Are All Religions True?

One of the things modern people often say about different religions is that ‘they are all basically the same’: they teach about being a good person, about a higher being of some sort, but all lead to the same place – just different paths to the same thing. While this position sounds good, we must understand that it turns out to not even be close to true, and that’s important because we should be seeking out not what is easy to live with as human beings but what is ultimately true, and lines up with reality.

University of California, Berkley, professor Huston Smith explains, “As soon as the notion of sameness, between the religions, moves beyond vague generalities, that every religion has some version of the Golden Rule, it falls apart on the fact that the religions differ in what they consider essential and nonnegotiable.”[1] Smith is saying that when we dig into any religion we will find contradictory ideas when compared to other religions. This is true about a number of foundational beliefs around which religions are shaped. Here are a couple of examples:

1 – God

Religions differ on their views of who or what God is. Christianity says God is one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), eternally one but eternally distinct. An eternal community, which is why there was love and humility and servanthood, before there was a universe, or people. This is by definition how John can say things like “God is love” (1 John 4:8). You can’t have love without community of some sort, which this view of God allows for. This description of God is known as ‘Trinitarianism’.

Islam and Judaism on the other hand have a Unitarian view of God, wherein there is a strict oneness to God that does not consist of this plurality, or trinity, at all. In fact, both religions see this concept as a heresy. In contrast to Islam and Judaism, Buddhism and atheism says there is no God, while Hinduism says there are hundreds of millions of gods. Which religion is right? Modern western culture says ‘they all are’ and ‘they all teach the same thing’. Clearly we are ignoring the facts, and being irrational, which is the one thing an informed skeptic does not want to be.

 2 – Jesus

Consider also the question of Jesus Christ himself. Christianity says it’s essential that Jesus died to pay the sacrifice for sin, taking on the wrath of God and then rose again from the dead. If these things did not happen, belief in Christianity is “vain”, and useless, and Christians are “still in our sins,” and the most “pitied among men” (1 Cor. 15:13-18). Their view of God, and salvation, is not just different, it is wrong. Islam is vastly different than Christianity in that it says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross at all, and thus, that he did not rise from the dead either.

The reality is: Jesus died or he didn’t die. Islam and Christianity can’t both be true at the same time. There are massive implications on every level of life and civilization to the claims of these faiths and it’s the height of laziness to claim them both somehow true at the same time, even if it is in the name of civility. Someone once said, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and it is nowhere more clear than in this postmodern effort.

Pluralism in India

When I was in India, we were sitting at the top of a mountain. The team I was leading, and I, were praying together and talking around the campfire and off to the side there was a Hindu man worshipping and praying to Shiva and Vishnu and what he called “the monkey god.” He came and joined us by the fire and told us all about his beliefs and then we told him about Jesus. None of us around the fire that night said, “Hey, both versions of reality are true and reliable at the same time.” That would have been a mockery to our beliefs and to his.

The reality is that our options are that one view is right, or at least more right than the others, or that all religious views that have been developed so far in civilization are possibly wrong, but not that they are all right. That is not only the most irrational position but the laziest.

Steve Turner wrote a poem about the absurdity of this postmodern approach to life:

We believe that all religions are basically the same. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation. We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly. The universe will readjust. History will alter. We believe that there is no absolute truth except the truth that there is no absolute truth.[2]

Turner’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek as he satirizes the modern approach to truth.

And it should be.

Overcoming the Monster: What Story Are You Telling?

In Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, he outlines the fact that every story we tell ourselves as human beings – since the beginning of time, whether around the campfire or in a big budget superhero movie – all fit into seven basic categories:

1 – Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. (Beowulf, Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Wars, Jaws, The Dark Knight, James Bond, Jurassic Park)

2 – Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. (Cinderella, Aladdin, Pretty Woman)

3 – The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. (Iliad, Indiana Jones)

4 – Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience. (The Lord of the Rings, Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Interstellar)

5 – Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Much Ado About Nothing, Mr. Bean, Dumb and Dumber)

6 – Tragedy – The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad)

7 – Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. (Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me).

This observation – that we find these same basic story structures all over the world, and throughout time, is fascinating in and of itself – but the thing I was pondering recently, especially since we just came through eight straight parables Jesus taught in Matthew 13 at our church, was the power of stories and their place in our lives, and more specifically, how we can leverage that to influence others in every area of life from ministry, to business, to even raising our own kids.

Trump vs. Hillary 

Let me use an illustration from American politics. It surprised everyone that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the end. The media, the politicians, and the institutions were all surprised, and of course there are complex reasons why he did beyond my understanding, but I think one reason he won is because he told a better story than she did (whether that story is true or mean-spirited, etc., is again, not the point). Whatever one thinks of the content of the story he told, they must admit it was a clear, large, simple, and compelling. It was about bad guys and good guys and an old America which was perfect and wonderful, and simple solutions to get America back there again (a combination of “Overcoming the Monster” and “Voyage and Return”). And it was a story that invited people into it.

