Today we come to our final week in our ‘I wonder’ series, our 4 weeks of looking at some of the great questions related to matters of faith. During the first week of our series Dave addressed the questions, ‘Is there a God?’ ‘Can we be certain one way or another?’ And during the second week he addressed ‘What is truth?’ and ‘Is the Bible, a book that claims to tell us the truth, trustworthy?’ Last week, Barry talked about why, if God is a good God, is there so much evil and suffering in the world? If you missed any of these sermons I recommend going to our website and listening to what Dave and Barry had to say. This week we turn to 2 new questions: first, ‘Why are there so many religions?’ and second, ‘Can all of these religions be true?’ Now the answer to ‘Why are there so many religions?’ is somewhat cut and dry, but with the second question, ‘Can all of these religions be true,’ now, that is another story. So, I want to begin by asking that you stick with me to the end. I know that I will likely be challenging some people’s sensibilities... sensibilities of all sorts. But, please believe me when I say our intent is not to be confrontational or critical of anyone’s closely-held convictions. We simply believe it’s important that we think deeply and directly about these questions because ‘Why are there so many religions?’ And ‘Can they all be true?’ are great questions; they are important questions and great, important questions deserve good answers.
Let’s get straight to the first question: ‘Why are there so many religions?’ I want to start with a well-recognized statement of fact: Every culture throughout all of time, and I do mean every culture, has attempted in some way to come to terms with 2 basic issues: First, they all recognize that there is some sort of ultimate force in the world and human beings are in some way out-of-touch with this force… this is true for every culture, even those that are atheistic and their ultimate force has no personality... it is still true that all people groups, in some way, realize that they are out of step with something… be that God, or many gods, or the spirits of nature, or karma, or the spirits of the dead… This is an historical, anthropological given: all people groups have recognized that there is some kind of ultimate force in the world and human beings are somehow out-of-touch with this force. Secondly, every culture has tried to figure out in some way how to understand this force and what they have to do to get in step with this force. Again, these are givens: people want to understand this force and they want to know what they have to do to get in line with that force. With that said, there have been just 2 ways throughout all of history that people have come to conclusions about what this ‘force’ is and how to get in line with it: either 1) through looking around at the natural world and trying to make sense of what they believe is happening or through 2) someone having a direct interaction with some outside force. All religions begin out of one of these two ways: either ‘considered observation of the natural world’ or a direct message given to a specific person. Now, when people try to figure out things by observing the forces at work in the natural world there is one huge problem: we are sensory beings… we relate to the world almost exclusively through our senses, through sight, sound, smell, touch, taste… and the force at work, no matter how that force is perceived, as a God, or many gods, or Karma, the force is invisible. Human beings have been left to figure out an invisible force and how we get in step with that invisible force primarily by observing what we can see and hear and such. This is a very difficult task and yet many religions have arisen exactly in this manner… people trying to make sense of some invisible force at work in the world through sensory observation. Hinduism, Shintoism, the religions of the native Americans, voodoo, the tribal religions in South America, the multi-theistic religions of ancient Greece and Rome as well as the religions of Ancient Egypt and Persia and Palestine… all of these religions grew out of people looking at the world around them and coming to the conclusion that, ‘This is what is going on!’ And the huge number of these kinds of religions and the vast differences between what they’ve determined is happening in the universe is a testimony to the creative nature of mankind. Where one group of people determines that the heavens are filled with multitudes of gods and goddesses that are controlling the minute details of the lives of mankind, another group has come to the conclusion that the sun and the earth are living beings and should be worshiped; while some have looked into the eyes of animals and felt that something powerful and worship-worthy is going on within the world’s creatures, others see nothing in nature but random, unexplainable chaos. So, there are multitudes of religions that have grown out of people trying to figure out what is going on simply by paying attention to the natural world. And then there are the religions that have started because someone has claimed to have spoken directly to God or to an angel or a spirit or some power: Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism and even some forms of Buddhism all find their roots in specific people having had a direct conversation with something otherworldly. And with these religions the question is whether or not what these people have to say about having had an experience with ‘The Divine’ makes sense... can we trust this person’s claim that they have really spoken to the source of truth and even more importantly, should we organize our lives around their message? And if you think about it, it makes perfect sense that there are so many religions: the natural world is powerful and multifaceted and unpredictable… it’s no wonder that so many people have come to multitudes of conclusions about what is going on around us and what we have to do to get in line with that power. Plus, there have always been and will always be people who claim that they have talked to God