Is Jesus the Only Way?
[Note: I delivered this talk on Friday November 30th, 2012 to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at Binghamton University. There were approximately 120 students, mostly Christian but some non-Christian, present.]
I’ve been asked to address the question: “Is Jesus the only way?”
One Sunday ten years ago, about two months after I was ordained and installed as the pastor of my congregation, a woman parishioner approached me after services with a question.
“I belong to an interfaith prayer group including Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and Christians. We meet once a month to sing, pray and worship together at local churches, mosques, and synagogues. We’d really like to meet at Good Shepherd this month. Would that be okay?”
Here I am young, idealistic, fresh out of seminary. No doubt she assumed I’d say yes and perhaps even ask to join in.
So I asked her a few questions like:
“Who exactly do you ‘worship’ during these meetings?”
“To which God do you pray?”
And her answers always came back to something like this: “We worship the same God I worship here on Sunday morning.”
So after we spoke for awhile, I finally said: “No. I can’t let you meet here and, not only that, as your pastor I think you should drop out of the group.”
I’m sure I didn’t say it eloquently. I mumbled and bumbled about and probably didn’t give a good reason for it. I was young and fairly stupid with regard to emotional intelligence and personal communication.
In any case, she was shocked and offended, and made that quite clear.
That Tuesday she visited my office with a 7 page paper entitled “the Mountain” in hand.
I’ll summarise it:
All the religious faiths are like different paths up the same mountain. Christians follow the path trod by Jesus, Buddhists, the trail laid out by Sidhartha, Jews follow Moses, Muslims follow Mohammed, but while we’re on different paths it’s the same mountain. Our paths will meet at the summit and we’ll discover the one God who made them all.
Another way of expressing the same idea is the elephant story. Who’s heard the Elephant story?
Six blind men hear that an elephant is in their village and decide to find out what an elephant’s like. So they ask someone to lead them to the elephant and each one reaches out to touch it.
One says: “It’s like a pillar,” touching its leg. “No, it’s like a rope,” says the second, touching the tail. “No! it’s a thick branch,” says the third, touching the trunk. “It’s a big fan” says the fourth, touching an ear. “It’s like a wall,” says the fifth, touching its side. “It’s like a pipe,” Says the sixth, touching a tusk.
They fought, each insisting he was right.
But then a wise man happened by and heard them arguing and said: “You’re all right. And you’re all wrong. You’re just touching different parts of the same elephant.”
\What is the moral of these two stories?
Something like: “All religions grasp different aspects of the same divine essence, the same elephant, in different ways”
So no one faith is “the” way. There are many ways. None can lay claim to see the whole truth. There are many truths and many ways and many expressions of both but in the end all “ways” are valid and all sufficient to lead to one End.
This view is called “religious pluralism”
Those who hold to it will tell you that those who claim to know “the” truth are arrogant and ignorant. They are arrogant because they presume to see all and know all. And they are ignorant because they discount the claims and experiences of other faiths.
But let’s think about that claim.
Take the Elephant story. One character, if you’ll notice, sees the full elephant. There is one character who sees all and knows all, who is right and who is able to perfectly correct the others who are wrong.
The wise man.
The wise man “knows” the blind men are wrong. He alone “sees” the whole elephant.
The wise man is the religious pluralist in the elephant story…the character with whom the person who tells the story identifies.
But think this through.
The religious pluralist says no one religion can lay claim to see the whole truth. But to say that, the religious pluralist lays claim to see the whole truth.
In terms of logic that is self contradictory. It’s rational incoherence.
Usually religious pluralism is paired with the word tolerance which effectively adds to its incoherence a form of intellectual bullying.
“There can only be religious tolerance when you all drop your exclusivist claims about God and accept my exclusivist claims about God.”
Think for a moment about what has happened to the word tolerance over the years.
The classic application of Tolerance sounds something like this: “I think you’re wrong and I’ll tell you so, but I’m not going to shut you down.”
Now it has come to mean: “one must affirm the validity of all beliefs and lifestyles.”
Classically, tolerance is only possible where people don’t affirm each other’s beliefs but give each other the freedom to express them. Now tolerance often means some voices must be silenced.
But let me suggest that if we don’t pretend that all religions are headed in the same direction but actually listen to and understand their distinct voices - we can rightly and honestly hear, respect and assess their real differences:
The Christian claims that God is One in Being and Three in Person and that Jesus is God the Son incarnate, who was born of a virgin and who died and rose again.
The Muslim claims that God is One, that he cannot be three in Person and that Jesus was only a prophet. He was born of a virgin but now he is dead.
