The Rev. Frank
God Shows No
There is a story told to explain how the various world religions all fit together. A group of blind people approaches an elephant. Without seeing the whole elephant, each blind person feels around their portion of the elephant and describes the beast. The blind woman holding the trunk says that the elephant is long and muscular like a thick snake with a rough hide. A blind man holding an ear says that the elephant is thin and flat. Another man gropes around the elephant’s massive leg says that the elephant is thick and solid like a tree trunk. And so on as the group describes the elephant by the portion they feel. Each person adds a new perspective. Only together do they succeed in describing the elephant. This parable is then explained saying that each religion has a portion of the truth about God. They each describe their knowledge and experience of God differently, and together they create a complete picture of God.
This parable is amenable to the current cultural climate in America. Americans today generally value pluralism and mistrust anyone who says they know the whole truth about anything. This story sounds like a reasonable explanation for the variety of religious traditions around the world. However, the parable is flawed. The principle that underlies this parable is that every religion is essentially true. Can we know this for sure? For the parable to work, you must know what an elephant looks like. You must already know that the trunk is long and muscular, the ears are thin and flat, and the legs shaped like a tree trunk. Then the explanations the blind people offer make sense to form a whole picture. This parable only works if someone knows all about God. An outside observer must first know all there is to know about God and then compare that knowledge of God to each of the world religions. Only then could we know if the parable is correct.
Though we have mostly been a Christian nation, America holds out the promise of religious freedom to all. Long ago, we, as a nation, decided that all religions will share equal protection under the law. David Koresh and his compound at Waco notwithstanding, this is generally the practice of our government. This is a political judgment only. However, some people hold this political view of religions as a theological view. They assert that all religions are the same. Therefore, Buddhism’s Nirvana, Christianity’s Heaven, and Hinduism’s belief in reincarnation that brings you closer to perfection are all essentially describing the same reality. When this view is pushed to its extreme, as it sometimes is, anything someone believes sincerely is OK. No matter what way-out ideas you have, they are right for you, so they are right.
When I was in elementary school, I had nightmares in which I was surrounded by snakes. I would then wake up, convinced that snakes were in my bed. Then I would act as if snakes were in my bed. Not fully awake, I would not want to move for fear of rousing the sleeping serpents. I would be literally paralyzed with fear until I could wake enough to convince myself to turn on a light and prove that it had been only a nightmare. I was absolutely convinced that there were snakes in my bed. I was a true believer, and I was dead wrong. Southern slave owners were convinced that the slave system was good for the slaves as well as the owners. The Raelians are in the news a lot recently with their claims that all humanity was genetically engineered by aliens from outer space. The Raelians further declare that human cloning is the path to eternal life. I think they are wrong, sincere perhaps, but wrong. Many things people sincerely believe are simply not true.
Another problem with believing that all religions are equally true is that they contradict each other. Is there one God, as the Christians, Jews of Muslims claim? Or is there a pantheon of Gods as the Hindus claim, or the ancient Romans and Greeks did? Perhaps everything is God as the pagans claim? On the other hand, maybe the Atheists have it right and there is no God. All of these are theological views that some people sincerely believe. They cannot all be equally true.
I would like to offer the suggestion that most religions are somewhat true. Each religion does have some truth to it. I do not know enough of the world’s religions to claim that all religions are true. I’m no expert on the Rastafarians of Jamaica or the Shintos of Japan, but there is a reason to believe that many religions can contain truth. In scripture, we are told that “the heavens reveal the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). We can come to know something about God through God’s creation. We also know that people are created in the image of God (Genesis 2:27). Built into each of us and in all of creation, there are hints as to the nature of God. Various religions point to God as revealed to all in creation.
Then we have to contend with the words of Jesus himself. First, we have to face facts. Jesus’ words can be offensive. Our modern outlook can cause us to wince at the 2000-year-old message of Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus had the audacity to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). To make it worse, Jesus was not the only one to say this. The Bible records in the book of Acts when the Apostle Peter told a group of Jewish elders in Jerusalem that salvation comes through Jesus alone. Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else! There is no other name in all of heaven for people to call on to save them” (Acts 4:12). This belief that Jesus was The Way to God was so deeply imbedded in Christianity that in the early days of the faith, Christianity was known as The Way.
In a time when many teach that all the major religions are basically the same, this is offensive. Do we kiss off the billions of people who have never heard the name of Jesus Christ? What about the millions and millions who were unfortunate enough to live before Jesus was born? What about the faithful Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others whose personal piety outshines our own? If no one comes to the Father except through Jesus, then it would seem that these billions of souls are, well, toast.