or some power or spirit. I know this might sound almost too simplistic… but it’s simply true… these two realities, people observing the natural world and people claiming to have had a conversation with some power have led to there being multitudes of different religions. And something else that is equally true: the people who follow all of these religions, whether their beliefs grew out of observing nature or out of someone’s claim of direct interaction with God, they all believe that their religion has The Truth with a Capital T. And may I add this is almost universally true. Now, I know that we in the west place a high value on being open-minded and non-judgmental when it comes to other religions… and I don’t have time to talk about why this is so. This is a subject for another time. But, please don’t believe for a moment that most people in the world are wishy-washy about whether what they believe is true. Fact is, all religions make what are called ‘propositional statements.’ All religions have doctrines which state what they believe is absolutely, undeniably and always true. Now, this term ‘propositional truth’ has a bad connotation in the western world; it implies that something is actually true and anything that contradicts this truth has to be false… I know this goes against the grain of the way that our culture currently likes to talk about things. But the propositional statements, the doctrines that are the foundations of the world’s religions are what people really believe and not only do they actually believe them, but they also use them to make sense of their lives: whether it rains or not, whether they have good fortune or not, whether they have children or not; these are all explained by what they believe is going on in the world. Let’s just be honest, religions have doctrines… The Hindu who believes in thousands of unseen gods is just as committed to that being true as the atheist is committed to believing that all that exists is what we can prove through our senses. And here is where things get dicey. To hold, as is popular in our culture, that all religions are simply different pathways up to the same mountain top, to the same ultimate real, is to deny that the various religions make these propositional statements about what is really ‘true.’ For instance, Islam holds that there is one God, all knowing and all powerful; one God who controls everything in the world. People live one life and then face judgement by this one God. Hinduism believes there are many gods… thousands in fact, and each one oversees some aspect of life and each one deserves to be worshiped in order to win their favor. Humans live through the present life and then are reincarnated into another life and our station in the next life is based on how well we lived our last life; the goal of life is to attain the enlightenment and lifestyle that breaks the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhists don’t believe in a personal God of any sort. The goal of life is to find ways to eliminate desire and to live at peace with one’s self and the creation; Buddhists have no expectation of what would be called an afterlife at all. Now, I know that we live in a post-modern era; that some people claim that truth is relative to individual’s experience and perspective. But, and now we have gotten to the second question, it cannot be simultaneously true that there is one all-powerful god ruling the universe, thousands of gods controlling the circumstances of world and no god whatsoever. It just cannot be true. There is still validity in the law of non-contradiction that tells us that two statements about what exists that completely contradict one another cannot both be true. I am not knocking post-modernity, but the truth is when you go to the doctor’ office you don’t want him to be post-modern about your health. You don’t want him to give you two completely contradictory opinions and then say ‘and they are both true.’ Here is the bottom line: all religions could be wrong. Everyone could have missed it. One could be right. But they all cannot be true. If you look seriously at the propositional statements, the doctrines of the various religions logically, they cannot all be true at the same time.
Some people say the differences in the various religions so-called doctrines are irrelevant in the end because what really matters is if a religion makes us behave morally. Of course, that assumes that moral behavior is the end goal of all religions. But, this is just the wishful thinking. Truth is, no religion that I know of, even atheism, believes that moral behavior is the end goal of life. All religions demand that people believe something… and that something has to do with salvation or enlightenment… not simply behaving in a certain manner.
Others counter that religious belief becomes true when a person believes it. That when I believe something, it becomes real. Contradictory truth claims don’t really matter… all that matters is that I believe. But we are talking about the forces that control the universe and the ways we should live our lives based on our understandings of those forces. You’d think that when we are talking about things this important we’d want to at least get the starting point right. And can I add that just because I happen to sincerely believe something doesn’t make it true. I have a friend who has firmly stood by the fact that Paul McCartney died during the making of Abby Road for decades. He sincerely believes it and will go to the wall standing by that belief. But truth is, you can be terribly sincere and still be sincerely wrong. I’d be willing to bet that if you were to tell a Muslim that the only thing that really makes it true that the Prophet received the words of the Koran from God is that he believes that he did… that it isn’t important if the Prophet really did or not… just that they believes he did… I’d bet he’d be really surprised. Truth does not become truth simply because someone says they believe it to be true. Believing this may make it easier for us to get along but it certainly doesn’t make what everyone believes true.
