One God, Many Religions Back to Index

One God, Many Religions
September 16, 2007

Wesley United Methodist Church

ROMANS 1:18-20, 2:12-16

If there is one God, why are there so many religions? A Minnesota friend and former colleague, Delton Krueger, has written a very useful book, Portable Guide to World Religions. Here are statistics:

Christianity, 33% of the world’s population (2.1 billion people)

Islam, 19% (1.3 billion)

Hindu, 14% (900 million)

Buddhist, 5.8% (376 million)

Judaism, .022% (14 million)

In the early pages of the Bible, the Hebrews believed in monolatry, which means many gods. The first commandment is, “You shall have no other gods before me.” They believed that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God who led them out of Egyptian slavery was the most powerful of all the gods, and thereby deserving of worship and loyalty.

Belief in the most powerful God led ultimately to the belief in monotheism--only one God. The prophets preached that Israel’s God is the sovereign Lord of the nations. There is one God of the universe. There is one Creator. All nations and peoples are subjects of this one God.

Therefore, because there is one God, why are there so many religions? Have you noticed how people can have the same experience but give different explanations and descriptions? Eyewitness accounts of a traffic accident can leave you wondering if they were all describing the same accident. Even spouses see things differently! Factor in cultural, language, climate and historical differences, it is no wonder that there are many ways of understanding the divine reality we call God. Human beings in different places have come up with different solutions to the puzzle of religious experience. Especially understandable are the differences when we admit that God is far beyond our human comprehension. All our language about God ultimately fails. We do not have the logical categories or the mental capability necessary to comprehend all there is to know about God. Certainly, no one religion can claim to have an exclusive understanding of God.

Some of you may be thinking about Jesus’ exclusive claim, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6) Jesus is far bigger than our understanding. Jesus is far bigger than our version of Christianity. No one can put Jesus in a box and say, “Jesus is mine!"

If one worships God under any name, one worships the one God, for there is but one God. There are many ways of perceiving God, of experiencing God, of naming God, of worshiping God, but they all point to the one God. For example, the Golden Rule appears in all the major religions. Most of the religions teach, “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to you,” but Jesus made it proactive, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” There are many deeply spiritual non-Christians. Mahatma Gandhi was a spiritual giant, and Gandhi was a Hindu.

In the passage from Romans read this morning, Paul wrote that ever since the creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature have been understood and experienced through what God has made. People throughout history have similar consciences, and instinctively know right from wrong.

There are also differences among the religions, and we need to recognize that development and growth occur in understanding God. Some of the earlier religions practiced sacrifice—animals, and in some places, humans. Early in the Bible, human sacrifice was repudiated. Some wonder why God would ask Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. But, the point of the incident is that God stopped Abraham from sacrificing Isaac, and human sacrifice was never part of the Jewish or Christian religions.

How should Christians relate to other religions? The traditional stance of Christians towards other religions has been adversarial. Pope Alexander VI told the Spanish and Portuguese to convert natives and, if they refused to be converted, conquer, enslave, or exterminate them. Pioneers treated the American Indians in the same way. Protestant missionaries treated people of other religions as objects to be converted, believing that Christians are superior, and that God only has room for Christians. A young man I’ve known since he was a child wrote me. His mother had recently remarried and was now a Buddhist. The minister of a large student group at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, told the young man that his mother was now going to hell. I wrote back and told him, “Tell that minister to go to hell, and you go find a church that preaches the love of Jesus!” What arrogance to think Christians have an exclusive claim on God, sending 2/3 of the world to hell.

An opposite stance is what I call Melt-Down Mush. You’ve probably heard it. “There are many roads that lead to God. Christianity is one of the roads. As long as you are sincere and live a good life, one religion is as good as another.” This stance melts all religions down into inoffensive mush, with sincerity as the criterion of a true worshiper. But, what about those who are sincerely wrong? I suspect Hitler was quite sincere!

Let me suggest an alternative stance to Adversarial and Melt-Down Mush. I call it the Partner stance. The global problems that face humankind—climate change, moral decay, injustice, AIDS, hunger, war, fighting between religions and fighting within religions —take more than just Christians to solve. We need each other. Let’s enter into partnership, beginning by appreciating what the other religions can bring to the table, what they can teach us, and working together solve some problems. I understand and observe that we have a good relationship with the Buddhist Church. We borrow items from each other, and our jazz band is going to play at a dance. Both of our churches are active in Japantown.

I visited with Dale Merrithew a few days ago. He has been transferred from Good Samaritan Hospital to a rehabilitation center. There has been a tremendous improvement in his condition. He was two hours from death when he entered the hospital. He credits his miraculous progress, in part, to spiritual experiences, beginning with a visit from Rev. Motoe. She listened, prayed and then sang “Amazing Grace.” He said he could feel angels in the room. He had nurses who prayed with him, and one of his doctors sat by his bed, held his hand, and prayed out loud. The doctor! The doctor told Dale that he had a team of spiritual doctors who were concerned and who prayed, three in particular—a Hindu, a Muslim and a Christian! Why can’t we get along with other religions? Why can’t we appreciate one another? Why can’t we partner and save human lives? Of course, there are extremists---violent, fundamentalist radicals, even in Christianity; but let’s learn how to appreciate and cooperate with other religions.

Partner—appreciate, cooperate and share. As Christians, we share our faith, not in judgment, not from a superior to inferior position, but humbly and respectfully. We go in the name of Christ to build buildings, heal the sick, feed the hungry, teach the children. As we minister in Jesus’ name, we tell our story. We tell them about Jesus. We tell them how we know God through Jesus, how we have experienced the love of God through Jesus. As partners, we don’t hide our faith. We gladly share, and we gladly listen to their stories.

A young man here in San Jose told how some Christians—evangelical Christians—witnessed to him. They told them their stories, shared their faith. Then, when he thought it was his turn to tell his story and share his faith, they weren’t interested. They left. The sharing was only one way. To their credit, however, they did witness. Unlike too many Methodists, they did tell their stories. When we share, let’s also listen. 

One God, many religions. Let’s partner—appreciate, cooperate and share.

© 2007 Douglas I. Norris