Then we have to contend with today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles. Peter declares, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” Peter goes on to say that Jesus is Lord of all. But how can Jesus be lord of all if not everyone has even heard the name Jesus? How can people fear God and do what is right if they have never been taught what God expects of them?
The answer is in the Bible. Scripture tells us that God reveals God’s own self to all people. People all around the world share some common knowledge of what God expects from them? The book of Ecclesiastes states that God “has planted eternity on the human heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). And God promised through the Prophet Jeremiah, “I will put my laws in their minds, and I will write them on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
Paul wrote to the Romans that, “Even the Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, instinctively follow what the law says, they show that in their hearts they know right from wrong. They demonstrate that God’s law is written within them, for their own consciences either accuse them or tell them they are doing what is right” (Romans 2:12-15).
As, the Bible teaches that God has written the law on the tablets of our hearts, then it should not be surprising that religions share some beliefs in common. For example, every major religion in the world contains an admonition similar to Jesus statement in Matthew’s Gospel, “Do for others what you would like them to do for you. This is a summary of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12-13). This “Golden Rule” is shared by people of faith all over the world and by people who hold no faith. The beliefs religions hold in common create some continuity among religions.
Leslie Newbigin was an Anglican Bishop in South India for forty years. He has written about sharing the Christian faith with people on the Indian subcontinent. Newbigin says that there is continuity, which converts to Christianity feel,
“Even though this conversion involves radical discontinuity, yet there is often the strong conviction afterwards it was the living and true God who was dealing with them in the days of their pre-Christian wrestlings.”
In my own work with the Anglican Church of Tanzania, I heard this same idea echoed. People who held to a Traditional African Religion who converted to Christianity felt continuity with their previous faith. They felt that Christianity was a fuller, truer understanding of the faith the God they already knew. This then is the key to understanding how Jesus is The Way. No one can come to know God except through Jesus. But the Jesus we are speaking of is not just the man who lived for 33 years in first century Palestine. The Jesus we are speaking of is the second person of the Trinity who existed before creation. Jesus is known to many of us through the revelation found in Christian scripture and teaching. But, Jesus is not limited to our Christian teaching. There are faithful people, who seek to know God, and who come to know of God through other religions. Jesus is present to them through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit that hovered over the waters in creation is still present throughout the world. That is why converts to Christianity feel continuity with their previous faith. One example is that Jesus, who is known to the faithful Jew through the Torah, can be seen directly in the Christian Gospel.
If all religions can point to God, and even to Jesus, then why aren’t they all equally valid? What is the value in being Christian? This gets us back to the problem inherent in saying that all religions are equally true. Each religion makes specific claims. Many of these claims are contradictory. They cannot all be equally true. Heaven is not at the same time exactly like the Buddhist claims for Nirvana and the Christian heaven. Some religion could be truer than other religions. Obviously, I believe that Christianity has it right. But why?
The Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made human. This claim is not one made by Buddhists of the Buddha or by Jews of Moses or Abraham or by Muslims of Muhammad. The claim that God has come and lived among us is a uniquely Christian claim. As someone who believes that Jesus was and is God made man, I hold that we know God best through Jesus Christ. As we read of the life of Jesus and try to follow Jesus’ example, we are molding our lives in conformance to God better than we can through any other means. While other paths might lead to God, Christianity holds that Jesus is the way to know God best.
However, Christians have no cause to be arrogant around other people of faith. To do so would be to ignore the fact that they too are created in God’s image. Furthermore, none of us lives our lives so in line with Christian teaching that we are in a position to criticize others. There is no reason that we cannot learn from faithful Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. We can and we should. Believers in other faiths can challenge us to greater faithfulness to our own beliefs. They can also point us back to elements that the Christian tradition has left behind. For example, there is a great tradition of meditation and listening prayer in Christianity. Dialogue with Buddhists and others can call Christians back to this ancient practice.
So, other religions do offer some truth and we may learn from them. But, Jesus is not a good teacher like the Buddha or a prophet like Muhammad. Jesus is God made flesh. If we really believe this claim to be true, then we see that while other religions may hold some truth, Christianity offers The Truth about who God is and how God acts. While we should not be smug or self-righteous in our beliefs, neither should Christians be embarrassed to claim that Jesus reveals the Truth of God.
 Leslie Newbigin, The Finality of Christ (John Knox Press, 1969), p. 59.
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