Many Roads or One Way?
For many, December, other than signaling the end of the year, is synonymous with Christmas. Weeks before Christmas morning, it is possible to sense its nearness through the decoration, music and advertisement so ubiquitous to modern society. Even though we know that the 25th of December isn’t the real birthdate of Jesus Christ, we still dedicate this oportunity to ponder on the plan of salvation and His Second Coming to Earth.
Many acknowledge that the true meaning of Christmas is not limited to the iconic image of that fragile baby resting in a manger while being admired by a group of parents, shepherds and magis. The full meaning of Christmas encompasses the reality of the pre-encarnation, life full of sorrows and persecutions, infamous death and unexpected ressurrection of Jesus Christ. Christmas, for Christians, speaks of a God who came to Earth in order to offer salvation – Jesus Christ. To speak of Christmas is to speak of salvation.
The activity, however, of reflecting on Jesus, Christmas and salvation has become challenging in modern times. With the growing awareness of the religious plurality around us, many have developed the habit of challenging what the Bible and Church teach. Cultures that in the past were far away can now be found in our own local streets. Religions which we read about in books can now be experienced in the nearest temple. Religious writings such as the Bhagavad Gita, Tao-Te-Ching and Dhammapada now compete with the Bible and Christian books for space on library shelves. “Comentaries [sic] on the meaning and value of Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Islam […] are selling just as well – if not better – than the works of Christian writers”, acknowledges Paul Knitter, a specialist on world religions.[i]
Because of this constant interaction with different philosophies and religious views, we are sometimes confronted with questions such as:
“Is my way of seeing the world the right one?”
“Is my religion the only true one?”
“Could it be possible that another religion might be the right one?”
“Could it be that all of them are equaly valid?”
There are those who believe that truth cannot be found in only one religion, or in only one religious text. They believe that truth must not become hostage to one specific religion, but should be discovered in the religious pluralism of today. In the words of the Liberation theologian Leonardo Boff, “it’s not fair to say that only one religion is true while the rest are wrong, for all of them reveal something of the mistery [sic] of God and of the many ways we can walk in love and faithfulness towards God”.[ii]
Religious pluralism proposes that God, truth and salvation cannot be experienced through only one mean, as Christ said (John 14:6). According to this new perspective, there isn’t only one way to God. Other ways, such as Islam, Judaism, Budism or Animism are equaly valid ways to gain access to the Creator. Using an analogy, God is no longer seen as a path, but as a mountain containing various paths that lead to the summit. Whichever path you choose will lead you in the right direction to the truth.
Another ancient analogy commonly used to explain the different religious perceptions is that of six blind individuals touching an unknown object, ignorant that it is in fact an elephant. While one holds the tail of the elephant it concludes: “This must be a rope”. The other feels the leg of the elephant and affirms: “This must be a tree”. The third one touches the belly of the animal and concludes that it must be a wall. The forth person holds the tusks of the elephant and says: “This must be a spear.” The fifth feels the ear of the elephant and thinks: “This is a leaf”. Lastly, one holds the trunk of the elephant and presumes that it must be a snake. What is oftenly taught through this analogy is that all have a limited understanding of that elephant. But in the union of their experiences, they will discover the truth.[iii]
Thus, our society welcomes any religious experience as a valid search for the truth. To declare that there is only one way to the truth is now considered a modern sin. Any sort of exclusivism is treated as an impediment in the quest for the truth. All are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. Edward Schillebeeckx, a belgian catholic theologian believes that, when we consider the actual state of the world, multiplicity receives “priority over unity”. There are many who, as he does, believe that “there is more religious truth in all the religions together than in one particular religion”.[iv]
It is perhaps for this reason that, in the quest for a more fullfilling religious experience, two-thirds of catholics in Brazil (the largest catholic country) also practice “New World African or Native Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda”.[v] Such religious synchretism has led many to believe that God and the truth are not found only in their own religion, but in others too. As the popular saying goes: “What matters is that we all believe in the same God.”
When we compare religions, as highlighted by John Hick, one of the main proponents of plural theology, we find common elements in all religions, such as meditation, prayer, the search for a higher reality (God), the reading of sacred texts, a community of faith, a search for meaning in life and the golden rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”).[vi] Such similarites have lead many to conclude that it is possible to accept religion with all of its plurality. Reality and the will of God can be aprehended through the diversity of religions and cultures, turning all into sacred paths of salvation.
If that is true, what meaning does Christmas hold? Why should we celebrate the birth of Jesus, when we could be celebrating the birth of Buddha, Mohammed or any other spiritual leader? Wouldn’t it be arrogant and presumptuous of us to celebrate only one saviour when there are so many others? During this Christmas, while we think of Christ, we would like to take on the challenge of postmodernity and answer the following question: “What makes Christmas a singular event?”
