August 7, 2016
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I HAVE A FRIEND WHO BELIEVES ALL RELIGIONS ARE THE SAME
The fourth in a series of four.
Portland, Oregon was our home for eleven years. Our two oldest children both have been drawn back to Portland as adults. It’s a pretty good place to live, but it’s a little weird for my taste. In fact, that’s their slogan. “Keep Portland Weird.”
I was reminded of how weird Portland is when I was in town for the General Conference of the UnitedMethodistChurch. In particular, as I was riding the light rail train they call MAX to get back and forth to the Convention Center. On one of those rides, Helen called my attention to someone across the aisle who was gnawing on a raw piece of steak. That is actually pretty far down the list when it comes to all the weird things one is likely to observe on MAX.
One thing you notice is how diverse the population is. Some of us who grew up in small conservative towns were shielded from diversity. Everyone pretty much looked like us and thought like us and acted like us. And for some of us, pretty much everyone we knew went to church. Or if they didn’t, they probably still had a church. If was just the church they didn’t go to.
In today’s world, diversity is everywhere. You can’t escape it. Nor should we want to escape it. It really would be a very boring world if everyone looked like us and thought like us and acted like us. And if there is one thing we can say about today’s world, it is not boring.
Today, as we wrap up our series on some of the hard questions about our faith, we’re going to be looking at religious diversity. Once we realize that everyone is not like us when it comes to religion, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that those differences don’t really matter. There are many paths to God. My way is no better than your way. Your way is no better than my way. What’s true for me might not be true for you. What’s true for you might not be true for me. What we are saying is that all religions are basically the same.
But are they? And if they aren’t, how can we know which one to choose? And once we choose, how are we to treat those whose religion is not the same as ours? Those are some of the questions we’re going to be looking at this morning.
Of course in today’s world we are very much aware of how religious differences are fueling some horrific atrocities. It used to be every week. Now it’s practically every day that we hear a report of some new act of terrorism carried out in the name of God by people who believe slaughtering innocent people is what God wants them to do. And I’m sure you’ve noticed, the terrorists these days all seem to belong to the same religion.
So some have condemned that religion. Islam is the problem. Others have condemned all religion. Crazy things like this are bound to happen when people get so carried away with their faith. Still others have been careful not to condemn at all. Maybe if we’re nicer to the terrorists they’ll be nicer to us. It’s all very confusing I know, and we’re not going to sort it out and solve it this morning.
A place to begin though might be to look at the big picture of the religious make-up of our world. Christians are roughly a third of the world’s population. Not far behind us are the Muslims. Then the Hindus. About an eighth of the world’s population identifies with no religion. They are atheists or agnostics or they keep their faith to themselves.
In this country we sometimes call these people the “nones”. They the ones who mark “none” when they fill out forms asking for their religious preference. Some of them can also be described as the “dones”. They are done with religion. They want nothing to do with any faith.
Jews are an important religion in our world. Both Christians and Muslims trace their history back to the Jews. But in numbers, Jews barely register. One out of three in the world is a Christian. One out of four is a Muslim. But only one out of every 500 people in the world is a Jew.
And then there are the Jedis. I mention them only because I heard on NPR this week that 61,000 in Australia alone identify with the Jedi religion. And that an atheist group in Australia is urging them to not do that in the upcoming census. Because they are giving the impression that Australia is more religious than it really is. Apparently there are a lot of “nones” and “dones” living in Australia.
But Australia is also the home of Hillsong United, one of the great churches of the world. A church that has now spread all around the world.
So there is a lot of religious diversity in our world. Some people see this and conclude that there cannot be a God because God would never allow for all this confusion. God would make sure we all knew the truth. I think it’s just the opposite. The fact that we have so many religions and that so few have no religion is pretty good evidence that there is a God. Because God created us with a deep yearning to know and to experience God.
