There is this billboard I drive by quite often. It is a depiction of Jesus crucified. The caption reads, in part, “Your ONLY way to God.” The message is pretty clear. Either you accept and believe in Jesus Christ, or you will not find God. As you know, I am a minister of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I have experienced the redemptive work of Jesus and believe in him as the Son of God. In fact, I’ve bet my life on the truth that Jesus revealed in his life and ministry, his death and resurrection. One might think I would appreciate that billboard.
To the contrary, that billboard offends me.
There are at least three reasons for its offensiveness. For starters there is a certain arrogance in the message. A kind of smugness that Christians have the truth and no one else does. It speaks of certainty, which is the opposite of faith. I mean, if you are absolutely certain about something, where is the need for faith? And isn’t faith the core of Christian belief? The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews thought that when writing, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
Assurance and conviction do not equate with certainty.
Secondly, there is the implication about God’s ability to act in the world that puts limits on God’s activity. Are you telling me that God is only able to be present in the world through Christians? Really? That’s like saying there is only one tree that is really a tree. All the other trees are fake. It’s like saying there is only one way to make salsa, and if you don’t make it my way, well, then, you’re not making salsa at all.
(For the record, I’ve never had a bad salsa here in the valley! And I’ve never tasted any two that were alike.)
No, the idea that Christianity is the only way to God and therefore the only way to salvation doesn’t make sense when thought through critically. Which leads to my third reason. Huston Smith calls it the “Protestant Principle.” Smith writes, ““Stated philosophically, it warns against absolutizing the relative. Stated theologically, it warns against idolatry.” (Excerpt From: Huston Smith. “The World's Religions, Revised and Updated.” iBooks.)
You see, the billboard message relies on a literal, absolute understanding of a passage in scripture, the Gospel of John to be precise. The Protestant Principle resists such an interpretation on the grounds that while God is clearly involved in human history, the absolutizing of scripture or sacraments or dogmas is not God. Everything we say and do is an interpretation of our experience. To make our experience absolute ignores all other experience, and leads to idolatry. God is in history but not of history. God is infinite; we are not.
Who are we to confine God to act only in ways we think are appropriate? That would be a rather small God. The Bible is not some object that is locked into both time and space. It is the living Word of God, and that means it is inviting us to new, creative things. In matters of faith Christians may disagree on the answers, but we must still allow for the asking of questions.
Christianity began because of people’s experience of Jesus. It was an experience, and experiences are sometimes hard to explain. It takes time. It takes conversation and questioning, and sharing of one’s experiences with others, contrasting and comparing.
It took Christians almost four hundred years to come up with the Bible we read today. We must always be on guard, lest we make an idol of it.