The pluralistic view of religions that we just mentioned has opened the way to a vast interreligious dialogue. Those who are involved do not aim to destroy differing religious views or religious identities, but deepen the religious experience and lead the way to a new humanity.
Thus, Christian theologians have looked for ways to present Jesus to eastern religions by presenting images of Jesus that can create bridges of comunication. While trying to break barriers between religions, Jesus is presented as the wise, the way, the guru, the avatar, the servant, the satyagrahi, the compassionate or even the pilgrim. One such example is Michel Amalodoss’ book The Asian Jesus.
Liberation theologian José Comblin admits that Christians, Jews and Muslims declare to follow only one God, the Creator of the Universe. While agreeing with this pluralistic view, he believes that it isn’t wrong to claim that “Jesus is the only God”. He is the only one, explains Comblin, “because God is unique”, not because he is exclusively the “only” savior.[vii] Jesus, in this pluralistic view, stops being the source of salvation. A popular identity, then, is given to him, turning him into a grand master, an exceptional model of “moral deeds”, radically open to God, partaking in the sufferings of human life and in the struggle for justice and peace.
John Hick, saw Jesus as a man “intensely and overwhelmingly concious of the reality of God. He was a man of God, living in the unseen presence of God, and addressing God as abba, Father. His spirit was open to God and his life a continuous response to the divine love as both utterly gracious and demanding. He was so powerfully God conscious that his life vibrated, as it were, to the divine life; and as a result his hands could heal the sick, and the ‘poor in spirit’ were kindled to new life in his presence”.[viii] It becomes clear that, in this view, Christ is presented only as a model.
Following what the pluralist theologian Roger Haight sugests through the title of his book, Jesus should now be considered a “symbol of God”.[ix] In this christological deconstruction, salvation is no longer found in the person of Jesus, but migrates to the pluralism of religious traditions, which, in John Hick’s words, must “be regarded as alternative soteriological ‘spaces’ within which, or ‘ways’ along which, men and women can find salvation/liberation/ultimate fulfilment”.[x] Salvation is no longer a person, but becomes a way, or a “space”.
Notice that, in order to have some sort of interrelligious dialogue, many of the original terms and concepts must be readapted, reformulated and reinterpreted. Pillar concepts to Christianity such as the role of Jesus, salvation, sin, death and life are deconstructed in order to be represented in a new “ecumenical” version.
In face of this new paradigm, how are we to understand Christ and what He represents? How are we to interpret his words? Is Jesus truly what he claimed to be, that is, God’s salvation offered to a dying and sinful world? Is it possible to follow his teachings while simultaneously keeping an open mind to the pluralist proposal?
The answer to these questions will depend on the nature of our interaction with the words of Jesus. If we leave space for interpretations or even adaptations of his words, ultimately, we will be able to make Him say just about anything. But if we allow Christ to speak that which He trully intended, without interfering in his discourse, it will soon become clear that it is impossible to defend religious pluralism while including Jesus in this enterprise.
To the countrary of what pluralists defend, Jesus constantly asserted to be the way of salvation. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, NKJV). He wasn’t only the way of salvation, but insisted on being the only way. “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18, NKJV). Acording to Him, only when people followed Him would they trully be free (John 8:36). He considered himself the true and exclusive redeemer of those who were enslaved by sin.
It is not difficult to notice that Jesus excluded any other form of salvation. Actually, Jesus wasn’t only exclusivist, he was an evangelist about his position. To acknowledge him as the only way wasn’t enough. Jesus ordered his followers go and reach people from other worldviews (religions) to accept Him (John 10:16) and acknowledge his uniqueness.
Jesus wasn’t alone in this radicalism. All the authors of the New Testament rejected any way of salvation other than Jesus Christ: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:12). To them, the name of Jesus is the only one able to save humanity: “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12, NKJV). This was the core message of the apostles. They were completely devoted to the uniqueness of Jesus as the only Lord and Savior.[xi]
We must remember that the New Testament was written in a multireligious environment. Christianity flourished within a context where there were many other religious traditions. The disciples could have chosen to present a more “inclusivistic” or even “pluralistic” gospel. In the text mentioned earlier, Peter could have declared that, among other divinities, Jesus was another source of salvation. After all, during that time, Ceasar was considered a divinity.[xii] Why run the risk of attracting unecessary attention from roman authorities with such a radical message, when it wasn’t exactly true? Why risk their lives on such an extreme view?
This exclusivistic Christology raises questions that have received undue attention in ecumenical circles: Why evangelize, if salvation is within the reach of everyone, through other means? If a Buddist, a Muslim or even an Atheist can be saved within their individual worldviews, why spend the time, energy and means to send missionaries in order to reach them? Religious pluralism doesn’t make sense when confronted with the “Go” (Mt 28:19) – Christ’s great commission.
