Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister

 

 

Sermon Series: Christianity Without Easy Answers

 “Is it a Problem if I Like Buddha and Shiva, Too?”

Sunday, March 1, 2009

 

 

Amos 9: 5-7
I Corinthians 15: 21-28

 Dean

Rev. Dean Snyder


Christians are all over the road map when it comes to other religions, aren’t we?

 

There are those of us who believe Christianity is the only true religion and there are those who believe that one religion is pretty much as good as another. There are those of us who believe that the chief calling of Christians is to bring people of other religions to Christ and those who think “proselytizing” is tacky. There are those of us who think Christianity is incompatible with other religions and those who practice other religions while remaining Christian. The great scholar of world religions Huston Smith finds his spiritual nourishment in Vedanta, philosophical Hinduism, even though he attends his local Methodist church faithfully and considers himself a Methodist.[i]

 

No wonder our friends are confused about what we as Christians think about other religions and some of us might be as well. So I’d like to ask you to think about this questions of how we might feel and think about other religions with me this morning.

 

There are two pivotal scripture passages that we must refer to when we talk about Christianity and other religions.

 

One is John 14: 6, where the Gospel of John quotes Jesus as saying: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

 

The other is Acts 4: 12. Peter, testifying before Annas the high priest and the council about Jesus, says: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

 

These are the two verses in the New Testament that, more than any others, seem to make claims for the exclusivity of the revelation of God through Christ and the exclusivity of salvation through Jesus Christ.

 

There are those who have done thoughtful work on these verses.

 

Marcus Borg points out that the Gospel of John was written at a time when there was sharp hostility between the Johannine Christian community and the synagogue. During the early days of the Jesus movement, followers of Jesus considered themselves good and faithful and perhaps even superior Jews. They worshipped at the synagogue and followed all the practices and customs of Judaism. Then Judaism introduced the Benediction against Heretics into the synagogue liturgy and expelled Jewish believers in Jesus from the synagogue.[ii]

 

The Jewish followers of Jesus had to decide whether they would give up Jesus to remain synagogue members and stay in relationship with their families and friends or, because to be expelled from the synagogue was to become unclean, whether they would separate from the synagogue and their families and friends to continue to follow Jesus. Marcus Borg says that, when John has Jesus say “I am the way, the truth and the life,” John was not contrasting the way of Jesus with the way of other world religions but with the way of the synagogue across the street. In effect he was saying: “Stay within the community of Jesus; don’t go back to the way you left behind.”[iii]

 

In a similar way Peter’s claim in the Book of Acts that Jesus is the only name by which we must be saved occurred in a dispute with the high priests of Judaism and is directed specifically at the tension between the synagogue and the new Christian movement within Judaism. The religious authorities are upset that the disciples are claiming to heal people and they ask “by whose power or by what name” they are healing (Acts 4: 7). Peter answers that they are healing in the name of Jesus and that there is only one name by which we can be healed and saved (the word translated “saved” also means “healed”), and that is the name of Jesus. Peter’s statement happens within a dispute between Jews about the place of Jesus within the Jewish religion.

 

Who has the capacity to say the most extreme things to each other when they are fighting – people who are merely acquaintances or family? The correct answer is family.  

 

Nobody has the capacity to say extreme things to each other like family does. One of the things we are seeing in the New Testament is a family fight between those members of the synagogue who had become followers of Jesus and those who thought that Jesus was a failed and false messiah. It is sort of the equivalent of your teenager daughter bringing home her new boyfriend who is the leader of the local motorcycle gang. A lot of things get said in the heat of the moment that you might regret later.

 

Yet, in spite of the scholarly work that has been done to understand these verses in context, I myself think it is probably true that the people who wrote the New Testament, and the communities they were part of, would have pretty universally said that Jesus was the unique revelation of God and the unique way of salvation and that other religions are wrong.

 

They were new believers. They were in the infatuation stage of their relationship with Christianity. They were smitten.

 

Deborah Fox, the therapist who does our seminar on sex during our Pre-Cana Weekend, talks about the infatuation stage of relationships when a couple has eyes only for each other and there is no one anywhere as smart or good looking or as charming as the object of our infatuation. But for most couples apparently the infatuation stage does not last forever.

 

The New Testament was written in the infatuation stage of faith.

 

We see the same thing almost everywhere when Christianity is planted in a new culture. The first generations of new Christians – when they first hear the story of Jesus Christ and know that this is their story – their life, maybe for the first time, makes sense to them. They feel as if they have finally found their home. They have finally found their story. The story of Jesus has chosen and claimed them. They are a small minority in a larger culture, a culture that is often hostile to this new religious movement, and they tend to see Jesus as the unique revelation of God and as the unique way to eternal life.

 

It is this way almost everywhere among the first generation or two of Christians in a new place.

