“Be sure to tell everyone that there is only one way to heaven, and Jesus is the Way,” some of our self-identified Christian friends told my wife and me before we left on an interfaith trip to Turkey two years ago.
I’m sure that message would have gone over well with our Muslim hosts! We chose not to deliver it. Now it appears that most American Christians wouldn’t have delivered it, either.
The surprising findings of a survey announced this week by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life show that those who push an exclusive brand of religion do not speak for a majority of American Christians. Fully 70 percent of Americans with a religious affiliation said they believe many religions can lead to eternal life, and, despite common knowledge to the contrary, 57 percent of those who attend evangelical churches agreed that theirs is not the only way to heaven.
These results are refreshing. We can hope they will convince the media to stop lionizing such people as Pat Robertson, James Dobson, and the late Jerry Falwell as representatives of American Christianity.
These leaders are no longer as influential as they have advertised themselves to be, and perhaps they never were. But the intolerant voices on the “Christian Right” are forceful, and they remain a power to be reckoned with and a danger to free society. Their leaders resent people who threaten their position by thinking differently; fearing pluralism, they embrace its opposite: singularism. “It’s my way to the high place, or the highways to hell” is the one thing upon which singularist adherents to various religions agree.
Roger Williams, the theologian and co-founder of Rhode Island, identified the problem with this approach in 1670: “forc’t Worshpp stincks in Gods nostrils.”
The Pew survey indicates that most people accept that there are many routes to heaven, and many road maps to follow, and that reaching the divine destination depends less on which road is chosen than on how one drives along the way. The reckless drivers on their separate one-way roads to heaven, blinders on and pedal to the metal, inevitably crash into others at each intersection with another heavenly highway.
Many genuine Jesus Followers, along with pluralists in other faiths, are working to build bridges between the different routes, but the singularists in Christianity and Islam continue their plots to blow them up.
Christian evangelism should seek to spread the teachings of Jesus, which are universal in their lessons of love and patience, rather than the stories and rituals particular to Christianity. Even as the monotheistic religions posit that God is Singular, they should accept that there are plural ways by which He/She can be believed in and worshipped. God is a pluralist.
A wonderful, inclusive religious declaration was made by Sly Stone forty years ago:
Makes no difference what group I’m in . . .
Different strokes for different folks . . .
At last, it appears that most American Christians are accepting this wisdom. They realize that, as Sly says, sometimes I can be wrong and we have to live together.
My favorite image of the relationship of various religions to the Ultimate Truth is a wagon wheel with the Truth as the hub at the center and the different religions as the spokes on the wheel, each looking towards the same Divine Truth, but approaching it from different directions.
Different spokes for different folks.
Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College in Jackson, Miss. Read an excerpt from his latest book, “Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America” (Crown).