serve human wellbeing or not? I suggest that our “God” is what we value most in life, what we orient our lives around, what rests at the top of our hierarchy of values. I then 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’s life and teaching as our criteria for discerning how “Christian” (or how befitting of Christ-followers) our religious practices are.

Christian theology is not for buttressing a 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 faithful living.

Jesus’s hierarchy of values

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.

In Jesus’s great commandment, love of neighbor is anchored in love of God. The call to mercy and compassion throughout the Bible clearly is anchored in knowing that we are loved by God. We are not presented with a calling to be “do-gooders” by force of our wills. We are called to trust in our loving God and, as an outworking of this trust, to share love with others in concrete, transformative ways in this life.

In the overall message of the Bible when read in light of Jesus, we see that biblical faith centers 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 serves human wellbeing. This service is our core criterion—and provides the positive calling for all people of faith. Understanding religion in this way does provide great potential for mutuality among different organized religions.

One 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 violating God’s intentions for our faith communities when we center on restricting 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 do so. To the contrary, all too often God’s people have allowed their religion to co-exist with, even reinforce, injustice. Perhaps the most famous example of this 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. 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, will 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 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 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 turn to the well-known story of the “Good Samaritan” from Luke’s gospel, a story that captures the general message of the Bible. Jesus was asked about eternal life. How is this found? Luke tells on one other occasion of Jesus being asked this same question. On that occasion, Jesus’s answer first summarizes the law and prophets, then zeroes in on an ethical demand: “Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor” (18:18-25). In Luke 10’s “Good Samaritan” story, Jesus’s 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. His questioner presses him. So, who is my neighbor? That is, “How easy. Isn’t this what we all do, love our neighbors who share our same religious practices and practice formal worship of God?” Jesus’s answer could not be more radical or challenging. He tells the story of the 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 likely that these religious leaders placed a higher priority on the avoidance of impurity than on compassion. Then, unexpectedly, the beaten man is helped, and his life is saved by the extraordinary generosity of a traveling merchant. Jesus’s story makes it clear: the neighbor is the person who especially needs your help.

There’s more to it, though. The exemplary neighbor who shows what Jesus has in mind (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 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’s listeners. He’s a Samaritan, their sworn enemy. The saved person in Jesus’s 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.

The “way” of Jesus

Now, let’s think back to that famous text, John 14:6. In light of the story of the Good Samaritan, would we be willing to go so far as to see this story as an explanation of Jesus’s 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? I don’t think we can answer these questions “yes” with absolute certainty. However, such a possibility certainly seems consistent with Jesus’s own life. Not only is the “one way” Jesus revealed, of costly, risky love for others, consistent with Jesus’s own life, but also it is consistent with important teachings in the rest of the Bible (including the Old Testament) as well.

Jesus’s 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. 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.

One of the big tragedies of Christian exclusivism and its focus on formal religion over Jesus’s values, is how blatantly so much Christian history and so many present Christian practices contradict the message of the Bible. Christians, especially American Christians, are all too often a curse to the families of the earth, not a blessing. Christians all too often fuel warfare rather than witnessing against it. Christians all too often benefit from the building of swords and spears rather than transforming them into plowshares and pruning hooks. Christians all too often reject strangers rather then welcome them, all too often isolate and punish prisoners rather than befriending them, all too often privatize water supplies rather than give water to the thirsty.

How do we understand the inextricable link between “loving God” and “loving neighbor”? Let me suggest, on the basis of key biblical emphases, that we should see it as evidence, when people love their neighbors, 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.

A number of years ago, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference on religion and peace. I was profoundly affected by what happened there. I have not had a lot of experience in serious interactions with people of faith from other religious traditions. The content of the papers inspired me (but also challenged me). We each prepared our papers independently of each other. But what happened is that three of us, the Buddhist, the Muslim, and I (the Christian) all gave pretty much the same paper! We followed similar outlines, talking about the core peace convictions that were present at the founding of our traditions, and how those have been marginalized in later developments. The Jewish speaker did not follow this same outline, but his presentation reflected a similar understanding. And numerous speakers drew directly on the Hindu convictions of Mahatma Gandhi.

I have to conclude from this experience—and from the Bible’s message—that Jesus’s convictions, the core stuff of Christian theology, provide a clear call for us to join hands with peaceable people from all faiths. We all share a calling to transform swords into plowshares. If we understand ourselves as having a core calling as followers of Jesus to love our neighbors, shouldn’t we rejoice whenever anyone practices such love—and join hands with them?

Questioning Faith blog series

6 thoughts on “Is Christianity the only way to God? [Questioning faith #23]

  1. Great article on the challenges of religious pluralism in our globalized world and how the core values of Jesus and the Bible should guide our understanding of religion and serve human wellbeing. A refreshing call for Christians to focus on works of love and healing justice, rather than dividing lines between different religions.
    founder of balance thy life

  2. Yes! And Christianity doesn’t have a monopoly on that way of love. Similarly, “from a progressive Christian perspective, Jesus is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and all who follow Jesus’ way, teachings, and example — the way of unconditional love, of radical hospitality, of loving-kindness, of compassion, of mercy, of prophetic speaking truth to power, the way of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and the pursuit of restorative justice – by whatever name, and even if they’ve never even heard of Jesus, are fellow brothers & sisters in Christ and his Way.”

    See: “Jesus is/isn’t the only way”

  3. Yes. In the Church of the Saviour tradition, we call ourselves ecumenical. Our founder Gordon Cosby talked about the different dimensions of that. One is that we consider ourselves brothers and sisters of all Christians regardless of affiliation. Another is what he called deep ecumenicism, which goes beyond any particular faith tradition.

    In our particular church, we support a refugee family who are Muslim. They are kind, generous, hospitable people who would help anyone in need. They exemplify the way Jesus taught us to live. A Jewish day camp uses our property in the summer. We have found a lot of common ground with them. They have had two directors since they came, both rabbis. Both of them have been guest preachers for us. We have a community garden that includes people from our church, the Muslim family, and the Jewish youth from the camp. All work happily together.

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