There is no doubt that 21st century America is more religiously diverse than any previous century. This may be due mostly to the 1965 Immigration Act that abolished an immigration policy that was exclusive to European immigrants.
But our knowledge of other religions has also grown; although such knowledge is mostly deficient and uninformed. Because of education, the media and personal encounters with people of other faiths, we, more than any other generation of Americans, are conscious of other religions.
Yet, while encounters with these religions have brought a rich cultural experience to most people, they have also opened serious questions about faith and truth. The most significant question might be whether we can continue to view Christianity as the only true religion.
The view that Christianity is the only true religion has prevailed in the West since the outlawing of other religions in the Roman Empire under Emperor Theodosius in the fourth century and the dominance of the Medieval Roman Catholic Church that claimed that there was no salvation outside the church.
This view continued in the Protestant traditions that originated during and after the Reformation, and it still exists in many churches today.
To be sure, not all religions are the same. There are significant differences about how we understand God, how we understand humanity and how humans respond to God. But at the heart of the major world religions is a yearning to relate to something beyond the material world, beyond our human existence. The human desire to know God is also a desire to know ourselves, and to know how we are to live as humans are intended.
Likewise, at the heart of these religions is the desire to create a more compassionate and just world that battles against the powers of evil and oppression. Certainly there are adherents from every religion that commit acts of evil in the name of God, but just as we cannot prove that one religion is more evil than the others, so we cannot prove that one religion is morally superior or truer than the others.
One argument that Christianity is the only true religion is the claim that it is the only way to get to heaven. But this assumes that the primary reason for being Christian, or an adherent to any religion, is so that we will make it to heaven. Getting to heaven, however, is a very minute part of what it means to be Christian. Being Christian is about being in a relationship with God and living as a person of love, goodness and justice; virtues which other religions also seek.
Another argument that Christianity is the only true religion is that Jesus made statements such as “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the father except through me” (John 14:6).
These kinds of declarations are few in the Bible and they must be understood in the context of Jesus’ work to create a community apart from the religious establishment. Jesus was working within the parameters of Jewish monotheism, but he was establishing an alternative way of being faithful to God that was removed from the formal practices of Judaism.
If the above is true, then why be Christian? I can only answer from my perspective, but perhaps some of you will share these ideas with me.
First, I am a Christian because for me Jesus presents an authentic way of being human. His life was devoted to liberating those who were oppressed, to challenging the political and religious powers that oppressed people and to seeking God through the practice of the spiritual disciplines of worship, prayer and reflection.
Second, I am Christian because it offers to me a community of faith in which I find meaning and direction. Whether I decide to be Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian or any other brand of Christian, I am making a choice to be a member of a community where my faith can be nurtured and challenged. Could I find these things in other religions? I am sure that I would. But instead of shopping around for another way to know God, I prefer to explore more deeply how I can know God through my own faith.
What then is the purpose of evangelism? Christianity has always sought new believers, following the missionary character of Israel’s God and the commands of Jesus. My view of Christianity’s relationship to other religions is not necessarily mutually exclusive to a belief in the missionary purposes of the church, as long as we have a proper understanding of evangelism.
Simply put, Christians are not called to covert people to their particular religion. Rather, Christians are called to bear witness to the love and character of God in the world, and at the same time, witness the love and character of God in people of other faiths.
Drew Smith, an ordained Baptist minister, is director of international programs at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Ark. He blogs at Wilderness Preacher.