By Ed Rybarczyk
When I was a theology professor, I routinely ran across this attitude: “All religions lead to the same mountain top called God.” In the generous sense, usually one embraced by my sometime Christian students, that phrase expressed the hope that the world’s major religions all wanted the best for people. In the cynical sense, a simmering undercurrent at today’s universities, it was a way to dismiss all the religions as equally fabricated, equally antiquated. Whether generous or cynical, that all religions want the same things is a widely held belief.
And yet, is that really true? Does Orthodox Judaism seek the dissolving of each self into the Is-ness of the universe? Of course not. Do Daoists teach their practitioners to guard against sin and hell, or do they believe that life is comprised of a yin and yang balance? The latter, clearly. Does Islam teach that one should daily bow in prayer toward Rome, the religious center of the earth? Stop! Does Confucianism hold out hope for a bodily resurrection? Not at all. Does Buddhism encourage its adherents to give their entire identities to the resurrected Lord Jesus? Let’s not be silly. To be fair to Buddhists, Buddhism does not even believe in a God, let alone Jesus as God incarnate.
For starters the belief that all religions lead to the same God is dismissive of all the religions. This point is commonly missed by Christians and can make us seem naïve. In the sharing of our faith, or in our mundane conversations with folks who embrace other religious traditions, it does not serve us well to speak like all religions are finally or secretly the same. No, we do better to treat the other with respect and humility. And those two qualities both direct us to allow the other person to genuinely be other, to allow the other religion to genuinely be other. Or to put it in the negative, to believe and act as if all the world’s religions are ultimately the same is to bear false witness (Ex. 20:16). Better to be honest. It’s better to be charitable and seek clarity than to be dismissive and naïve.
When we process the world’s religions we need to realize that truth is a separating quality. Unless truth is itself a mere fantasmic mental construct, truth variously defines, illuminates, and separates. For example, if God is eternal and I had a beginning then I am not God. Or, if the universe had a beginning – as the dominant scientific model of universal origins now maintains – then it is not eternal and so is not itself God. Or, again to push back on still another widespread notion – “we are really all one!” – if you are authentically you, a person with your own history, genetics, loves, wounds, and aspirations, then you and I are different. We may share a ton in common, including finite human nature, but we individuals are not fundamentally one. Truth separates.
I believe all the forementioned is important because Idaho is experiencing a massive influx of immigrants from other states and nations. I myself was born in Nampa and have family scattered across the Treasure Valley, but I lived in California for 33 years. The Gem Sate is undergoing an unprecedented historical transformation. We who embrace Jesus as Lord ought be mindful and strategic in how we relate to folks inside other religions. Acknowledging the existence of truth should help us in a missional sense. Let’s ask, listen, study, and learn before we say things in conversation that we’ll regret later.
But my prior comments about truth are also important as we reflect on the nature of Christian faith. In our generosity, while we do well to first believe the best about others, it is important that we do not build straw bridges. Again, as a college theology professor I saw that all the time. Undergraduate students, traveling to foreign countries characterized by non-Christian religions, so earnestly wanted to connect with folks inside those other cultures and religions that they would trade biblical truth for relational unity. Share a meal? Of course. Build friendship? Why not? Discuss the arduous nature of life in a political world? Go for it. But for the sake of bridge building, pretend that Christianity is just another manifestation of the one God? Now a line of demarcation has been crossed.
Social outcasts were magnetically drawn to Jesus. The chronically diseased (who were therefore deemed religiously unclean and shunned), street-folk, prostitutes, and outsider-Gentiles all discerned the meekness of the man from Galilee. Oh, what would it have been like to be near His person?! He exuded love. He walked in peace. His soul was beautiful. And yet for all of that personal presence, Jesus never qualified His own identity; never made it easier to accept His self-referential assertions. He said He is the shepherd before whom all the nations of earth would be gathered and judged (Mt. 25:31-46). He claimed to have the authority of God to judge and forgive sin (Lk. 5:18-26). He conquered death, sin, and the devil.
For all His gentleness, Jesus was also unembarrassedly divisive: the truth about Him caused division everywhere He went. The tension between those two – inclusivity and exclusivity – was and is dramatic with the person of Christ.
We who exalt Him as risen Lord do well to embrace that same tension: inclusive and exclusive. With our demeanor, posture, words, and hospitality, let us be inclusive. With our commitment to Christ’s unique identity, let us be exclusive. Let us remain faithful to the truths that pervade Christian life.
Ed Rybarczyk, Ph.D., is both an ordained minister and a retired History of Theology professor. He now produces and hosts the Uncensored Unprofessor podcast @ uncensoredunprofessor.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.