Monday, August 6, 2012
Is Christianity the One Right Way?
James McClendon (Ethics, 1984)
This question inevitably intersects a whole gamut of inconvenient truths for Christians (if they are, in fact, “truths”): the meaning of salvation, hell, a litmus test for heaven (who gets in and how does that happen), as well as the umbrella that hangs over all of them…interpreting the Bible. Over the past 400 years (or so), this question has assumed only 2 possible answers: either (a) Yes, Christianity is the Absolute Truth…and all other faiths/religions are (in some way) “false”; or (b) No, Christianity is only one of many paths to Truth (or “roads to heaven,” as I was taught, growing up within the Evangelical tradition, to cynically denounce). Fortunately, I believe that there have to be more possible answers to this multiple choice question.
I propose that the most compelling answer is actually a combination of a question (c) Which brand of “Christianity” are we actually talking about?; and a contentious statement (d) At the present moment, there is not a Judge who emphatically tells us what is Right or wrong so “the One Right Way” can only be judged by how it is embodied.
In regards to (c), there is simply not (nor has there ever been) One Kind of Christianity. From very early on, Christianity has had a variety of perspectives on what the life, teachings, service, death and resurrection of Jesus meant: Mark, Matthew, Luke, John (and others who didn’t make the final cut for eternal induction into the Bible). Taking it a step closer to home, within recent 20th century American history, the 2 most popular & profound Christian leaders—Martin Luther King & Billy Graham—had massively different visions of what Christian discipleship was.
This has never been truer than in our present historic moment: Baptists, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, non-denominational Evangelicalism, Presbyterian, Episcopalian/Anglican, Anabaptist, United Methodist, etc, etc, etc. To make this personal, my pacifism and vegetarianism derive from my Christian discipleship. This makes me a tiny minority within the worldwide Body of Christ. This leads us to (d).
Who stands as the Judge to say what is Right and wrong? For my first two decades of Christian discipleship, I was taught that the Judge is the Bible which can be self-evidently quoted (“proof-texted”) to say that this thing called “Christianity” is the only way to heaven: “I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father but through me.” (the words of Jesus in John 14:6) This is nothing but a classic case of circular reasoning (We know “Christianity” is the One Right Way because the Bible says so. We can trust the Bible because it is the Absolute Truth. We know the Bible is the Absolute Truth because the Bible says so. And besides, we do not worship a God of confusion but of clarity.).
The past few decades of internet globalization has wonderfully exposed the shortcomings of both a self-evident Bible and the attainability of Absolute Truth. The Bible is always interpreted. And as much as we believe the Spirit of God is inspiring our own interpretations, we can google that Bible verse and find that a whole lot of (brilliantly educated and devout) Christians interpreting quite differently than our own! On top of that, the beliefs and actions of Christian individuals and communities have been exposed as well. War, patriarchy, economic inequality and ecological devastation have all been justified on the basis of Biblical interpretation (which conveniently masks ethnic and economic self-interest).
The past 400 years of Christian colonization has wreaked massive death and disease and dehumanization literally all over the globe. Christian voices (like Bartolome de las Casas and Roger Williams) seeking to protect indigenous peoples from abuse & slavery (etc) were few and far between. The point here is that Christianity is a mixed bag. There are many compelling beliefs and actions (that cluster around virtues like mercy, compassion, sacrificial service, humility, peace) and some (the justification of war, patriarchy, economic exploitation, homophobia, racism) that have understandably kept millions from going anywhere near a church building. I’m specifically referring to what Christians teach & believe (what they are attempting sincerely to live out) as opposed to the well-chronicled hypocrisy of Christians “believing” one thing and “doing” another.
So, is Christianity the One Right Way? I believe that something unique and magnificent happened in the life and teachings of a 1st century blue-collar Palestinian. Jesus of Nazareth powerfully gave voice to a prophetic strand of “believers” throughout history that proclaim that God cannot be contained (and obtained) in buildings or rituals, but instead God is experienced through intentional acts of kindness, generosity, compassion and service towards those with the least status (often called “sinners” or “impure” or “unclean”) and power within a given society. This God revealed in Jesus is nonviolent and gracious and always calling us into loving union.
Jesus called for “believers” to stop going through the religious motions and beckoned his followers to undergo a risky renewal of the heart that completely shifted the paradigm of conventional wisdom. People reflect the Divinity when they love their enemies, refuse violence, forgive, share their possessions and courageously live for justice and mercy, refusing apathy, cynicism and indifference. Following Jesus’ own model, we must die to our false selves— the hedonistic, image-obsessed, narcissistic, grasping-for-more-wealth-&-power instincts in all of us. In the end, Jesus’ untimely execution on the cross served as a rebuke to the time-honored practice of scapegoating others in order to do away with pain, shame and guilt.
I believe that various brands of Christianity & various faiths/spiritualities/religions reflect the One Right Way when they embody mercy, forgiveness, humble service and nonviolence in their teachings and lifestyle. I believe this is True because when I read about it and see it and experience it Something stirs inside of me that is hard to describe. This is not a burning in the bosom, but a feeling of real substance that we are not alone and that Life is meaningful and worth living. These virtues and practices are not entertaining or amusing, but fulfilling and sustaining. They are experienced through discipline & hard work and result in joy and peace. They nourish the Soul in every human being. Those of us who commit to living the prophetic way of Jesus—whether Buddhist or Baptist, Muslim or Mormon, Hindu or Humanist—are a leaven in the loaf of the world.
In my own spiritual journey, it was both the baggage of my own conservative Evangelical Christian roots and the unique and compelling convictions of Anabaptist Christianity that I was exposed to at Fuller Theological Seminary that led to my own conversion to the Anabaptist way. These “radical” reformers had their roots in southern Germany and Switzerland in the early 16th century. The Anabaptists believe in a strict separation of church and state (real faith is never coercive), an adamant refusal to use violence of any sort, a resistance to hierarchical power structures, a life of simplicity and the generous sharing of possessions. These Mennonites and Quakers have been and continue to be a minority report within Western Christianity and have been consistently and brutally persecuted over the past 5 centuries. You can see, for me, how strange the question “Is Christianity the One Right Way” is! There is simply no such thing as one coherent religion called “Christianity.” Never has been. Never will be.
Although we are rooted in the Anabaptist Christian tradition, my wife and I continue to glean from others faith traditions. Mindfulness meditation of Buddhist and other Eastern spiritualities is becoming more a consistent practice for us. When we breathe in solitude and silence, we take note of the movements of our minds and it transforms us into more aware and awake human beings that will extend grace and love towards every living being (including ourselves). Native American spiritualities have magnified an appreciation for Mother Earth, the ongoing act of creation and the interconnectedness of all Life. God’s gifts are everywhere, providing for our sustenance and well-being. Yet, these blessings of nature ought to be used, not abused, for the well-being of the Whole. When we take time to listen to these other voices of God, the One Right Way becomes easier to see and a smoother path to travel.
It is vital, I believe wholeheartedly, for all people of faith and conscience to rebuke both absolutism (“my religion is the One Right Way”) and relativism (“all religious roads lead to God”). To claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the once-and-for-all One Right Way to God and salvation does not allow for the ongoing human interpretation of what the life, teachings and death of Jesus actually means. It does not take into account how religious experience shapes people, local communities and the world at large. An “our way or the highway” approach to faith is either arrogant or ignorant. On the other hand, not all spiritual paths are equally legitimate. Even a cursory understanding of history reveals that many types of religious experience has been literally deadly for far too many. Only a critical analysis of how religions are actually fleshed out can lead to compelling choices about which of them are truly life-giving. This ought to be a litmus test for the One Right Way.