Getting to the Top of the Mountain

Two events collided last week that have kept me thinking.  One was our third inter-faith conversation with Rabbi Hanan Schelsinger and Imam Yahya Abdullah.  We talked about the impact of Jesus on our respective faiths as a Christian, a Jew and a Muslim. As I prepared and then presented my remarks, I was mindful of what Raymond Brown (the British Evangelical Biblical Theologian and not the American Catholic Biblical Theologian) said about affirming the uniqueness of Christ in a Pluralistic setting in his commentary on the New Testament book of Hebrews –

 It is important to emphasize in an age of religious pluralism that the letter to the Hebrews is a constant reminder of the necessity of God’s salvation in Jesus Christ.  However sensitive one chooses to be to the claims of other religions, it is impossible for any serious student of the New Testament to escape what has been called “the scandal of particularity.  By this phrase we refer to those clear and uncompromising assertions of New Testament Scripture that the only way we can come to God the father id through Jesus Christ His Son (John 14:6).  Other religions may testify most eloquently to man’s basic spiritual needs, but the Christian Gospel asserts that only in Christ can those needs by met (Acts 4:12).   In a day when many people may try to discern some form of acceptable syncretism, whereby Christ and His Gospel become merely one expression among others of the idea of salvation, Hebrews directs us to the uniqueness of Christ’s redemptive work. (21)

 In my talk last Wednesday (posted @ www.northwaychristianchurch.org in the “Sermons” link following the “Worship” header on the home page) I tried to point unswervingly to the historic faith of the church that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and our Lord and Savior, and if that’s right, and I think it is, then to think of Him otherwise is wrong.  Now, you don’t have to be mean and ugly about it, but I do think you have to be clear.  My fellow participants in last week’s conversations certainly were.  Imam Yahya said that he agreed with my assertion that Jesus is the Christ (so long as he gets to define the meaning of “Christ”) and that he openly disagreed with my assertion about Jesus Christ being the Son of God.  Imam Yahya and I like each other immensely, but we don’t agree about this and it matters as much to his Islam as it does to my Christianity to be able to say so.  Rabbi Hanan disagreed with both my assertion that Jesus is the Christ and my assertion that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  And again, while Rabbi Hanan and I like each other immensely, we clearly don’t agree, and just as it was really important for him to say so, it was just as important for me to be able to say so too.  Christianity, at least historic Christianity, the Christianity of the Nicene Creed, the Definition of Chalcedon, and the Protestant Reformation, rises or falls on this belief, and that’s what I tried to say just as clearly and as graciously as I could last week at the Connecting Our Faiths event.  There is something decisive and definitive about who Jesus Christ is and what Jesus Christ does, and if that’s true for Christians and Christianity, then that very truth makes it decisive and definitive for the whole world!

 That was the first thought-producing event of last week.  The other one was our weekly staff meeting.  As a part of our weekly time together we always read an article and then discuss it.  I believe that ministers are “practical theologians,” men and women who need to bring an informed and thoughtful faith to the demands of leading a community of faith, and so I try to bring articles to the table each week that will provoke conversation and reflection.  Last week’s article was no exception.  It was written by Dr. Timothy Tennant, the President of Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky, and it was entitled “Missional Leaders for the Church” (it can be found @ http://timothytennent.com).  We read the article on the day that the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released the results of their latest study on the inv-creasing numbers of people, especially those under the age of 30, who identity themselves of the “nones”  in surveys of religious preference in America.  This provided the backdrop to Dr. Tennant’s call for the American church to get serious about its missional identity and assignment, and it was his third proposal for how to go about this that got a rise from the staff.

The church must regain confidence in the gospel and the clarity of the good news.  I will let others speak for their own denomination, but one of the most striking observations I have made of my own denomination (United Methodism) is how confused and inconsistent and muddled the whole thing is.  Enormous energy is spent just trying to remember or recapture the gospel and fighting heresies at every turn. In the process, tens of thousands go unevangelized. Don’t get me wrong, this is a noble and important struggle and every soldier in this struggle deserves our support and prayers.  But, I do long for the day when United Methodism gets refocused on our historic message and witness.  I see signs this is happening, but we’ve got at least twelve years before we see the tide turned. Like the famous frog in the pot of water slowing coming to a boil, the church has slowly taken on the skepticism and doubts of the world regarding the power of Scripture, the centrality of Jesus Christ and the message of salvation. But, the gospel remains the power of God unto salvation.   Let me say it as clear as I can:  There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.   Jesus Christ really and truly and bodily and historically rose from the dead.  This good news is for the world. Jesus Christ is building the community of the redeemed, which is His body, the church.  We are called to live out all the realities of the coming New Creation in the present age.

The part of this statement that got a rise from the staff was – “There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.”   “Well,” a member of the team commented, “I’m glad he knows that.”  And then another one quickly jumped in with the question, “Does this mean that he thinks that only Christians are saved?” And here was the “scandal of particularity” breaking out in our own conference room on a Tuesday morning. 

 I am certainly sensitive to the desire to respect and honor other faith traditions and their adherents.  I would offer our participation in interfaith conversations and our commitment to interfaith relationships as proof of this.  But I do so as a Christian who has “confidence in the Gospel” and who wants to be just as clear as I can possibly be about what I believe that God has done in Jesus Christ to reconcile the world to Himself.  And so with Dr. Tennant I would wholeheartedly agree that “There are not multiple paths to salvation.  Salvation is found only in Jesus Christ.”  But then I would quickly add that I also believe the great religious traditions of the world, all of them, are on that same path that leads to salvation and that, if followed to their very own spiritual conclusions, that they would eventually lead their adherents to Jesus Christ.  I really like the way that the World War 2 Japanese Christian Toyohiko Kagawa explained this position by talking about the path that leads to the top of Mount Fuji.

 He made use of an old Japanese proverb in which Zen Buddhism expressed its conception of the equality of all religions with these words: “Every way leads to the goal; every religion is good.  Do not many paths lead up Mt. Fuji.” This saying is very vivid for the Japanese, who know the various pilgrim paths which lead to the summit of the holy Mount Fuji, with their stations along the way, which are climbed annually by thousands of pilgrims.  Kagawa was reared a Buddhist and was a believing Buddhist before he turned to Christianity.  He takes the proverb…and answers it in this way: “Buddhism, Omoto, Tenri and Islam, all of these religions are good.  All contain truth and guidance.  But some stop at the sixth resting place on the mountainside, some at the fourth, and some become tired and rest even before they have passed the first station.  Many rest at the second and some reach only the third.  Buddhism may bring us to the ninth resting place, but because it stops there I do not choose Buddhism.  I choose Christianity because I want to climb to the top of the mountain.”  …The decisive point of importance in the parable is that it gives up the traditional formulation of the Christian claim to absoluteness in its exclusive form, yet avoids a complete relativism of religions.   All religions are “good” in so far as they strive for the transcendent reality of God and have one final view in view, but the individual religions attain or arrive at different stations on the way to that goal.  They have higher or lower experiences and perceptions of the transcendent reality.  Christianity alone leads to the summit of the experience of God and mediates the final fullness of the knowledge of God. …It is only Christ who leads to the summit, to the experience, and the view of the full disclosure of divine love.  …In Christ the heart of God is disclosed. (Ernest Benz)

 This is how I, without giving up the decisiveness of Jesus Christ, can embrace everyone everywhere who is seeking God.  As the author of Hebrews wrote: “it is impossible to please God without faith,” so that “anyone who wants to come to him must believe that there is a God and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (11:6). DBS+

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