A journalist once asked me about "the Christian intolerance" that maintains that Christianity is the way, the truth, and the life. I attempted to break his flow of talk by saving that this was not the view of Christianity itself. However, he insisted energetically that you could read it in the Bible. After several rounds, when he had to pause to breathe, I was finally able to convince him that the biblical assertions concerning Jesus and Jesus' assertions concerning himself did not imply that this was valid for Christianity as such. Christ, not Christianity, is the way, truth, and the life.
Nevertheless, this assertion is heard, as if we Christians hold a patent for the truth. Therefore, let us try to organize our thought regarding this question by means of models. Maybe then it will become clearer.
1. The first model is the prevailing one. A large number of people maintain that all ways. all religions lead to God. The paths are like paths up a mountain. The climbers do not know each other, but they all meet at the top.
2. The second model prevails in some theological circles. It maintains that in every way, all religions lead away from God. All people are on the run from God, and religion and piety are only a human way of camouflaging our ungodliness.
These two models are similar in that they make no distinctions within the world of religions: all religions are ways to God, or all religions lead away from God. It is not correct, however, to put all religions together in one concept; in the world of religion it is important to distinguish between the many different "possibilities" which arc religiously given. It is absurd if one's concepts force one to identify Scientology with the Quakers and Shin-Buddhism with Satanism. Both of these models only further complicate the problem rather than solve it.
These two models are, in fact, ideological. They serve a purpose other than the one they pretend to serve. The first is the syncretism model; that is, it will promote a mixing of all religions. The second is an anti-syncretism model; its aims are diametrically opposed to the first.
To clarify the problem, it is important that it be approached on the basis of real religions and their actual differences. Otherwise our attempt serves no useful purpose. But before we draw the outlines for such an attempt, it is necessary to describe the Christian model, which must guide our way of thinking. The decisive point is that regardless of humanity's religious search for or flight from God. God is coming; that is, God comes to us. God searches and finds us. With this everything begins. This is what the Bible is all about.
God finds us in Jesus Christ. The biblical stories are parables, narratives, happenings concerning God's actions in and through Jesus Christ. This is the meaning of "the truth, the way, and the life." Nothing similar has taken place in world history. Jesus is the expressed image of God, because Jesus is the reality of God.
Jesus finds us in the church. Every sermon deals with this. Proclamation, baptism, and the sacraments are simply God's coming in Jesus Christ to His church. It is the reality of the Holy Spirit when God finds us.
The Holy Spirit has many ways to humans. It is true that God finds us in Jesus Christ and also true that Jesus Christ has appointed the church as the meeting place where the Holy Spirit and the church celebrate together the coming of God to us. It is just as true that the Holy Spirit has many other ways to come to humans. These ways are also the ways of God and Christ, but they are connected to the reality of God's creation of all people in the Spirit, which "proceeds" from the Father.
In fact, in the reality of creation there is also a revelation of God: as Paul writes in the letter to the Romans 1-2:10, the Gospel goes into the world through the reality of creation. What Psalm 19 says in the Old Testament is repeated by Paul in Colossians 1:6 and 23.
Consequently, humans are never lost because of our inability to recognize God; what is necessary concerning the reality of God has been revealed to all. This is understood on the basis of the acts of God. When humans are lost, it is due to our own disobedience, not because we failed to recognize God.
When the Gospel of Jesus Christ is preached to people, it meets the Gospel of creation. When the recognition of Jesus as the Son of God comes to humans, it happens against the background of the recognition of God's invisible being, his eternal power as well as his divinity, which is already possible for them.
God has, therefore, never let any one down, not before Jesus Christ, not outside the church. Our salvation depends on obedience, not on effort. There is a terrible form of justification by actions, which may look very pious, but is in reality blasphemous. It maintains that human salvation depends on our efforts as missionaries and evangelists, and if we make no missionary effort, we are to blame for human perdition.
This type of missionary motive is un-biblical, even anti-biblical. It can only further our own vain efforts to justify ourselves and intensify the resulting self-despair. Thank God, he has taken the preaching in his own hands, and no one is or ever will be without the possibility of salvation.
When we engage in mission. it is not because we should do what God has already done. As good servants. we should do what God has not already done. We should as Paul said, fill up that which is "still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church!" (Colossians 1:24). And, at any rate, we should be witnesses of what Christ will come to mean in this world. We can comfort and rejoice. strengthen and heal. intercede and stand up for those who are on their way to becoming disciples of Christ because they are already children of God. And we shall do so as instruments of the Holy Spirit.
Add to this that we must be good listeners and observers. Man's religious world is a jumble of evil and good, lies and truth. As disciples of Christ, we must move among all kinds of gods and all kinds of worshippers, with love to all and with a genuine ability to distinguish and estimate. Some that we meet can teach us, and some elements can even be included in our tradition of the church. Other things. however, must be pointed out as directly demonic, and they must be renounced and thrown away because they hurt people and they make people evil.
We cannot maintain that all religions are the same, or that all religions lead to God, or that all religions lead away from God. We have to distinguish. And that is exactly what we can do when we - on the basis of what has been said here - are allowed to be messengers for Christ in the perspective of the Holy Spirit. Naturally, we have to study and learn more. We cannot study and learn too much. But. ultimately, the ability to distinguish is a result of the influence of the Holy Spirit on us. This is the heart of the matter.
Consequently, true missionaries must live a life in the Holy Spirit - in the community of the congregation. To be a missionary is not an individual matter. Missionaries must not be soloists. They must be part of the body of Christ. Nut even the greatest missionary has all the gifts of grace. We have to study and work together, just as we have to pray together and worship together. Otherwise, it is not possible to learn to distinguish.
Moreover, to distinguish is something very concrete. It is something that takes place on the basis of observations and interpretations. Missionaries have the advantage that they, "ex officio," can move among the many expressions of the religions. can identify themselves with this fantastic world. and come to know religious people and become their friends.
A true missionary has to deal with his own and other people's religiousness, and thus with the ultimate reality of life. Technically we can reach far as people, but through our religiousness we can reach ever further, namely to the questions of the meaning of life. As missionaries, we will find that there is no meaning of life ready to be found. The meaning of life must be given. The meaning, which cannot be found, must be invented.That is exactly what the religions are: inventions of meaning. But in fact, there are very different meanings that have been invented. We cannot avoid critically making up our own minds about this multiplicity of meanings. We cannot avoid training ourselves in genuine critiques of religions, for this is the only way to inform ourselves and find a true way through the jungle of religions and religiousness.