Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Many Ways to God

There's a joke I've heard a lot, especially (for obvious reasons) in Christian circles. It goes something like this:

A man was standing on the railing of a bridge, ready to jump. A passer-by, concerned, asks the man why he wants to end his life. "Nobody loves me," comes the reply. "God loves you. Do you believe in God?" "Yes," says the desperate, would-be jumper. "Are you a Christian?" "Yes, I am." "Are you protestant or Catholic?" "Protestant." "Me, too," says the passer-by, "What sort of Protestant?" "Baptist." "Northern or Southern?" "Northern." "Me, too. Northern United Baptist or Northern Independent?" "Northern Independent." "Me, too. Reformed Northern Independent Baptist or Traditional?" "Reformed." "Me, too. Are you part of the 1873 Reformation or the 1922 Reformation?" "Oh, the 1922 Reformation." To which the man replies, "Die heretic scum," and pushes the jumper off the bridge.

It is, I suppose, a way for us to laugh at our differences and how seriously we take them, but few, if any Christian will tell you differences don't matter. They'll admit some of them matter very little, "so long as we all love Jesus," but even that is a difference among the many people out there who do, in fact, believe in God. There is some baseline most everyone draws for defining who's in and who's out.

Growing up, the notion that there are many paths to God was exactly that sort of litmus test in the faith environment in which I grew up. If a person claims there are many ways to God, they were definitely not believing correctly. This all stems from the passage in the Gospel of John where Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through me." Which always sounded pretty self-explanatory.

Of course context is everything. If you're asking the question, "What's the way to God," then Jesus is a pretty easy answer (if you're a Jesus kind of person or give credence to what John has to say). Theologically, things get a little more tricky. The generic evangelical gospel was always, "believe certain things about Jesus and the salvation of Jesus will work for you." It's a very simple and individualistic way of determining who's in and who's out. The problem comes though, in that scripture doesn't spend much (any?) time concerned with who's in or out. It just doesn't.

Scripture is much more collectivist. God created the world. God is at work making the world what God intends it to be. Individuals have a part only in the choice to participate in God's intended way for the world, or not. This is ultimately what "salvation" means. Not eternal security, but the end to which one's life is aligned. Scripture isn't much concerned with where you're going when you die as it is with where you're going while you're alive.

The question we should all be asking ourselves is, "What is the right way to live?" I think it's the question every person asks almost every day of their lives. It's the only question God ever intended us to ask (or perhaps, it's the one question underlying all the other questions we ask in life). The talk of "ways to God" only makes sense for those who believe in God - but everyone is looking for the way to live. That's the real question. That's what people mean when they say they believe in "many ways to God." They just want to affirm that people are different and make different choices and none of us are, independently, capable of fully judging the choices of others.

You know what? They're right.


Look at it this way: Christians might argue that Jesus is an irreplaceable part of what it means to live rightly, but likely, once they've agreed on this simple fact, every two Christians out there would eventually find something about which to disagree (maybe not seriously enough to push someone off a bridge, but seriously nonetheless).

We're largely ok with those differences, because we really do believe there are many ways to God. People are different. They have different lives, outlooks, experiences, which all combine to lead them to answer that ultimate question - What's the best way to live - a little bit differently.

Notice I changed the question a little bit there. I changed the word "right" to "best." I moved it from an either/or to a spectrum. Life is not a right/wrong, true/false question. The theologian NT Wright is quoted as saying, "I'm confident 20% of what I believe is wrong, I just don't know what 20% it is." We need to be comfortable with the notion we're wrong. That doesn't mean we give up on belief, it just means we give up on certainty.

In this unreal scenario, you're told your child was in an accident and in critical condition in the hospital in Vartoken, Iowa. You have only a car, no phone, map, or GPS. You might not know exactly how to get there, but you're going to make the best decisions you can until you do. Chances are you won't choose the most direct route. You will likely make a few wrong turns along the way, but not knowing exactly how to get there isn't going to make you just give up and stop trying.

Yes, each religion has its bedrock absolutes. Christians or Muslims or Jews or Buddhists can be as generous as possible, but there are still some beliefs that will always be out of bounds for calling yourself a Christian, Muslim, Jew, or Buddhist. Let's call these the ordinals. Our religion is the direction in which we set out in this mad dash to Vartoken. They're big choices and they're often very different from one another. Some people might spurn all organized religion or ignore God altogether. They're setting out on less established paths, but setting out nonetheless.

We can disagree (strenuously) with the way some people take, but as we settle in on our chosen direction, we become more comfortable with the people around us. Sure, they may choose a different turn here or there, but we're all going the same direction. The closer and closer we get to the destination, the more comfortable we feel with the people around us - yet we're all still on different paths.

Now, as a Christian, I'm convinced that whoever makes it to Vartoken in the end - whether they set out as an Atheist, Hindu, or whatever else (whether they finished that way, too) - they got there because of the part Jesus Christ plays in the life of the world. When Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth, and the life," I believe that's true in an of itself, not because someone agrees with or denies it. I don't at all believe religion gets us where we need to go, but I do believe Jesus makes it possible.

In the end, it doesn't really matter who has the most direct route to "the best way to live." I happen to call that "best way," Jesus, but the way itself doesn't change if you call it something else. What matters is that we're willing to be wrong and change our minds (if we're convinced they need to change). What matters is that we're not so arrogant to assume our path is the only path to God.

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