Rev. Yme Woensdregt
An old joke tells of an evangelist who was trying to find his way in a strange city. He finally asked a young girl for directions. “How do you get to the City Hall?” he asked.
The girl gave him directions, then asked, “Why do you want to go to the City Hall?”
“Because I’m giving a speech there.”
“What will the speech be about?” the girl asked.
“How to get to heaven.”
“How to get to heaven? And you can’t even find your way to the City Hall?!”
Getting to heaven used to be one of the main preoccupations of Christian faith. But for those who are exploring what it means to be a Christian from a newer, more progressive perspective, that’s no longer so.
I remember as a teenager being asked by some people on the street one day, “Do you know where you will spend eternity?” They went on to tell me that if I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Saviour, I would be assured of spending eternity in heaven with God. If I didn’t accept Christ, then I’d be consigned for eternity to the burning fires of hell.
Even then, I thought that there had to be something wrong with that picture. Why would anyone use threats as a way of trying to convert other people?
The afterlife is a central feature of traditional Christian belief — what Marcus Borg calls the earlier paradigm. In this perspective, the afterlife served as both promise and motivation. Why should you believe in Jesus? Why should you be a Christian? So that you can get to heaven. That’s the promise. That’s the motivation for behaving the right way.
But for us who are seeking a new way, Christian faith is more about how we live in this life rather than the afterlife. God’s love has to do with how we live here and now. Christian life is not focused on the future; rather, it is intensely focused on the present. We’re not Christians as a way of meeting certain requirements for a future reward in an afterlife. The Christian life, as Borg puts it, “is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present”.
We seek to live fully in the present moment. We also have become increasingly aware that there are many ways in which we can walk in the way of Jesus. There is no single right way to live, or to walk. So we acknowledge with some humility that God is much larger than anything our imaginations can possibly devise.
So we are open to mystery, paradox, diversity. We deny that any single point of view is the only authorized way of seeing things. Reality is filled with uncertainty and variety, and we try to honour that in the way we live.
This includes religious pluralism. I love the image Borg uses of a mountain, where the moutaintop is our common goal. At the bottom of this broad mountain, the paths are widely separated. They seem to be completely different paths to our goal. Yet the closer we get to the top, the closer the paths converge. At the top, we can reach out to one another and embrace those who walked on different paths up the mountain.
Religious pluralism is not a threat to Christian faith. We celebrate the diversity of the human passion to know God. We understand other religions as sacraments of the sacred. Like the bread and wine of Communion, religions are not absolute. Rather they are finite means of mediating the sacred.
As people in different places and times would experience the divine differently, so they would express those experiences in a wide variety of ways. But each set of experiences point to the same reality which is beyond human words.
This is not to say that all religions are the same. They do share some similarities. They all affirm that there is something “More”, or “real” or “sacred” in life. They affirm a way to live or a path to walk. They all provide spiritual disciplines, practical ways to help undertake the way. They all lift up compassion as a primary virtue, and they all contain a set of beliefs or teachings.
But they are not all the same. They are as different as the cultures in which they arose, as varied as the histories of the peoples among which they were born. Yet all seek to climb the same mountain, to the same experience of the divine, the sacred, and make our lives on earth more healthy and whole. There is much to celebrate in that.
Rev. Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook