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Please note: this is from the 2003 8 Points version not our current 2011 version.

We will be updating this study guide soon!

By calling ourselves progressive, we mean that we are Christians who recognize the faithfulness of other people who have other names for the way to God’s realm, and acknowledge that their ways are true for them, as our ways are true for us.

This approach to religious and cultural differences can be called “pluralism”, but that identification can be confusing because the word has two distinct meanings.  Pluralism can refer to a condition of a particular society in which diverse ethnic and religious groups maintain their traditions and autonomy.  Or pluralism can mean a policy of promoting such a condition for the common good.  Although the Bible does not discuss pluralism in either sense of the word, many passages suggest that the writers and editors of scripture accepted the reality of the condition.  For example, the verse known as the first of the Ten Commandments reads:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other Gods before me.  (Exodus 20:2-3)

Each of the tribes among whom the people of Israel lived had its own god, and the Lord’s people were admonished to be loyal to their own God.  Over the centuries, however, the idea emerged that the Lord they worshiped was not simply the God of their tribe, but the ruler of the universe who embraced even the people who did not know the Lord by name.  So it was that a prophet could call Cyrus, King of Persia, the Lord’s messiah (Isaiah 45:1).  At the same time, Jews thought of themselves as being in a special relationship with the universal God.  They were the “chosen people”.

The early Christians displayed some ambivalence toward the religious diversity of the Roman Empire in which they found themselves.  As a tiny sect within the empire, they profited to some extent by the official policy of pluralism, but they never embraced the policy as a matter of doctrine.  Instead, they developed the notion that they had replaced the Jews as God’s chosen ones.  With the rise of Islam, the western world had yet a third group of people claiming to be the people favored by the universal God.  If history has any lessons to teach, one lesson surely must be that people claiming special access to God have a tendency to justify their hatred and oppression of anyone who does not affirm their beliefs and traditions.

A few years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that said:  “God is too big for one religion.”  As appropriate as this statement may seem to progressive Christians today, this idea has not been a traditional part of Christian teaching over the centuries.  Although it is often argued that there is biblical foundation for the idea that Christianity is the only way that one can have a relationship with God or experience salvation. In the New Testament, this is not as clear as the church may have suggested over the centuries.  There is little evidence in the “synoptic gospels” (Matthew, Mark, Luke) that Jesus was trying to begin a new religion or was even calling for converts to what some recognize as his “brand” of Judaism.  To the contrary, his relationship with the Samaritans and other gentiles seems to indicate an openness and pluralistic attitude that would have been unusual for a first century Jew.

It is true that the author of John’s gospel does place the following words in Jesus’ mouth: “I am the way, and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) It is important to remember, however, that these words were written for a religious sect that was a persecuted minority cult, struggling for survival in the first century. Those same words, written with a specific purpose, would have had a very different feel for the first century Christian than they do in contemporary times.  However, since the fourth century and the advent of “Christendom,” these words and other quotations from the book of John have been used by the church and the state as a source of power and control through their exclusive nature. Christianity and “correct belief” were the only way that one could find salvation. The church became the exclusive broker for tickets to heaven.

Today with our awareness of black holes, post quantum physics, multiple dimensions and multiple and expanding universes, it is impossible to believe that any one religion could have the whole picture or the correct understanding of God, let alone have an exclusive path to that God.  To suggest anything else would be at best, arrogant. More importantly, many Christians today find that learning about other religions and even encompassing some practices from these traditions has enhanced their understanding of their own religion, has augmented to their personal religious experiences and deepened their faith.

Important as it is for Christians to be clear and positive about what they stand for, the time has come for followers of Jesus to embrace pluralism as a necessary condition for a peaceful and just society.

We may find a certain comfort in believing that “our” way is the only way.  This is a natural part of any cultic religious experience.  Far greater faith is required, however, to seek and trust that which you accept as infinite, beyond your comprehension, and subject to change.  Today, this just may be the challenge of an educated and thinking Christian — to retain a faith “in face of the mystery.” (Gordon D. Kaufman, Ph.D.)

1. What does the word “faith” mean for you?

2. How does the awareness, knowledge and appreciation of other approaches help us better understand Jesus and his teachings as a way to approach to God’s realm?

3. What are some of the common grounds that we have with people of different faith experiences?

4. What does the term “child of one God” mean for you?  What are the implications?