Buddhists claim that God is all and all is God.
These claims are mutually exclusive. That means that if one is true the others cannot be.
If Jesus is not God, for example, then Christianity is false. If Jesus is God all the other religions cannot be true.
These three religions at least are not the same elephant. They aren’t on the same mountain. And the deeper you dig the more you will discover this to be true about all religious faiths and practices.
On the basic moral level - whether we should lie, kill, steal or cheat, the religions are similar. But when you dig deeper and ask questions like: who/what is God and how does one find him/her/it - you find radically different answers. Not harmony but cacophony - mutually exclusive claims that cannot be reconciled.
This doesn’t mean we have to kill each other.
True tolerance hears each claim in all its boldness - shrugging off offense - and measures each with the question: “is this true” without having to pretend to “affirm” everything.
The title of this talk is a question: Is Jesus the only way? It’s a difficult question to address in our culture because religious pluralism has succeeded in deafening many of us to truth claims by an appeal to tolerance redefined. I hope I’ve at least re-opened your ears a bit or perhaps persuaded you to treat the exclusive truth claims of religious pluralism with the same skepticism you treat all truth claims.
So what of the specific Christian claim?
Is Jesus the only way?
You may have already guessed my answer. But my answer really doesn’t matter. The question alludes to a claim Jesus made:
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”(John14.6)
Consider the uniqueness of these words. Almost all other prophets, gurus, avatars, spiritual leaders promise to show you a walk to walk, a truth to believe, a life to live…to achieve some spiritual reward.
Jesus alone doesn’t do that.
He says: I’m not showing you the way. I’m not leading you to the truth. I’m not teaching you how to have life. I am those things.
I am life and its origin. I am truth and the measure of truth personified, enfleshed. There is no path to follow. I am the way.
Now right off the bat that means, Jesus doesn’t let you get away with what is still a fairly common assessment: “Jesus is a good teacher - like Mohammed, like Confucius, like the Buddha.
If I stood up here and said I’m the origin of life. I’m truth…what would you say? Hopefully, you’d cart me off. You wouldn’t say: Matt’s a good teacher.
As a CS Lewis pointed out: Jesus leaves you three options:
1. He’s crazy - like the cult leader who believes he’s God
2. He’s lying - like the cult leader who knows he’s not God but wants you to think he is.
3. His claims are true. He is who He says He is.
What do you say? Think about that question for a moment.
Jesus goes on to say:
“No one comes to the Father but through me.”
This second claim, once you see what Jesus means, may make you uncomfortable. All faiths recognize some divide between the divine and us. And all provide steps, disciplines, rituals, virtues etc. that if performed well will take you across that divide.
Jesus agrees that there’s a divide between humanity and God. But he doesn’t provide a discipline, a way of life, a practice.
A rich young man once approached Jesus and asked: “Good teacher, How do I attain eternal life?” Who knows what Jesus said?
“Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”(Mk 10:18)
Jesus wasn’t denying his divinity. He was correcting the man’s understanding of humanity.
Jesus is saying: Human beings are not “good”. No one is good but God. You might doubt that. What about Ghandi? Mother Theresa?
Well, Jesus is taking the young man back to Genesis. God originally made human beings to be good. God created us in his image - to reflect his goodness into world. But instead human beings turned inward - became focused on self and turned away from our Creator. With disastrous results.
When we cut ourselves off from God, we no longer had his life flowing into us, our hearts and minds became prone to, oriented toward selfishness and evil.
Maybe you don’t believe me.
Does everyone know what a conscience is? Would everyone here agree that you personally have one?
Your conscience directs you to follow what you know to be right. So, for example, if you believe stealing is wrong but you see something you want and start hatching a plan to take it, what happens? Your conscience starts pinging you.
So let me ask you to be very honest with me and with yourself for a moment. Who here has never done anything your conscience tells you is wrong?
Were we to ask Ghandi and Mother Theresa I’ll bet they’d give the same answer.
Why? Because no one is good but God.
In fact, I’d be willing to bet that you haven’t just violated your conscience once. I’d be willing to bet…if I were a gambling man…that if each and every one of you, myself included, were to commit tonight not to think a thought, say a word, or do a deed that violates your conscience you’d all break that vow before tomorrow morning…probably before you leave this building.
No one is good but God. You cannot trust yourself to do good.
So, now back to the point, if breaking through to the divine means - as every other religion suggests - living the good life, saying the right prayers in the right way, performing the right rites, pure meditation, etc - you’re hopeless.
If eternal reward depends on your capacity for moral/spiritual rectitude and holiness, then you’re hopeless and so am I.
