Reaching back into the vault of questions and articles …
“In spite of the religious inclusivity of New Age thinking, in spite of its interest in Oriental religions, and in spite of its criticism of mainstream Christianity, it is still Christ who dominates New Age speculation wherever the need is felt to explain the relation between God and humanity by some mediating principle”
I was recently on a flight and was barely settled in my seat on the plane when the woman seated beside me struck up an engaging conversation which very quickly turned to questions about the Bible, Christian theology, and finally, Jesus himself. Although she was interested in my Christian understanding, her theological perspective had developed from a combination of Hindu philosophy, New Age thought and some vague Christian principles, which she freely disclosed. Eventually, our conversation began to focus on Jesus Christ, and she mentioned that she believed what Jesus said about himself in the Gospels, but the way to the Father was not limited to Jesus alone. To this, I mentioned that I questioned the value of religious pluralism, given the theologically exclusive nature of the Bible and Jesus’ explicit claims to be the only way to God (eg. John 14:6). It is her response and objection to my thoughts on the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ that is the focus of this brief essay.
- On a very basic level, she was clearly opposed to the theologically exclusive nature of Christianity. It was readily apparent, however, that it was not necessarily Christianity per se that she was opposed to, but any system of religious belief that claimed to be exclusive (ie., I was free to believe in Jesus alone, but I was not free to tell her that she should consider it as well). Not surprisingly, her personal philosophy modelled this perspective, as she had incorporated a variety of Christian, Hindu and New Age thoughts into her own eclectic belief system.
- She also believed that since the Old Testament (and presumably the New) was written in the context of a specific time and place, it was only truthful in such a context (although she believed that the Bible is right in everything it teaches). That is, Israel’s claim that there was only one God really meant that there was only one God in their world, not that there was only one God in the world that we know today. From the perspective of the small geographic area of ancient Israel, the Israelite God was seen as the only one, and therefore they could say that the salvation of the world came through him only. Currently, in our more ‘modern and enlightened’ perspective, we can see that any ancient claim to exclusivity was simply ignorant of the facts that we know today. As a result, she believed that Biblical Christianity represented an incomplete understanding of both religion and the world.
- She also suggested that Jesus’ words that “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” in John 14:6 meant that no one comes to the Father (ie. achieves ‘salvation’) except through Christ-consciousness, not through exclusive belief in the person of Jesus Christ. In fact, her Yogi clearly articulated this position by writing, “Jesus meant, never that he was the sole Son of God, but that no man can obtain the unqualified Absolute, the transcendent Father beyond creation, until he has first manifested the ‘Son’ or activating Christ Consciousness within creation”. Further, Christ Consciousness is defined as “a state of total enlightenment, love and compassion to which all human beings must aspire … being directly aware of one’s oneness with God”.She proposed that all religions of the world actually lead to God, and the life of Jesus was just one of many examples of how to get there. Speaking of Jesus, Krishna and Mohammed, Paramahansa Yogananda wrote, “[w]e revere them because they knew and felt God … [and they had] manifold ways of expressing the truth” and also “as God is one, necessary to all of us, so Religion is one, necessary and universal”. Finally, her position could be summed in her Yogi’s interpretation of Jesus’ words in John 3:5-6, that “unless we transcend the body and realize ourselves as Spirit, we cannot enter into the kingdom or state of that Universal Spirit”.
- Her opposition to any exclusive system of belief is difficult to accept, given that pluralism (with its implied inclusivism) is ultimately an exclusive position as well. For example, on one hand, orthodox Christianity teaches that there is no other way to God except through the person of Jesus Christ – any other belief is invalid. On the other hand, religious pluralism holds that there are many possible ways to God – again, any other belief is invalid. That is, as each view is intolerant of any other view, each position is, in fact, exclusive (as is the case with every opinion, whether the subject matter is large or small). Exclusivity is not inherently wrong and cannot (and should not) be avoided or feared. In reality, the only option available is the simple choice of which exclusive belief system to hold to.