 

Jane and I were in Zimbabwe for the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of United Methodism in Zimbabwe. One of the debates going on then was whether United Methodists should still sing the hymn that had been Methodism’s absolutely most favorite hymn in the early years of Methodism in Zimbabwe. It was a hymn entitled “No Other Name,” based on Acts 4: 12. The message of the hymn was that anyone who did not accept Christ was lost. I remember hearing Bishop Abel Muzorewa argue in a sermon that Zimbabwean Methodists should still sing the hymn, because “it reminds us,” he said, “of our first love…when we first fell in love with Christ.” 

 

So I am not surprised that there are verses in the New Testament that argue the exclusivity of Jesus Christ as the revelation of God and the way to eternal life. What surprises me is that there are not more.

 

We today, many of us, have a hard time with exclusive claims for Christianity because we have studied other religions, we have friends who are active in other religions and know that they are sincere and good and often spiritually mature people  Some of us do yoga or Buddhist meditation, or the I Ching. We have heard or read the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh.

 

We live in a pluralistic world – an ever increasingly pluralistic world – and our experience and reason makes it difficult for us to accept the exclusivist claims which have sometimes been part of Christianity.    

 

So how do we deal with this tension?

 

Here’s one way, perhaps the most common:

 

The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner came up with the concept of anonymous Christians. Fr. Rahner could not accept the idea that there was a genuine path to God and salvation that had nothing to do with Jesus Christ. At the same time, he could not bring himself to believe that the many, many people who have not explicitly recognized Jesus Christ were without God and lost. So he came up with the idea that there are people who are Christians without knowing it and he called them anonymous Christians.[iv]

 

Karl Rahner’s theology greatly influenced Vatican II and has become the dominant teaching of the Catholic Church today about other religions.

 

Other religions that make exclusivist claims have come to the same conclusion as Karl Rahner and the Vatican. We have a member of Foundry who is a professor who advised a graduate student from Saudi Arabia who was a Sunni Muslim. After graduation the student thanked him for the way he had related to him as a person and said: “In the Muslim faith, people like you would be referred to as a ‘Muslim without Islam.’”

 

Anonymous Christians might be called Christians without Christianity.

 

The Roman Catholic statement “Dominus Iesus” made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000 goes so far as to say: “The sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.”[v]

 

For those Christians who can not give up the idea of Jesus being the unique and exclusive revelation of God and the only way to eternal life but who can not write off all of the rest of humanity, the idea of anonymous Christians or implicit Christians has helped reconcile the discord between some parts of the New Testament and our experience and reason. 

 

The problem for some of us is that this seems a bit presumptuous. On a personal level, to tell someone that he or she is a Christian without Christianity might be a complement, but to say that everything good about another religion is really Christian even though they don’t know it may seem disrespectful.

 

So I wanted to see if there are any other ideas in Scripture that might help us think about other religions, in addition to the several claims for Christianity’s exclusivity in the New Testament.

 

I have found three ideas from the Bible that I think might be helpful.

 

1) The first is an unusual and profound moment of awareness that came to the prophet Amos. The assumption in the Hebrew Scriptures was that the exodus from slavery in Egypt was a unique event and a unique revelation of God’s commitment to freedom and justice.

 

Second Samuel 7: 23-24 says: “Who is like your people, like Israel? Is there another nation on earth whose God went to redeem it as a people, and to make a name for [God’s]self, doing great and awesome things for them, by driving out before his people nations and their gods?”

 

And the answer to the question is presumed to be: No, there is no other people like Israel. Israel is special. God saved Israel from slavery is a special way. It was a unique revelation.

 

But the prophet Amos has a burst of insight and enlightenment contrary to the dominant thinking. Amos 9: 7 quotes God as saying to Israel: “Did I not bring Israel up from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Armaneans from Kir?”

 

Traditional thinking among the people of Israel would want to say: Yes you brought Israel up from the land of Egypt, but you did not bring the Philistines up from the land of Caphtor or the Arameans from Kir.  

 

Amos has this special insight that the same God who Israel’s God was also the God of the Philistines and the Arameans.   

 

Walter Brueggemann says that Amos’ prophecy “voiced in a forceful way that Yahweh (the God we confess to be fully known in Jesus Christ) is not unilaterally attached to our preferred formulas, practices or self-identity.”[vi]

 

It is natural for a people to see their experience as unique, but Amos challenges this assumption. Surely his insight has implications for the way we as Christians might think about other religions today.

 

2) The Apostle Paul’s ultimate eschatological vision is one in which Christ is transcended so that “God may be all in all.” (I Cor. 15: 28) After Christ has defeated his enemies, especially the enemy of death (Jesus’ enemies are not people but principalities and powers), then Christ takes a secondary position so that the focus is on God and God alone.