Do you see why - if all of this is true - that Islam will not do, nor Buddhism, nor Judaism? All of them promise to give you some way to achieve the divine by your own effort and hard work - by your goodness.
Some of you maybe grew up in churches where you were taught that Jesus came to earth in order to provide an example for us. Now we must follow his example and be good. If we do so we will go to heaven. If not we will go to hell.
That’s not Christianity. That’s a lie. It is as false as every other religious claim.
No one is good but God. There’s nothing you and I can do to make ourselves good, right, holy, to lift ourselves to the heavens.
So that’s very depressing isn’t it? Well, not quite as depressing as you might think. After Jesus instructed the young man his disciples were depressed too. Who then, they asked, can ever be saved? Here’s what he said:
“With human beings this is impossible. But with God all things are possible.”(Mk 10:27)
Instead of humanity climbing up to God, breaking through the divide on our own steam which as we’ve seen is impossible, God comes down to us in Person. That person is Jesus of Nazareth who though fully human is also God.
God came in Jesus to do what we cannot do for us - to live perfectly, love perfectly, speak perfectly, do all things well - to be good on our behalf because we cannot do it. And then to pay the real consequences for all our failures and sins in his bodily death.
This is why Jesus says: I am the way and the truth and the life. This is why there is no way to the Father but through him. No other way will do because every other way depends on us.
So Jesus doesn’t give you a roadmap to God. No prayer, no chant, no list of good deeds. He is God and he looks you in the heart and doesn’t say: you must do this you must do that. He says: “I love you. I’ve come to bring you home with me. There’s no one else and no other way. Trust me. Follow me. I will do for you what you cannot and will not do for yourself.”
So now the question turns again to you. Who do you say Jesus is?
Do you think he’s self-delusional? Do you think he’s purposefully lying about himself, a megalomaniacal cult leader? Or do you believe him; that he is God become Man, the way the truth and the life? The only way to the Father?
Those are the choices he leaves you with.
But, you might wonder, why believe what Jesus says? What evidence is there that he’s not insane? that he’s not a liar? You’re just making assertions here.
The first ones to tell the world about Jesus answer that question. On the third day after he died and was buried, they all saw, touched and ate with Jesus again - not a ghost or a vision - a living breathing, human being who died and rose again. They made that claim publicly in the streets of Jerusalem a month after everyone saw Jesus killed and less than a mile away from the tomb in which everyone knew he’d been buried. If Jesus’ body were still in his tomb. If there were any way to demonstrate that these men were lying or deceived, Christianity would never have gotten off the ground. But here we are 2000 years later and the Tomb is still empty, Jesus is still alive and his claims and his call still stand.
Who do you say Jesus is?
Everything hinges on your answer to that question. You either live out the rest of your life striving to be good enough, believing that you can be good enough, to make it to heaven or Nirvanna or paradise or wherever.
Or you recognize tonight that no one is good but God, that you are not good. But that God himself loves you and has come to rescue you from yourself and your sins in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
So in just a moment I am going to pray to close out the talk. Afterwards there’s going to be a time for quiet reflection or prayer.
If you look around the room you’ll see there are people here to pray with you.
1. If you never have before and tonight you would like to surrender yourself and your own efforts, and commit your life to Jesus, after I’ve finished praying and during the reflection time, you can make your way to one of the prayer people in my left.
2. If you are a Christian and need prayer, maybe you grew up thinking that the gospel is: Jesus came to show us how to be good. Now I’ve got to be good like him to make it to heaven…and now you’re burdened by guilt and shame. The gospels is that Jesus came to do for you what you cannot do yourself. Go to those on my right
3. If neither then please take the time to pray quietly to yourself and reflect on what has been said.
Father, we thank you that when you saw our powerlessness, the sinfulness of our lives, the rebellion in our hearts, you didn’t forsake us. You didn’t leave us alone. You sent your only Son to do what we are powerless to do - to rescue us from ourselves, our sin, the passions and habits and desires that enslave us. I pray this evening for those who all of their lives have been taught and believed that the only way to be loved by you, is to be good—but who know they are not. I pray for all of those pursuing other religious paths, believing that if they follow them well they will be rewarded—but who know they do not follow them well. And I pray for the self-reliant, those who trust in themselves and believe in their own sufficiency. Lord Jesus, you are the way, the truth, the life. You alone are sufficient and good and holy. I pray that you will move in hearts and minds and souls tonight, draw people into your arms to find forgiveness, truth, life and love.
Thank you Father, for this evening and all that you have taught us in Jesus name, amen.
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