January 31, 2021
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
I HAVE A FRIEND WHO BELIEVES
ALL RELIGIONS ARE THE SAME
The fourth in a series of four.
I conducted a funeral for a member of my family on March 3, 2020. That was when the coronavirus was something you might have heard about on the news but you probably weren’t paying much attention. My cousin from the Seattle area had a plane ticket to attend, but he chose not to come. He said he didn’t want to risk spreading the virus. We all thought that was a little nutty, but it turns out he knew more than we did.
The funeral for Beverly Iseri was held at the Four Rivers Cultural Center in Ontario, Oregon. Iseri is a prominent name in Ontario and people are often surprised when I tell them that they are my relatives. My Aunt Bev married Carl Iseri in 1956.
Interracial marriages were not common back then. Nor were interfaith marriages. Aunt Bev was a Christian. She grew up in the same church in Madras that I grew up in. Uncle Carl was Buddhist. Bev never converted. She remained a Christian, but Uncle Carl never converted either. So rather than attend two different houses of worship, they attended the Buddhist temple together.
I co-officiated at that funeral with a Buddhist priest. It was a Christian service, but it included some Buddhist elements. I’m not planning to become Buddhist, but I loved the traditional incense ceremony at the end, which included this poem:
Nothing is more fragile and fleeting in this world than human life. Thus, we have not heard of anyone receiving human form that lasts for ten thousand years. Life swiftly passes. Who among men can maintain his form for even a hundred years? Whether I go before others, or others go before me; whether it be today, or it be tomorrow, who is to know? Those who leave before us are as countless as the drops of dew. Though in the morning we may have radiant health, in the evening we may be white ashes . . . Therefore, we are brought to understand that each moment of our life, every day, is precious and unrepeatable.
I don’t know a lot about the Buddhist faith. I like what I know. That poem is beautiful and wise. It doesn’t matter what your religion is. I spoke to the Buddhist priest after the service and we had a delightful conversation. I felt a real kinship. I’m not sure I should say this, but I felt we had more is common than I have with certain Christian pastors.
Today we conclude our series on hard questions with one that occurred to me on the drive home from Aunt Bev’s funeral. Do the differences between Buddhism and Christianity really matter all that much?
Are there many paths to God? Why should I think that my way is better than your way? Or that your way is 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. When it comes right down to it, are all religions basically the same?
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.
A place to begin 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. Then the Buddhists. 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. One out of twelve is a Buddhist. One out of every 500 people in the world is a Jew.
And then there are the Jedis. I mention them only because I have heard that a growing number of people identify with the Jedi religion. It is one of the newer religions. It began in 1977 with the first Star Wars movie. They have their own unique benediction that you probably know. “May the force be with you.” I will not use that to close the service today. I promise.
There’s 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 have a new president. Some of you think that’s great and some of you think that’s terrible. Some of you are Democrats. Some of you are Republicans. We don’t agree. We often don’t even agree to disagree. It seems to be getting worse, but disagreements are not a new thing. That’s just the way people are. We experience life through the lens of our own life experiences. We reach different conclusions. We hold different convictions. As I said a few weeks ago, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” That’s not just true in the world of politics. 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 leave 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. My Buddhist relatives in Ontario don’t see it this way. But Jews and Muslims are 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 commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.”
Think about that the next time you hear about a terrorist attack. Or an assault on a capitol building. Our quest for 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 never should 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.