Views of Other Religions
This came up in my small group last week (specifically about in what way if any the Holy Spirit is in or is speaking to non-Christians) and again in my pneumatology course a couple of days later. One of the frequent questions that Christians in the past hundred years have had to ask is: what about other religions? When I was an Alpha leader, this was listed as one of the 7 big questions that come up on pretty much every running of the course. Are other religions (maybe I should say worldviews as I also mean atheists/agnostics) completely wrong? Or are they all equal? Or somewhere in between? Here’s how the World Council of Churches in 2010 summarized the different views held by Christians:
- Other religions and ideologies are wholly false; non-Christian religions are the work of the devil and demonic cunning.
- Other religions are a preparation for Christ (which the gospel fulfills; this was the view of Edinburgh 1910 [the first meeting of the World Council of Churches]); there are essential values in other religions.
- An understanding, emphasised by Orthodox theologians, of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in creation, culture and religions.
- The Roman Catholic view of the world religions as concentric circles (with the Catholic Church as the centre)
- Karl Rahner’s [a Catholic theologian] view of non-Christian religions as the means through which God’s salvation in Christ will reach those who have not been reached by the Gospel (‘anonymous Christians’)
- The view that religions are worlds in themselves, with their own structures and worldviews. They face in different directions and ask different questions. The gospel relates differently to Islam than it does to Hinduism or Buddhism. And the differences are for real. Other religions are not a sort of reduced copy of Christianity or simply echoes of Christianity’s own voice.
I think that’s a pretty good summary of the views I’ve heard, but if it’s missing anything major than sound off in the comments. My own view would probably actually not be that far off from the fourth bullet – the Roman Catholic view – except that I’d replace the religion/institution at the centre with the person of Jesus. Because of that it does kind of shatter a lot of other aspects of it because you can never really know who is close to that centre even without calling themselves Christians (so a bit of Rahner’s view too) and who can be really connected to the Christian religion but not be even close to Jesus. I also wouldn’t have a problem with the Orthodox view or the preparation for the Gospel view, and would really only outright disagree with the more extreme ones at the beginning and the end of that list. But generally I do like the circular idea where some are much closer to Jesus than others – that just seems like an honest evaluation of the world to me. And considering I’d answer the question What is the Gospel? essentially with “Jesus” then I definitely think that those who are closer to Jesus are better off.
Therefore my conclusion is that the Christian religion is no better than any other religion, but that Jesus is much better than any religion, moving us beyond religion. So the whole question is somewhat missing the point. Often quoted especially by those in the exclusivist camp is John 14:6 where Jesus says “I am the way, the truth and the life. Nobody comes to the Father except through me.” It is usually quoted as why the Christian religion is better than any other religion. That is the complete opposite of what I think Jesus was saying. I think he was saying that there is no need for religion. If Jesus is God, as the same book of John tells us regularly (and it’s in other books although not as bluntly) and as most Christians throughout history have affirmed in some way, then what Jesus is saying is that the way to God is God. The way to himself is himself. Sounds like a pretty pointless statement, but to me it is noteworthy because it is saying what the way to God is not: generally anything that we’d call religion, whether that’s a prayer or a sacrifice or a ritual or being a part of the right community or any other “way”. Maybe what Jesus meant was that really there isn’t a “way” to God because you can go to God directly.