Here is an excerpt from the much-publicized “Key Findings” of the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life dated June 23, 2008:
“Most Americans agree with the statement that many religions - not just their own - can lead to eternal life. Among those who are affiliated with a religious tradition, seven-in-ten say many religions can lead to eternal life. This view is shared by a majority of adherents in nearly all religious traditions, including more than half of members of evangelical Protestant churches (57%). Only among Mormons (57%) and Jehovah's Witnesses (80%) do majorities say that their own religion is the one true faith leading to eternal life.”
“Most Americans also have a non-dogmatic approach when it comes to interpreting the tenets of their own religion. For instance, more than two-thirds of adults affiliated with a religious tradition agree that there is more than one true way to interpret the teachings of their faith, a pattern that occurs in nearly all traditions. The exceptions are Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, 54% and 77% of whom, respectively, say there is only one true way to interpret the teachings of their religion.”
An interesting storm front always brews up when a society devoted to some version of “tolerance” is also very involved with a religion which seems to teach that there is “one way only” to God.
All sorts of little eddies develop in the winds of such a storm. For one thing, “tolerance” becomes very hard to define. Does it require that all views be accepted as somehow “true” or does it mean that even views that are false will not be persecuted in some way?
There is also the fear of “sounding like a cult.” Sometimes it seems that the greater the error in a religious view, the more cocksure its advocates become. We wouldn’t want to be like that, would we?
Let’s face it - the American mind-set makes it very comfortable to think in terms of some kind of universalism. That is, everyone is “going to heaven.” Don’t we all want to meet there some day for a big family reunion? Shouldn’t almost everyone - except, perhaps the most heinous criminals - be allowed to come?
But an at-face-value reading of the Christian faith doesn’t jive with this mind-set. Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except by me.” The Apostles said, “There is no other name [than Jesus] by which we must be saved.”
Christianity has many features that are attractive to us, but this one is not. It has therefore been subject to all sorts of ingenious attempts to explain it away.
The Pew Forum found that most American have a “non-dogmatic approach when it comes to interpreting the tenets of their own religion.” This is especially convenient because it allows Christians to non-dogmatically “interpret away” that unpleasant exclusivism that is part of the historic Christian faith.
Perhaps there is just enough truth in any religion to give a devoted practitioner access to God. Perhaps Jesus really is the only way to God, but you can be “in Him” without even knowing it. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps . . . and on the non-dogmaticism goes.
It says something very disturbing that more than half of the members of evangelical Protestant churches have taken some kind of mental refuge in one of those “perhaps.” You might expect that from the “big seven” mainline denominations which gave up the historic Christian faith many years ago. But the evangelical Protestants were supposed to “go against the grain” especially in regard to matters like this.
It is possible that they have, at least among the leaders, to some extent. This unpleasant aspect of the historic Christian faith probably gets an airing at many evangelical churches, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it “takes” with church members.
For a long time, evangelical churches have been busy making themselves attractive to the culture around them, so as to entice the members of that culture to enter their folds. This has been a very tricky business about which many have warned us.
When evangelicals invited people to bring all the trappings of current culture to church with them in the hopes that this would attract more people to church, did they not suspect that this would also invite cultural attitudes into the church?
Many evangelicals were willing to make the church into a high-tech, rock concert, shopping mall, munch-donuts-and-chat-on-your-cell-phone venue. In other words, they invited people to think that church is just that culture you love with a little dab of God on top.
Of course, a part of our culture is the belief that, in the end, everyone will be saved. So why should we be surprised that, down at the “surround sound theater” church, that’s exactly what most people believe?