Many don’t feel the need to affiliate themselves with a specific religion. Afterall, all seem to be offering the same results. “Why convert to Jesus?” they ask, “when you can get in contact with God through so many other spiritual guides, especially when they don’t require such a radical commitment as Jesus does?”
A further step could be taken in this line of thought. Why did Jesus have to come to this world, go through all that He went through, if his death on the cross wasn’t really necessary? Was his death truly the only way to God (Heb 10:19, 20)? Such questions present serious obstacles to pluralistic attempts.
Many Christians welcome religious pluralism without noticing that they are consequently rejecting God. The pluralistic proposal, by accepting other sources of revelation and salvation, is actually denying Christ. And “whoever denies the Son does not have the Father either; he who acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1John 2:23). Acording to this text, if one wishes to accept God, he or she must “confess” the Son, with all that He entails (incarnation, life, teaching, death and ressurrection). To accept the Son means to accept him as the Father’s only source of revelation (Matthew 11:27; John 1:18; 12:44-45; 14:9). It becomes evident that whoever rejects the exclusivistic character of the biblical message automaticaly incurs the rejection of God and all that He represents.
Furthermore, it becomes soon apparent that, with the exception of a few similarities, there are many concepts that are opposed to one another. While one religion defends a specific doctrine, the other teaches something completely contradictory to it. Trying to conciliate both becomes quite an impossible task.
Take, for instance, the concept of life and death in Christianity and Buddhism. For Christians, only Jesus and the Father have eternal life (1John 5:11; 1Timothy 6:16). There is no life outside of God. Human beings do not experience innate immortality. Once we die, we return to the dust (Gn 3:19). Immortality can exclusively be found only in God. If we wish to live after death, we are dependant upon God’s will. This view is countrary to what Buddhism teaches. For Buddhists (as for animists), reincarnation and the spirits of ancestors are considered an afterdeath reality. Physical death is only a step in the individual’s pilgrimage. When we compare these views, the differences between both views cry out for attention.
Ultimately, the problem with the pluralistic stance is that, in the mountain analogy, the paths do not complement each other; they rather contradict each other, or worse, cancel each other out. How are we supposed to harmonize two contradicting philosophies? Rationally speaking, it is impossible.
Hence, if we truly want to take what Jesus Christ did and taught seriously, it will be extremely dificult to accept today’s religious pluralism as a way to God. If we want to be honest to every religion, we must understand what each one teaches, respect their singularities and compare them with what the Bible teaches.
For us, Christ is our singularity. He is God, the Creator, the Word, the Truth, the Saviour, the Way and the reason for our existance. Edward Miller and Stanley Grenz are correct to affirm that religious pluralism is a problem that cuts “to the heart of Christianity”,[xiii] for it distorts that which is of most importance to us: God. “Christ’s true uniqueness is the centerpiece of Christianity”,[xiv] declares Norman Geisler. Any attempt to dilute this reality must be treated as dishonesty towards biblical revelation.
By celebrating Christmas, we celebrate the uniqueness of Christ. We affirm that He trully is our only salvation. We declare that on that fragile baby, lying in a manger in Bethlehem, depended the salvation of an entire fallen race. At Christmas, we not only remember a singular moment in the history of the Universe, we renew our declaration of faith, reafirming our acceptance of the supremacy of Christ over all other possible means of salvation. We acknowledge that there never was, nor ever will be salvation outside of Jesus Christ, for He is our Christmas.
[Photo Source: http://bfmindia.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-virgin-birth-by-r-i-humberd.html]
[i] Paul F. Knitter, Introducing Theologies of Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 5.
[ii] Luiza E. Tomita, José M. Vigil and Marcelo Barros, org., Teologia Latino-Americana Pluralista da Libertação (São Paulo, SP: Paulinas, 2006), p. 13.
[iii] H. Wayne House, The Jesus Who Never Lived: Exposing False Christs and Finding the Real Jesus (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2008), p. 132.
[iv] Edward Schillebeeckx, Church: the Human History of God (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1990), p. 163, 166.
[v] Susan Katz Miller, Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in one Interfaith Family (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2013), p. 15
[vi] John Hick, “A Pluralist View”, in Dennis L. Okholm and Timothy R. Phillips, More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), p. 39-40.
[vii] José Comblin, “Jesus Libertador numa visão da teologia pluralista”, in Tomita, p. 144.
[viii] John Hick, The Myth of God Incarnate (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1977), p. 178.
[ix] Roger Haight, Jesus, Symbol of God (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000).
[x] John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent, (New haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), p. 240.
[xi] Merrill C. Tenney, “Acts”, in Frank E. Gaebelein, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), v. 9, p. 305.
[xii] Oscar Cullman, The Christology of the New Testament (Philadelphia, PA: SCM Press, 1963), p. 195-198.
[xiii] Edward Miller and Stanley Grenz, Fortress Introduction to Contemporary Theologies (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p. 181.
[xiv] Norman L. Geisler, Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), p. 135.