Saturday, May 19, 2007

FAQ 1: Don't all religions lead to God?

This is a question I've been asked a great many times. Normally, it has to be said, the person asking is not actually a religious person. I suppose this is because people who are actually followers of a religious tradition are more aware of the divergences in theology and practice between the various faiths than those who have no particular interest. Since the questioner is normally not a religious person, I tend to interpret the question as something more like this:

"Suppose, as seems highly unlikely to me, there were a god, whatever that might mean, would not any religion, and hopefully also any vaguely spiritual world-view, be equally valid as a means of reaching aforementioned probably-non-existent deity?"

The assumptions built in to the question bring it crashing down. Firstly, the assumption that we can even speak intelligibly of "god" seems highly questionable. After all, many people doubt the existence of "god" or plain disbelieve it. There are many explanations (psychological, anthropological, historical, sociological... to name just a few) for the idea of "god" that do not involve there being any actual content to the idea. "God" could be a word that refers to nothing. Not only can we not assume that "god" exists, we cannot even assume that the word "god" means anything at all. The question itself is meaningless.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The second problematic assumption is that there is some way of reaching "god". Of course, the questioner is seeking to establish that there are many - perhaps infinite - ways of "reaching god". But they're assuming I'll agree with them that there is at least one way. In fact, this seems an unwarranted assumption. How could I know that if there were a "god" he/she/it would be at all interested in humanity? How could I know that he/she/it was in any way accessible by me? I could not possibly say.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The third massive assumption is that "reaching god" would involve religion, or at least its fuzzier cousin "spirituality" in some way. Well, as far as I can tell, religion is a system of structures, rituals and beliefs that people can and have manufactured for themselves. There is a striking similarity between all religions at the level of ethics and practical living, and I think a basic agreement about aims: religion is about reaching out into the beyond and hoping that whatever is there will be pleased with our efforts. But how would I know whether all of this effort was successful? I couldn't.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The point is that the questioner has assumed substantial agreement with me on three fronts: that there is a god, that he/she/it can be reached, and that religion is involved.

I repudiate all three points.

If God has revealed himself by stepping into the world in the person of Jesus, I don't agree that there is "a god". There is God (upper-case "G"): the real, personal, living God who is there. You see, if God has not revealed himself then of course we can grope in the dark and come up with arbitrarily defined ideas of "god", and each in their own way may be profound, moving, inspirational. But none of them is real. But if God has entered our world (or rather, his world) in the person of Jesus Christ, then God is. Not the "god" we all assumed was out there, but God - the real God, who cuts across all our assumptions by his sheer reality.

And if God has revealed himself in Jesus, then one of the clearest things he has revealed is that there is no way to him. Because the God who is revealed in Jesus reveals himself as the One who dies to make such a way. He reveals himself as the One who sees us as guilty, and cut off from him, and doomed to die - and then steps in to take all those things into himself so that we can be made right, reconciled, and given life. But this way cuts across all our assumptions about the way to God. It is not a way that is naturally open to us. It is a way given to us by God himself, and so it is a real way.

And if God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, by condescending and entering into our world, then he has revealed that all our reaching out and reaching up, all our striving to find God - that is to say, all our religion and spirituality - is useless. God steps down because we cannot climb up. And this too cuts across all our assumptions. Religion cannot get us to God.

But Jesus Christ can.

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