That’s the first of our five points for today. We are all spiritual creatures. Here’s the way Adam Hamilton puts it:
As we survey human history, we find that human beings have always had religious needs, questions, and experiences. Whether you live in Central Africa or Central Europe, when you have a loved one who dies, you long to believe there is something beyond this life. When you see something absolutely magnificent in nature, whether you live in Canada or Saudi Arabia, something inside you wants to cry out praise to the One who created such beauty. When you spend quiet time alone in prayer, whether you are a Jew in Jerusalem, a Hindu in Calcutta, or a Christian in Kansas City, there is a sense of peace that permeates your heart and mind. And there are times when all of us, regardless of where we live, sense that we have received an insight that came from somewhere beyond ourselves. These are nearly universal experiences, all of which point, I believe, to the ultimate reality of God. (Christianity and World Religions, page 15)
So if we are all spiritual creatures, why don’t we all believe the same way? Because we are all different and therefore we all experience things in different ways.
We’ve now endured the political conventions for both the Republicans and the Democrats. I must admit, there was not much of it I did not see. Both weeks. I must be a masochist. It didn’t surprise me and I’m sure it won’t surprise you that different people who heard the same speeches had totally different reactions to those same speeches. That’s just human nature. We experience life through the lens of our own life experiences. We reach different conclusions. We hold different convictions. That’s true in the world of politics and that’s also true in the world of religion.
So how do we know if we are right or wrong? Or does it even matter? Yes, it does matter, politically and spiritually. l will Ieave the politics to others. But spiritually, we have now reached point two: We are all on a quest for spiritual truth. And yes, there is such a thing. Spiritual truth. It’s not all just up for grabs. So how do we know if we are on the right track?
God lets us know. God reveals to us those truths we could never figure out for ourselves.
Let’s take a quick survey of how God has done that. Our Hindu and Buddhist brothers and sisters don’t quite see it this way. But our Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters will be on the same page with us, for at least part of this.
About 3,800 years ago virtually every person living on planet earth believed in more than one God. We call this “polytheism”. People were spiritual creatures then as much as now, but up to that point their spiritual experience had led them to believe that there were many gods who shared the many responsibilities involved in taking care of this big, complicated world.
Then God intervened. God revealed to a polytheist named Abram (later to be known as Abraham) that he and his ancestors had been wrong. There are not many gods. There is one true God. And this one true God was now telling Abraham to leave his home and to travel to a new home, a Promised Land. By faith, Abraham did as he was told. and human history was forever changed.
Six-hundred years later, this one true God met Moses on a mountain. It was time now to reveal something more about God. So we were given the Ten Commandments — God’s rules for how we are to live our lives.
Then came the prophets of the Old Testament. God spoke through them and we were given additional spiritual truth.
God wasn’t done yet. As Christians, we believe God’s once and for all time, defining revelation came two thousand years ago in Jesus Christ. Jesus was not just more information about God. Jesus was God. It’s right there in the verse we read for today. He said, “If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (John 14:7).
It’s taken Christians two thousand years, and we’re still on a quest for the full truth of all that Jesus means for us and for our world.
So our quest for spiritual truth is never-ending but at the same time, we are getting somewhere. We know more than our distant ancestors knew. And the only reason we know more is because our God is a God who cares enough to reveal to us over time the truth we need to know.
Third, we are all capable of being deceived. Just because somebody tells you they have the full truth about God, don’t believe them. And just because you’re pretty sure you have the full truth about God, don’t expect the people you are trying to convince to believe you. It is well documented that devoutly religious people can get some kooky ideas about God that can cause a great deal of harm.
Jim Jones cared about the poor and the needy on the streets of San Francisco. He was doing the work of Jesus. He attracted a following. They were sure they saw Jesus at work in him. And then he led them all to mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana.
Pascal said this: “Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Think about that the next time you hear about a terrorist attack. Our quest for spiritual truth needs to be conducted with humility. God is God and we are not.
Fourth, we can all learn from each other. Krister Stendahl spoke of “holy envy”. He was talking about looking at faith traditions other than your own and seeing in them qualities that you wish were part of your own faith tradition. Maybe they can be. Maybe every religion would be better if it were willing to learn from every other religion.
For example, Muslims pray five times a day. What if we all prayed at least that often? Jews are careful to follow God’s law. Some of us get way too casual about right living. Buddhists teach us not to get overly attached to the things of this world. We could all benefit from that. And I would hope all people all over the world, even the atheists and the agnostics, could benefit from the Christian Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”
Krister Stendahl was the Church of Sweden bishop in Stockholm when the Mormons announced their plans to build a temple there. Many were up in arms. Rumors were circulating, some true, many false about what Mormons were and what they believed. The general consensus was that they were not welcome in Stockholm.
That’s when Bishop Stendahl called his famous press conference. It was 1985. He laid down these three “Rules of Religious Understanding”:
1) When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
2) Don’t compare your best to their worst.
3) Leave room for holy envy.
Because we can all learn from each other.
Finally, we all need Jesus. All religions are not the same. As Christians, we should be open to what we can learn from other religions. We should try our best to understand them. We should cast them in the best possible light. We should leave room for holy envy. But we should never surrender our core belief that God’s once and for all time, defining revelation came in Jesus. And that we all need Jesus. Yes, even the Muslims and the Jews and the Hindus and the Buddhists and the “nones” and the “dones” and the Jedis. They need Jesus, too.
Jesus is “the way and the truth and the life . . . no one comes to the Father but by [Him]” (John 14:6). So does that mean we should be pushy about it? Does that mean we should do all in our power to convert everyone who has not confessed their faith in Jesus because if they never get converted they will surely go to hell? Some Christians think so.
There are three ways of looking at this. One is the “exclusivist” view. This is the view that takes John 14:6 quite literally and essentially says that there is no salvation without faith in Jesus. Personally, I consider that an extreme view.
On the other extreme is the “pluralist” view. This is the view that all religions are pretty much the same. One is as good as another. There are many paths to God. It doesn’t really matter what you believe or whether you believe as long as you are sincere.
The third view is where I find myself. It’s called the “inclusivist” view. It does not shy away from saying that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life. It does not waffle on the verse that says no one comes to the Father but by Jesus. But it does treat people who don’t consider themselves Christian with dignity and respect. Just because we believe that God’s once and for all time, defining revelation was Jesus does not mean that God cannot also be at work in other religions.
We all need Jesus. Even people who don’t know they need Jesus, need Jesus. Jesus is the way to God. But this inclusivist view is open to God’s truth wherever it might be found. Christians aren’t the only ones to whom God has revealed truth. And maybe, just maybe, people of other religions or of no religion are coming to God through Jesus who don’t even realize they are coming to God through Jesus.
C.S. Lewis was an inclusivist. He argued that position as only he could with logical, convincing arguments. But the best way to persuade is with a story. And he told a great story about this. It’s in The Last Battle, the final volume of The Chronicles of Narnia.
It’s the story of a man named Emeth. Emeth had made the wrong choice about his faith. All his life he had served a false god named Tash. And now it’s the end of his life. He is face to face with the lion, Aslan, which really means in the symbolism of these books that he is face to face with Jesus.
Emeth realizes at this moment that he has been mistaken his entire life. He has chosen the wrong side. And fair is fair. He deserves the judgment and condemnation he is about to get. But he is in for a surprise. Here’s how this scene goes:
Aslan touched my forehead and said, “Son, thou art welcome.” But I said, “Alas, Lord, I am no Son of Thine but the servant of Tash.” He answered, “Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash I account as service done to me.” Then I asked, “Are Thou and Tash one?” The Lion growled, so that the earth shook and said, “It is false. Not because he and I are one but because he and I are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him.” I said, “I have been seeking Tash all my days.” The Glorious One said, “Unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek” (164-165).
We all need Jesus. Even people who don’t know they need Jesus, need Jesus. Even people like Emeth. Even people of other religions. Even people of no religion.
God is the judge. Our job is not to judge. Not to condemn. But to love. If we truly believe that Jesus is the Name above all names, then surely our job is to give Jesus a good name.
Lord Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life, we love you. We want all to love you. We want all to acknowledge you as Lord and Savior. And yet we live in a diverse world. It’s not a Christian world. It’s a world that needs you, O Jesus. And it’s a world that surely needs most of all your love. May that love be seen in us. In your name and to your glory, Amen.