Those of you who heard me preach last week heard me say that, as Christians who believe in the sovereignty of God, we affirm that God is free and capable of revealing himself in ways that are not specifically or even remotely Christian – if God so chooses. Because God is God, he cannot be contained in any of our systems of belief. In other words, if God wants to reveal himself through Buddhist meditation, or through a Native American vision quest, or through the playful song of a blackbird, God is free to do so, because the unfathomable mystery that is God has no boundaries or limitations.
And yet, even as we adopt this posture of gentleness and reverence toward other faith traditions, even as we affirm that God may be working even beyond our own Christian tradition, I think we make a monumental mistake whenever anyone claims that all major religious traditions are essentially paths that lead to the same thing. A very popular view these days is that Jesus is, like the Buddha, like Mohammed, like Leo Buscaglia, like L. Ron Hubbard, just one way among many ways that all, in the end, lead to the same thing – that they’re all saying the same thing, essentially.
The prevailing metaphor among inter-religious dialogue these days is that of the mountain, at the top of which is God, or the holy mystery, or the sacred, or you fill in the blank. And down below, at the base of that mountain, is humanity. According to the analogy, along that mountain are many different religious paths, not one of which is necessarily the best path, or the purest. Nevertheless, whichever path we choose to take, we all, eventually, end up at the top of the mountain.
I do believe that this popular vision of religion is well-intended and gracious, but I do not believe that it fairly describes the substance and beauty of any religion in general; nor does it describe accurately the Christian gospel in particular. From where I stand theologically, I can affirm that there are many ways to experience God, but out of deep respect for my Hindu dermatologist and my Muslim dry cleaner, I want also to affirm that those many ways are not at all saying the same thing – that when we speak of what lies at the end of our journey to the top of that mountain, we are speaking of very different mysteries or goals. For some it’s enlightenment; for others, it’s salvation; for others, it’s the state of being completely empty, or full of knowledge, or one with all living things. All of which means, I believe, that the first step toward learning to live with, and respect, people of other religions is – rather than trying to boil all of their beliefs down into some universal message that we can all agree upon – the first step is learning to value and honor our differences by allowing each other to live freely among those differences, in the absence of judgment.
The question for Christians is not so much, “What is religion?” The question we must address is, “If God is capable of working beyond the boundaries of our own religion, then who is Jesus?” If you are not able to hear me preach this week, I encourage you to watch a video of my sermon @ www.encinitaschurch.com. As always, I welcome your thoughts and feedback.