 

While Paul’s imagery is difficult to unpack, there is a strong sense that we can not assume that Christianity contains the fullness of God. Christ plays a purpose in God’s plan, specifically to destroy the power of death, but then Christ becomes “subjected” so that all the focus is on the glory of God.

 

Paul’s eschatological vision allows for the possibility that too narrow an understanding of Christianity can actually get in the way of the glory of God.  

 

3) Jesus’ parable of the last judgment in Matthew 25 says that all the nations will be gathered before the judgment throne and they will be judged on whether or not they cared for the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, and imprisoned.

 

At the time Jesus told the story most religions were national religions. There was a Babylonian religion, Greek gods, and Roman gods; there was emperor worship. So when Jesus says that all nations are gathered before the throne, his hearers would assume that this would also mean that all religions are gathered before the throne, and all religions are judged by the same criteria. Were we compassionate? When someone was hungry did we feed them? When someone was naked did we clothe them? When someone was in the hospital or in prison did we visit them?

 

Matthew 25 suggests that our religion will be judged by the same standard as all of the world’s religions and that standard is compassion.

 

Let me add a personal word. This is just me. I don’t think all religions are alike, neither do I think all religions are equal. But I do believe something happened between 800 and 200 BCE. The philosopher Karl Jasper identified this era as the Axial Age. During this time period new religious movements emerged in three different parts of the world that had no contact with one another: Taoism and Confucianism in China; Buddhism and Hinduism in India and monotheism in Iran; the great Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophy in the eastern Mediterranean. The teaching of the Hebrew prophets was the backdrop for Jesus, and the post-resurrection church used the language and concepts of Greek philosophy. The monotheism of the Hebrew prophets was the foundation of Islam. All of these religious movements, despite their differences, have a certain shared consciousness.

 

Out of 5,000 years of recorded history, all the great religions of the world have their beginnings in these 600 years between 800 and 200 BCE, the Axial Age.

 

Let me read what Karen Armstrong says about the Axial Age: “”Despite its great importance, the Axial Age remains mysterious. We do not know what caused it, nor why it took root in three core areas: in China, in India and Iran; and in the eastern Mediterranean. Why was it that only the Chinese, Iranians, Indians, Jews and Greeks experienced these new horizons and embarked on this quest for enlightenment and salvation? [We don’t know.] But in these Axial countries, a few [people] sensed fresh possibilities and broke away form old traditions. They sought change in the deepest reaches of their beings, looked for greater inwardness in their spiritual lives, and tried to become one with a reality that transcended normal mundane conditions and categories. After this pivotal era, it was felt that only by reaching beyond their limits could human being become more fully themselves.”[vii]   

 

The story of Jesus Christ is my story. It is the story that chose me and has shaped me from childhood. It is my story and I am deeply grateful for it. It is a unique story, but it is a story that also shares a consciousness and a way of thinking with other religions birthed in the Axial Age. I think we should not be afraid of these sister religions. Jesus, it seems to me, wasn’t afraid of the Samaritan and Gentile religions of his day. These religions of the Axial Age, at least these, are part of our family, and I think it is a good thing to know and love our family. 

 

 

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[i] Marilyn Snell, “The World of Religion According to Huston Smith,” Mother Jones (Nov./Dec. 1997) at http://www.motherjones.com/politics/1997/11/world-religion-according-huston-smith.

[ii] An excellent summary of this context for the writing of the Gospel of John is provided by David Rensberger, Johannine Faith and Liberating Community (The Westminster Press, 1988), 22-3.

[iii] Marcus Borg, “Hesus” ‘The Way, the Truth, the Life,’” Beliefnet at http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2000/08/Jesus-The-Way-The-Truth-The-Life.aspx. Brian McLaren offers a strong argument that John 14:6 isn’t about other religions at all but about Jesus’ call to discipleship at http://www.brianmclaren.net/emc/archives/McLaren%20-%20John%2014.6.pdf.

[iv]Karl Rahner , Paul Imhof, and Hubert Biallowons, Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews 1965-1982 (Crossroad Publishing Company, 1986), 195-6.

[v]  Joseph Card. Ratzinger, “Dominus Iesus” at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20000806_dominus-iesus_en.html.

[vi] Walter Brueggemann, Texts that Linger Words that Explode: Listening to Prophetic Voices (Fortress Press, 2000), 101. Brueggmann says he is not focusing on the relation of Christianity and other “Great Religions” but surely his study of Amos 9:7 is relevant for this question.

[vii] Karen Armstrong, Buddha (A Lipper/Penquin Book), 2001), 11-2. For a more extensive treatment of the Axial Age see Armstrong, The Great Transformation: The Beginning of our Religious Traditions (Anchor Books, 2006).