Rev. Jim Burklo is Associate Dean of Religious Life at University of Southern California. He is also the author of Birdlike and Barnless: Meditations, Prayers and Songs for Progressive Christians. Rev. Burklo is on the board of The Center for Progressive Christianity and blogs at Musings.
The Bible and Religious Pluralism
It’s a common assumption that in order to be Christian, a person must believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation and that Christianity is superior to all other religions. Progressive Christianity spreads the good news that there is a way to be Christian without making this claim. There is a way to follow the Christ while honoring the possibility that followers of other religions are also led to the love that is God.
Certain Bible passages are often used to suggest that Christianity is the only way to God. The best-known is John 14:6, where Jesus is quoted as saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” Another is John 11: 25-26: “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.”
Good news: there is a way to interpret such passages which liberates them from religious chauvinism. The “I am” passages in John may be Jesus’ poetic expressions of mystical experience in which his personality and ego fell away and the only reality he sensed was that of God. If this is how we understand the passages, then when Jesus said “I am the way … no one comes to the Father, but by me”, this may mean that the way to God was to become one with God, as Jesus did. It may mean that we do not get to God through dogma or doctrine, but rather through mystical union with God, an experience shared by mystics of many religions throughout history.
Other passages in the Bible provide helpful language to express religious pluralism. Philippians 2:5-7 is a beautiful expression of the humility of the Christ: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” We might well ask: how can the religion of an empty man get so full of itself that it would claim to be the only true faith?
Christians who immerse themselves in the spiritual practices of their tradition and follow Jesus with acts of selfless service to others discover that they have very much more in common with serious practitioners of other religions than they have differences. While these differences exist, and should be respected, they are trivial compared to the shared spiritual experiences of people across religious boundaries.