I do want to stop and say that it is absolutely true that all religions can and do hold some truth… all religions, and I say ‘all’ carefully, speak of peace, they all want healthy, safe families, they all teach that it’s best to live in harmony with your neighbors. But, these are not the basic doctrines that give distinction to the ways various religions see the world. Let’s look at an example: Jesus is a primary character in a number of religions. In Christianity, Jesus is both fully God and fully man; he lived a sinless life, he was crucified on a cross, died and then 3 days later rose from the dead and his life makes it possible for everyone to find forgiveness for their sins. In Islam Jesus is a revered prophet, but to think of him as anything other than a man is idolatry and blasphemous. Jesus did not die on a cross; he was taken directly into heaven and he will return someday, marry and have a family. And since he did not die there was certainly no resurrection. In fact, our final judgment is based on our own works; sin is a weakness of character that we can overcome through obedience to Allah. No one needs a savior. And to the Hindu Jesus is seen as a holy man. He was reincarnated from a good, former life. He did die but he most assuredly either lives on among us in another life or his soul attained moksha, or release from the cycles of reincarnation. These cannot all be true. And you would be hard pressed to find a Moslem or a Hindu who would be fine with Christianity’s stand on Jesus… they might want everyone to ‘get along’ but they would never say that what Christians believe about Jesus is true since Christians believe it or that Christian beliefs about Jesus are going to take Christians to Islam’s or Hinduism’s mountaintop.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I would ever denigrate other religious faiths or the figures whose searching started the various religions; not at all. There is no way that you can read about the Buddha’s compassion and concern for human suffering and not be impressed. And you can’t help but admire Mohammed’s condemnation of idolatry and his strong call to worship one God. And Confucius’ understanding of human nature and relationships was remarkable for someone living thousands of years ago. But, in the end, while respecting each religion’s prophets and their observations on the human condition… at the same time we have to be honest about the core differences between the various religion’s explanation of the important things; things like the purpose of life, the causes of the world’s brokenness and the way we can find salvation and truth. These are the questions that really matter and the way we answer them make huge differences.
We have, over the last few weeks, been challenging you to consider the deeper questions and come to your own conclusions. Do you believe there is a God? Do you believe we can know truth? If you believe there is a God do you believe that he cares about the suffering and the brokenness in the world? Today we are asking you to make another honest, intellectual and yet deeply spiritual decision: do you believe that you have found the pathway to truth? Have you seriously considered the claims of the various religions and come to any conclusions? I’ve had a lot of conversations with people over the years about these questions and I’ve found that many, if not most people, avoid thinking these things through. What I generally hear is something like this: ‘I’m not religious, but I’m a very spiritual person. I just don’t like organized religion.’ First off, I understand why so much of organized religion can be disappointing and seem irrelevant. And while it may come as a surprise, I’m not all that taken by organized religion, either. Yes, I know that it probably seems like what is going on around here is pretty organized, but we are not in the organized religion business… we are in the following Jesus business. And I’m not going to make any bones about the fact that we believe the Bible’s message about Jesus is true… in every possible way of talking about truth. And yes, we know that it could have been a grand conspiracy, that the possibility exists that we are dead wrong… but again, that possibility exists for all religions even the ones people make up for themselves. But, we are also confident that what we believe to be true about Jesus is grounded in far more than wishful thinking. My request is this: dig deeper. Find some people that you trust will know what they are talking about and ask some specific questions. This is important stuff that really matters. It’s time to stop wondering.
And as a start, I will tell you what we believe is The Truth here at Grace. God entered the world in human form in the person of Jesus Christ; Jesus is both fully human and completely God. Faith in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection brings the forgiveness of our sins. And when we repent, surrender to God and follow Jesus, we are reconciled to God for this life and for eternity. Now, I could go on and on and on about how we believe this truth affects our lives, but I will just say this: Jesus’ message not only explains the brokenness of the world we see around us, it also shows us the pathway for healing that brokenness. Plus, surrendering to Jesus relieves us from the shame of our pasts, it fills our daily lives with real purpose and it gives us hope for the future. And one last thing: Jesus did not come to give us religion; he came to give us a relationship with God. Again, we could be wrong, but we’ve bet the store on Jesus. I know this may sound narrow and it probably raises all sorts of other questions, but every religion that claims to be the truth with a capital T raises all sorts of questions. And we here at Grace are not afraid of those ‘other’ questions. Ask us… ask those you know here at Grace. And I promise the conversation will be filled with what our name says we represent: grace. We didn’t name ourselves Grace to be fashionably theological. We named ourselves Grace Church because we are a people who believe that we’ve found The Truth about God and that truth is that he is gracious. And we do what we do around here because of God’s ultimate act of Grace, the very thing that we celebrate during the Christmas season: the coming of the one person in all of history who, without apology, made this radical statement; He said, ‘I am The Way; I am The Truth and I am The Life.’ Our faith is not built on a religious system or an ancient set of traditions. It is built on Jesus Christ and we believe with every ounce of our being he is THE ONE, the only one, worthy of following with all of our hearts, our minds, our souls, and our strength.