Lunchbar: Don’t all religions lead to God?

Lunchbar yesterday was on the question of “Don’t all religions lead to God?” – certainly a topical question raised by the discussion I went to on Wednesday. I thought the speaker dealt with the topic well – making several points that I think bring a lot of clarity to this discussion:

The Elephant is not silent

If you’ve read or heard anything about whether all religions lead to God or not, chances are you’ve heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The moral of the story is that all religions have a bit of the truth, and none of them can pretend to have the whole truth. Religious teachers are like blind men describing the bit of the elephant they are in contact with, but none of them realise the whole truth about God. The problem with this parable is that it is told from the point of view of someone who can see, and realises that the elephant is an elephant and not a wall, rope or tree. The moral relies on the assumption that it is we who are in the position of true knowledge and can see that which the adherents of any one religion cannot see – that they are really all describing the same God, despite their protestations to the contrary. But how are we in this position? How can we have our eyes opened to see what the elephant is? To be in this position of knowledge, we actually need God to reveal himself – while he has done decisively and definitively in Jesus Christ.

The Mountain can’t be climbed

Another common parable is that where the various religions are like many paths all going to the summit of the same mountain. Again, the problem is – how can we know this? To someone on any of the paths, they are in no position of vantage to see whether any of the other paths are going the same way that they are going; it is only visible to someone in a helicopter hovering over the mountain and looking at the different people walking along different paths. These kinds of parables are often thought to typify a humble approach to religious truth by saying that we are all really going towards the same God. But are we really being humble to claim that we have such a position of wisdom and knowledge that none of the adherents of various religions have?

Much more damagingly, this parable implies that it isn’t really that hard to get to know God – it’s just a mountain we can climb up by our own efforts, oin whatever way we like. But this isn’t the case. We often treat the idea of knowing God like it’s paying a visit to our grandparents – we can just turn up whenever and they aren’t going to turn us away. In fact, it is more like going to visit the Queen: we can’t just rock up at Buckingham Palace whenever we feel like it, but it can only happen on her terms, at the time and place she has appointed. In the same way, we can only approach God on his terms.

The trouble is that none of us are good enough for God to accept us – he is holy and we are not. Even if we consider ourselves to be very good – we don’t really realise how we stand before God. Our good deeds don’t outweigh the bad – it’s as if a husband were to say to his wife on their first anniversary “Honey, I’ve been such a good husband; I’ve been faithful to you 364 days this year.” Does that make up for the one day he was unfaithful? No! And with us and God, it’s more like we’ve been faithful one day a year and unfaithful the other 364. We can’t be accepted by God by ourselves; the mountain can’t be climbed. Which is why we need God’s rescue provided in Jesus Christ.

Tolerance

One of the questions which was asked by the audience was whether a Christian society would be a tolerant one. The speaker’s answer highlighted an important point about the nature of tolerance. There are essentially two types of tolerance – the classical kind where we defend the right of people to hold beliefs with which we disagree, and the pluralist kind where we feel unable to disagree with any beliefs, and hold them all to be equally valid. The second definition of tolerance is ultimately self-defeating, as we must hold all beliefs to be equally valid, except the belief that all beliefs are not equally valid. Hoever, a view of tolerance compatible with Christianity is the classical view, and commends coexistence with other religions without condoning those other faiths’ beliefs or practises. It is in this way that a Christian society is tolerant.

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