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Is Jesus the Only Way to God?

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The short answer is "No." But there was a time when I would've said, "Yes!" even as I struggled with significant doubt.

A little background.

I was raised in an evangelical Southern Baptist tradition. From my earliest days, I was taught that Jesus himself insisted, "I am the way ... no one comes to God except by me" (John 14:6). Virtually everyone I knew in the little world where I was raised believed in Jesus. Furthermore, they believed if you did not believe in Jesus, you would meet with a destiny far worse than that meted out by Tony Montana's infamous "little friend" in "Scarface." If anyone ever actually questioned this belief, they were not likely to admit it in public.

I remember raising the question very early in life and, given my rather remarkable childhood and adolescence, I suppose for good reason. But instead of dealing with it, I carried the question with me -- along with other, equally troublesome questions -- through college, seminary and 20 years as a pastor. I never publicly admitted to having doubts or questions largely because, in the fundamental, evangelical culture I served, such admissions were tantamount to career suicide. People believed then and, unfortunately many still do, that the church was a place you went to get the answers to your questions, not vice versa.

My father was a Baptist minister and my mother was the traditional stay-at-home mom. Well, sort of. In those days, few women worked outside the home and ministers' wives almost never did. Mother was an entrepreneur, however, and many would label a non-conformist. She never warmed to the stereotypes that minister's wives should keep silent, stay at home, have babies and rear them. So, she only succeeded on two of these fronts. She give birth to three children -- my two brothers and me. And she reared us well.

In those days, ministers were not normally paid much. They were given a parsonage to live in instead, which was supposed to justify the lower salary. So Mother got creative and found a way to earn money, which enabled the family to take enviable vacations every year -- vacations my friends could only ever imagine.

Mother became a tour director and a good one. She would plan and organize tours abroad and then both of my parents would jointly lead them. At age 12, I made my first trip to Europe and the Middle East. By the time I graduated college, however, I had been to Europe and the Middle Eastern countries more times than I can remember and the Scandinavian countries, as well as Russia and the far Eastern countries, on at least two different occasions. One year, we traveled around the world in 30 days.

That was the year I visited Rome with our mostly Baptist tour group. I had never been around Roman Catholics. To me, they were people of another religion entirely. I knew about as much of them as most Christians do Muslims today. So you can imagine the impact it had on me to stand in St. Peter's Square, to stroll through the Museum in Vatican City, and to observe the Renaissance architecture and frescos in the Sistine Chapel. Our Baptist group was even granted an audience with Pope Paul himself. When I tell my Catholic friends this, they usually laugh with disbelief. "How could," they try to imagine, "a virtually unknown group of Baptists be granted an audience with the Pope?" It's all in who you know, however. If you're interested in the rest of that story, you'll have to read my book.

That was also the year we visited several countries in the East including Thailand and Nepal. While I have multiple memories, two are remarkable. One memory is that of the Thai men who would sit together in the marketplaces of Bangkok, discussing their politics and conversation, while smoking tobacco through water pipes. At least, I was told it was tobacco. The other is that of the Buddhist monks who wore saffron-colored robes and gathered in and around the stupas and Buddhist temples. Stupas are places of worship and they are more numerous in Thailand than drugstores in America.

Of particular interest to me were those who sat as the Buddha sits in meditation. Our guide said some of the monks had been in silence and meditation for days. I watched in disbelief, certain that at any moment one or more of them would move or flinch with discomfort or boredom. But they never did. To the contrary, they seem perfectly content, happy and at peace. Their discipline of spiritual devotion was foreign to me. Not even among the most devout of Christians had I ever witnessed anything that compared to it. And although I was just an adolescent and thoroughly self-absorbed, I recall the offense I felt when one of the Christians in our group morosely muttered: "Look at those poor monks sitting there day-in-and-day-out and for what? If only they knew my Jesus they would be saved and go to heaven when they die."

That might have been the first occasion when I questioned the religious assumptions of my own Christian tradition. On one side of me was the Thai guide explaining that Buddhists had been practicing their faith for several hundred years before the birth of Christ; Hindus much longer, some say a thousand or more years. Standing on the other side, however, was the Christian woman from our group feeling justified in her arrogance, condescension and exclusivist attitude. I thought to myself, "How dare you? How can you be so certain that we're right and they're wrong? So what if it turns out they're right and you're wrong?"