- From a Biblical perspective, both the Old and New Testaments describe God not only as the ruler of the known nations, but also as the God of the entire created world. For example, the creation account of Genesis 1 presents all of the created world as a work of God – the oft-repeated phrase “heavens and earth” refers to all of creation (both terrestrial – oceans, land, plants, etc) and extraterrestrial (sun, moon, stars, etc), not merely to a few known socio-political states. In fact, the theme of God as the creator and controller of the entire world is evident throughout the Old Testament (the Psalms and Isaiah being prime examples). Additionally, even during and after the exile of the Israelites, God was still seen as the ultimate and solitary sovereign ruler of the universe (eg., Neh 9:6). Finally, the apostle John picks up this theme, via a direct revelation of Jesus, and states that Jesus himself will receive praise from members of all the nations and peoples of the earth (Rev 7:9). Clearly, the perspective of the ancient Biblical authors was not limited to a few ancient Near Eastern communities, but rather the entire created universe is in view, including all the people and nations living on earth.
- Throughout the history of the Christian Church, it has been consistently understood that Jesus is the only way to salvation. Daniel Clendenin writes that “Christianity inherited from Old Testament Judaism the idea that one religion alone is true … [and the] New Testament portrays Christ as the sole mediator between God and humanity”. Kenneth Cragg adds that the “Christian Christ, after all, is the only one there historically is”. If Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, as orthodox doctrine teaches, then the exclusivist position is unavoidable (remember the first comment). Clendenin writes, “as [John] Hicks admits, ‘if Jesus was literally God incarnate, the second Person of the Holy Trinity living a human life, so that the Christian religion was founded by God-on-earth in person, it is then very hard to escape from the traditional view that all mankind must be converted to the Christian faith'”. In John 14:6, Jesus Christ said that no one could come to the Father apart from him, not apart from his example, his achievement, or his consciousness, etc. The emphasis of Jesus’ words is not on the “through”, but on the “me”, as repeatedly stated throughout the rest of the New Testament. For example, earlier in the book of John, Jesus stated that whoever believes in him (Jesus) would receive eternal life. It is important to note that the text does not say “whoever believes as he did” or anything that implies that modelling Jesus’ life is the road to salvation. Finally, at the beginning of his book, John declares that it is the person of Jesus who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29), not the enlightenment or understanding of an abstract Christ-consciousness that takes away sin. Note too, that Jesus takes away the sin of the world, not his own personal sin, as would be the case if his Christ-consciousness was his own personal example of the way to the Father. First Timothy 2:5 states that there is “only one mediator … the man Jesus Christ” – not that there is one principle or one example, but one person of Christ. In fact, “the Bible does not draw a distinction between Jesus the man and another entity known as ‘the Christ.’ Jesus is pictured as being the Christ (Greek Christos, ‘anointed one’)”. With regard to Romans 3 and 5, Ronald Nash writes, “Paul makes it clear that the one and only ground of human justification before the holy God is the atoning work of Jesus Christ”. Clearly, the Biblical texts teach that it is the actual person of Christ that offers salvation to the entire world, it is not up to each individual to achieve salvation or ‘consciousness’ on their own.
On the other side of the “all religions are the same” coin is the incompatibility of Christianity with any other religious system. That is, if all religions lead to God/salvation, then why is the concept of God, man, sin, salvation, life after death, etc different in all religions? For example, if they all ultimately lead to the same place (ie., salvation), would they not all have the same understanding of that place? In Hinduism, salvation is the reality of Nirvana attained by knowledge, devotion and works. In Islam, salvation is achieved through devotion and works. However, in Christianity, salvation is the free gift of eternal life given through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 6:23) and occurs after death in which there is no second chance (Heb 9:27). Clendenin concludes that “John Hicks admits that these conflicting truth claims present ‘an obvious problem’ for the pluralist hypothesis that all … religions are equally valid … [and Harold] Netland, having compared the basic beliefs of five great religions, concludes, ‘it is difficult indeed to escape the conclusion that some of the central affirmations of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Shinto are opposed … they cannot be jointly accepted without absurdity.”
