How can there be religious tolerance if Jesus is the ONLY way?

Updated: Mar 29, 2019

“Jim, how can there be peace among the world’s religions if each of them believe that only their view of God is right? You often talk about tolerance and inclusivity but didn't your Jesus say he was the ONLY way?"

Great question!

It is true that the claim of exclusivity – only our way is the right way – fosters disharmony and division among the world religions. In my view, virtually all religious, spiritual and philosophical traditions and belief-systems share beliefs in common, and perhaps even the most important beliefs such as the preeminence of love, compassion and the golden rule. But despite this, religion continues to divide people in our world.

The way I see it, there are three options:

One option is to continue with the status quo of dividing people and pitting them against each other based on differing religious/spiritual/philosophical beliefs. In my view, this option is disastrous.

Another option is to take what’s common among all religions and create one unified belief-system that everyone is happy about. This is known as syncretism, which is the merging or assimilating of many different belief-systems into one new system. I don’t believe this option is practical because most people ascribe great meaning and significance to the distinct and unique elements of their particular tradition.

The option I suggest is to agree to coexist peacefully in a world of religious, spiritual and philosophical diversity.

When it comes to religion, I believe cooperation is better than competition. A deeper look into Darwin’s view about evolution reveal that it is cooperation and not competition, which is the essential trait that ensures the human race’s survival. There are some who believe that intelligent beings might have evolved many times over the long history of the universe but then destroyed themselves because they lacked cooperative genes. The only ones that could survive were those that had the urge to get along. If this is right, the drive toward supercooperation is not just an interesting sideline in the story of evolution. It lies at the heart of why we are here—the kind of real answer that is critical for the future of humankind and all living things.

If we go with the coexist-peacefully option, I feel responsible to address what seems to be the claims of exclusivity within the Christian tradition. These claims are particularly tied to these words attributed to Jesus in John 14:6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

In my view, this is one of the most misunderstood statements of Jesus. The traditional Christian interpretation of these words of Jesus is based upon a mentality and framework that I believe to me flawed. Christianity essentially built a religion around the person of Jesus – the actual, historical, human person, Jesus. What’s interesting about this is that Jesus himself dissuaded people from worshipping him and creating a new religion around him. There are stories of Jesus’ first followers doing this, which Jesus scolded. When Jesus spoke of his imminent death his followers were distraught, but Jesus explained that his death was necessary so that people would become less dependent upon Jesus the human person, and learn to live in harmony with the spirit that was within them. In a nutshell, the same spirit, life, transcendent nature and guiding values that were within Jesus are within all of us.

The John 14:6 words of Jesus are traditionally interpreted within this framework of dependency upon Jesus the person. A paraphrase would be, “I – me the physical, historical, human person, Jesus – am the way and the truth and the life. The only way to connect with God and know ultimate reality is through sole allegiance to me – the physical, historical, human person, me.” In other words, it’s all about Jesus the person.

On another occasion Jesus made this statement, “Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Notice that Jesus did not say, “I will make you free,” but that “the truth” will make you free. In my view, the correct interpretation of Jesus words’ John 14:6 would be, “The truth that I have lived, the truth that I have demonstrated, the truth that I have borne witness too, the truth of who I’ve been right before your eyes – is the way to truly know what is real.” Jesus is not making some statement of exclusivity whereby the world must become Christian, and build and perpetuate a Jesus-religion as the one and only true religion. I do not believe this is what Jesus meant.

So the $64,000 question is: What truth is Jesus referring to? If Jesus meant to say that the truth he expressed is the truth that sets us free and the way to know God, what is that truth? In my view, what is abundantly clear about Jesus was his message that you can be both divine and human. In other words, there is no real separation between God and humankind, ultimate reality and humankind, the whole and humankind, Love and humankind, transcendence and humankind. Other ways of saying it are: we are all God’s children, each of us is a part of the whole, the same eternal spirit of life runs through us all. This is the basis of the “Namaste” term. Regardless of the different ways we make God and ultimate reality meaningful to us, we can hold the following mindset toward one another:

The Divine light in me acknowledges the Divine light in you.

The God/Goddess in me greets and meets the God/Goddess in you.

I honor the spirit in you that is also in me.

I greet that place where you and I are one.

I honor the place in you which is of love, of truth, of light and of peace.

Jesus also said once, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” Once again, in my view Jesus is not speaking of his physical self but is speaking of the truth he lived and demonstrated. In other words, Jesus was saying, “When my truth is lifted up – when people see that there is no separation between God and humankind – then all of us will be free to live in love, peace, harmony and well-being together as one human family.”

I have been writing about this view of Jesus for years, most notably in Notes from (Over) the Edge, and Inner Anarchy. It’s no secret that I believe Jesus holds universal significance and relevance, regardless of one’s religious, spiritual or philosophical tradition or belief-system. In my view, we can stop scapegoating religion for our world’s problems and acknowledge that we can embrace our own particular tradition, but learn from each other. The assumption tends to be that an openness to different beliefs will compromise our own, but I have discovered instead that it expands and deepens my beliefs in very meaningful ways.

I’ve stated elsewhere that I believe this is possible if we could unanimously adopt the following five notions:

Every person can fully embrace and follow their religious tradition, spiritual interests, or philosophical views without creating division, destruction, hostility, or hatred. ​

Every person can find a rationale and motivation within their religious tradition, spiritual interests, or philosophical views to be an instrument of goodness, peace, love, and compassion in the world, and affirm the inherent, equal, and unconditional worth of every human being.​

Every person has the right to follow their own inner guidance in choosing their own religious, spiritual, or philosophical views and practices. ​

Every person can participate in a process of personal growth, self-actualization, and fulfillment of one’s highest beliefs and aspirations, and encourage the same for others. ​

Every person benefits when each of us follows our own unique inspiration for building a world that works for everyone.

We need to shift our thinking about religion from a competitive mindset to a cooperative one. Whether than focusing on the question of having the “right” beliefs about God, what if we asked questions like this:

Do my beliefs promote harmony?

Are my beliefs a source of joy, goodness and beauty?

Do my beliefs inspire kindness and compassion?

Do my beliefs motivate love for all people and living things?

Do my beliefs hold a space for people to coexist peacefully?

I know what some people are thinking: “Jim, what are you smoking?” “Is this some kind of Utopian fantasy?” “Never going to happen.” “Wishful and deluded thinking.” “As long as there is religion, there will be division and hostility.”

I’m not going to give up holding this possibility. I believe we are capable of it. We have perfected the art of religion as competition. In my view, the challenge and opportunity before us is cultivating religion as cooperation, the one characteristic we most need if we hope to survive.

©  2019 Jim Palmer Author. All Rights Reserved
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