The longer I thought about it, other questions came to my mind: "Had you or I been born in Thailand rather than America, there is a high probability we would be Buddhists today, not Christians. So how is it that our 'luck of birthplace', so to speak, and their lack of luck, makes us more deserving of God than they?"

It would be many years later before I could either verbalize these questions or admit them publicly. I knew that, if I ever did, I would face rejection from many Christians, even wrath. It would take a series of life-changing events to bring me to a place where my questions and admissions were no longer mandated or managed by the opinions or beliefs of others. So, while I've received some hate mail from Christians calling me a heretic, the majority of people have written to say, "I have long felt the way you describe in your book and blogs but have wondered if I'm not alone. Thank you for giving me permission to affirm my own faith while respecting all others."

So today, when I am asked, "Is Jesus the only way to God?" my response is, "He's my way." But, is he the only way? I suspect our Baha'i friends have it right, when they say, "One mountain, many paths."

The following are some of my perspectives today. I like to call them perspectives instead of beliefs because that feels a little less rigid and unchanging.

Christians (and I include myself among them) have long misread and so misinterpreted the meaning of Jesus when he said, "I am the way..." (John 14:6). We have mistakenly assumed Jesus was pointing to himself as "the only way to the Father." Instead, he was saying that his way -- that is, his life, his teachings, the way he thought and so lived --when followed, would result in an abundant, eternal life.

You can believe as I did that Jesus is the only way to God and so vigorously defend this belief with anyone who would question it. But believing this will not make one iota of difference in either how you think or in how you live. I know this from my own experience. It isn't what you say about Jesus that changes anything, much less your life. Change will only ever occur when you walk in the "way of Jesus." You might say, for example, "I believe the Buddha is the Messiah, even the only Messiah" and so argue with anyone who would question your belief. But until you know and so practice the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold path, you will see no difference in how you think or the way you live.

Jesus said, "Follow me." You miss the point, however, if you think he's inviting you to "Believe in me and so make confessional statements about me that you not only believe but that you insist others must believe or else." That in and of itself is contrary to the very spirit and compassion of Jesus' life, love and openness to all people. What Jesus is saying instead is simply this: "Follow me. I'll show you how to think, how to feel about yourself, what it means to know God, what it means to love and forgive those who wrong you. In fact, I'll show you how to love so much you'd be willing to lay down your life for another -- even for your enemies."

This is what it means to be Christian. When I finally gave up believing "the things I knew weren't so," as Mark Twain used to frame it -- things that were mostly just words, propositional statements -- and I took up the path of genuinely following Jesus, only then did my life begin to change. God became real to me. Furthermore, I found that by learning the spiritual truth inherent in all pathways to a divine life, I discovered a greater richness in and appreciation for that of my own.

Do any of us have the right to reject the truth in another tradition without first knowing the tradition and what it actually teaches? How can Christians, for example, reject the Islamic faith but be unable to tell you the first thing a Muslim believes? Or worse, I know Christians so threatened by Muslims, instead of discovering for themselves what Muslims believe, they'll read some propagandist book written by an equally insecure Christian whose only interest is in proving the other tradition is wrong and Christianity is right. What kind of honesty is there in this?

America is now the most religiously diverse nation in the world. When I was a child, the big question was whether a Catholic (JFK) could/should be elected to the presidency. This upcoming election could decide whether a Mormon will lead. As America becomes increasingly diverse (and it will) two things will likely occur. One is that frightened Christian fundamentalists will cling more and more to their beliefs and so cluster in groups of likeminded behind mega-church walls. There, they will pray and, with greater frequency, predict the end of the world. Since they have failed to save it, they will long more and more to leave it.

Meanwhile, and secondly, these Christians with their narrow beliefs and even narrower minds will become marginalized from a society seeking ways to preserve a democracy in a religiously diverse culture. In the near future, for example, it is not inconceivable that Americans will be choosing their next president between candidates who are not Christian at all -- or perhaps have no faith tradition whatsoever. The question is, "Is our democracy strong enough to survive this?"

We'll see. What is certain is this: the insanity between religions must end, as well as the competition and exclusivity. We are a people of many faiths and our greatest contribution to this democracy -- to God's humanity -- is to model for the world what it means to live with compassion for all people, to affirm the oneness of the human race, and to respect and preserve the diversity within it.

When Cain slew Abel, God asked Cain where his brother was. Cain responded, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Wrong question. Cain is the brother. Jews are Christians are Muslims are Buddhists are Hindus are agnostics are atheists are, well, you get the point. The very survival of humanity is at stake.