Throughout this discussion, it is important to recognize that there were points of connection between my fellow passenger and me during our conversation. For example, she had an openness and hunger for the truths of the Bible, and she understood the importance of ‘context’ in determining meaning. She also identified the special nature of Jesus Christ, but she had yet to grasp his full significance (either historically or personally). Also, her acceptance of others different than herself is something that many Christians could learn from. The fundamental issue behind her three objections is the exclusive nature of any religious belief. In contrast to her personal interpretation of the Bible, the message of orthodox Christianity is that Jesus Christ is the exclusive “way, truth and life”. Of course, even though salvation is found exclusively through Christ alone, one cannot say that other religious systems have nothing positive to offer to humanity. In fact, our current society’s renewed interest in spirituality is partly responsible for the Church’s re-discovery of its importance to the Christian life. As Clendenin writes, “God’s general revelation to all people affords a rudimentary but nonredemptive knowledge of God”.
In the end, exclusivity is not inherently wrong, nor can it be avoided in Christianity, pluralism, or any other system of religious thought. The Biblical understanding of religion and the world is not incomplete, but rather, it is truly comprehensive. Both Jesus himself and the various Biblical authors claim that salvation and the way to God is available only through belief in the historical person of Jesus Christ.
“According to some people, there are many so-called gods and many lords, both in heaven and on earth. But we know that there is only one God, the Father, who created everything, and we exist for him. And there is only one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom God made everything and through whom we have been given life.” 1 Corinthians 8:5-6, NLT
 Wouter Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture, p. 189.
 She adhered to the teaching of the Self-Realization Fellowship, based in California. Throughout our conversation, she frequently referred to and quoted from the founder of the Fellowship, Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952).
 Given her Hindu perspective, it was interesting to hear her state that she was a monotheist.
 Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, p. 179n.
 Hanegraaff, p. 190.
 Yogananda, The Science of Religion, p. 52. Point #3 of the Aims of the Self-Realization Fellowship is “to reveal the complete harmony and basic oneness of original Christianity as taught by Jesus Christ and original Yoga as taught by Bhagavan Krishna; and to show that these principles of truth are the common scientific foundation of all true religions.”
 Yogananda, The Science of Religion, p. 6. He understood religion to primarily mean ‘God-consciousness, or the realization of God both within and without’, and not just a set of beliefs or dogmas.
 Yogananda, The Science of Religion, p. 61.
 If there ever was an event that would have caused the people of Israel to say that God was merely a national leader, and a weak one at that, the exile would have been it. However, through both the glory days and the times of desolation, the Lord was consistently seen as sovereign over the entire world. Clendenin writes “[t]here is no God but him in all the earth, and all who come to him must meet him on his terms, not their own (Deut. 4:35-39; 32:39; Isa 44:6; 45:5-6, 18)” (p. 131).
 For example, Origen, Cyprian, Fulgentus, the Council of Florence, Calvin, Luther and Lausanne II (see Clendenin, pp. 70-73).
 Daniel B. Clendenin, Many Gods, Many Lords, p. 68.
 Kenneth Cragg, The Christ and the Faiths, p. 197.
 Clendenin, p. 69.
 One of the hallmarks of evangelical Christianity is that the only requirement for salvation is belief in Jesus, not the accomplishment of certain deeds or the attainment of a certain spiritual maturity or consciousness. Whereas one’s ability to achieve Christ-consciousness is ultimately centred on self, one’s willingness to simply believe in the gift of salvation is centred on God and his grace.
 Richard Abanes, Defending the Faith, p. 87.
 Ronald Nash, Is Jesus the Only Saviour?, p. 17.
 For example, “Jesus, whom God raised from the dead … He is the one who has rescued us from the terrors of the coming judgment” 1 Thessalonians 1:10b, NLT.
 Clendenin, p. 67.
 Clendenin, p. 73.