I had an interesting conversation with a friend this morning. He was reading about the history of ancient Mezo-American civilizations (Aztec, Inca, etc.) and was struck by some religious and philosophical similarities to Buddhism. We got to talking about parallel threads that run through many religions (uh-oh. Heresy warning here–not for faint of theological heart).
I instantly recognized the concepts he was referring to — in the early history of my own faith it came as the Gnostic movement in the first centuries of Christianity. In fact, I think my friend would make a great Christian gnostic. Unfortunately, he would almost immediately be branded a heretic by most mainstream Christian churches. The gnostic movement (and others like it) were pretty well stamped out by the 2nd century, and though it has reared its head a few times since, it has never enjoyed the status it once held as a movement within Christianity.
I wouldn’t consider myself a gnostic, but I do wonder if gnosticism might have had something worthwhile to contribute to the current theological conversation, had it not been so harshly surpressed by the early “Fathers of the Church.”
I see a similarity among all three of the major “monotheistic” world religions–Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. While there are certainly open-minded and tolerant people within each of these historic faiths, the party line in all of them has generally been (at best), “we respect your right to exist and believe what you believe, but we’re right and you’re wrong.”
I can’t speak to the scriptural source of this in Islam or Judaism. Perhaps I’m even guilty of painting the orthodoxy of those faiths with too harsh a brush. But I can speak to the line I hear most often in Christianity. It’s John 14:6: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
I think we tend to imagine Jesus as a sort heavenly goalie — standing padded in front of a goal with a hockey stick saying, “You gotta get through me if you want in!” Or, at the very least, equate his words to the expression, “It’s my way or the highway.” We often denounce any belief that does not acknowledge Jesus explicitly as the one and only savior — although I suspect that what we are really seeking is acknowledgment of own particular understanding of Jesus.
But…what if we’re wrong (gasp!) in our understanding of that passage? What if we have it upside down? What if everyone who lives out the principles taught by Jesus–loving their neighbors, caring for the poor and oppressed–has indeed “come through him” whether they acknowledge it or not? What if instead of, “It’s impossible to get to heaven unless you acknowledge me,” Jesus is saying, “It’s impossible not to get to heaven if you’re embodying these principles (this ‘way’ of living, this truth, this life), because those principles are what I’m all about. They are me. Regardless of what you call them, or how you came about them.”
Of course, I think we also greatly misunderstand and abuse the concept of “heaven.” But that’s another post for another day.