The power of story is its ability to influence and capture the imagination of millions of people, and to influence them in one direction or another. Not to equate the one with the other : ), but this is the same reason Jesus brought his message of salvation and the kingdom in the form of stories and not just prose. Stories inspire, re-frame the world, turn facts into meaning, answer our biggest questions, and in so doing, change our very behaviour. It’s why we shouldn’t just answer our kids questions with straightforward answers, but tell them stories about why the answers are what they are. Frame their lives in the context of the larger narrative of the world to help them find their place in it.

What story are you telling?

What churches, ministers, charities, and businesses need to ask when thinking about how they get their message out most effectively is “What story am I telling?” “Is it compelling, big, inspiring, and inviting enough?” “Is it clear, or convoluted and complicated?” “Is it boring or exciting?” “Am I presenting just facts, or something more – a mythology?”

I am watching the Netflix show The Crown right now. Elizabeth’s coronation as Queen is one of the most moving scenes of the whole show, and while the guests are watching it on TV, there comes a part in the ceremony when they put a barricade around the Queen so the audience can’t see and a group watching the TV ask why they blocked the cameras, and the answer one of the characters gives is telling:

“Symbol upon symbol,” he says. “An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy, blurring so many lines no clergyman or historian or lawyer could ever untangle any of it.” “It’s crazy,” one of his guests remarks.

“On the contrary, it’s perfectly sane,” he replies. “Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose, when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. Wrap her up like this and anoint her with oil and hey, presto — what do you have? A goddess.”

The sub-story

As a Pastor and church leader I have the greatest story of all time to tell on a weekly basis: the story of the gospel of Jesus, and how it in many ways is the combination of all of the seven basic plots (think for instance how the story of Jesus is all about “Overcoming the Monster” of Satan, sin and death, how it is “Voyage and Return,” of Jesus from Heaven to earth, and a “Rags to Riches” story as well, with Jesus as a poor baby who is vindicated in the end). The question for a church leader then, as an example, becomes the sub-story that you invite your city, community, church, or guy in the coffeeshop into as a local expression of that larger story of the gospel.

What local monster can you overcome? What global ones can you kill together? When we do our annual Golf Tournament, this is what we do. The Monster of slavery and sex trafficking needs to be defeated and we are invited in to overcome it. What great Quest and adventure are we all on as disciples of Jesus to “get to the location” of heaven in the end, “facing many obstacles and temptations along the way”?

When my wife Erin and I lead Marriage Conferences we often end, not by cute stories and how-to’s of ‘communicating better’ and ‘having a better sex life,’ but by explaining that the most important thing for their marriage is to be swept up into the mission God has for their lives as a married couple: to together push back the evil in the world, to love and bless the poor, and to fight sin and Satan in the lives of their friends and families, and in their own hearts, and that if they are busy in the trenches doing that they won’t have time to turn the guns on each other. Usually at the end of this rallying cry people cheer and amen and clap. And when I ask them why they usually say they’ve never thought of their marriage in this context of the global spiritual war around them and their place within it before and it helps to frame their problems (usually making them look small and insignificant) and give them something to work toward together.

So, if you own a business, or lead a church, or even just a family – what story are you telling to frame your lives, your product, or your mission? Is it big enough? Clear enough? Compelling enough? And does it invite people in? If not, work hard at figuring out a way to do so. Why? Because, as Elias Canetti once pointed out, in his Nobel Prize winning book, The Voices of Marrakesh:

“The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that the people throng most densely and stay longest…their words come from further off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people.”

Indeed.

And as a Pastor I admit, I want people to linger. I want people to stay longest, to hear the greatest story ever told and one that can change their lives now and forever. A story about a God who loves them, and died to save them. Who overcame the monster for them, so they never have to. Who turned a Tragedy into a story of Rebirth – and who now invites everyone to experience the joy of that accomplishment.

I may have been reading the Gospels wrong my whole life

So tonight I was reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to my middle daughter. We were reading the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and something hit me I had never thought of (God speaks to us from the most interesting places sometimes doesn’t he)? Sally Lloyd-Jones, the writer of the Storybook Bible, makes the point that Jesus could have come down from the cross if he wanted, and that we know he had the power to because we’ve already seen him feed 5,000 people, walk on water, etc. And it dawned on me: what if all those stories – of miracles and impossible deeds – are all a kind of preamble to the real climax to which they have been pointing: the cross, the true and better miracle. And what if those very miracles are recorded for that exact reason: to make us appreciate the cross that much more. No one’s taking his life from him, he’s laying it down of his own accord. No one is keeping him on the cross but him, of his own will, and that’s part of what makes it great. And how do we know this? Because we’ve seen him appear and disappear. We’ve seen him stop storms, and raise the dead, and heal sick people.

People often say that they are surprised by how much space the Gospel writers give to Jesus’ suffering (his last couple of days) saying it seems like a lot. For instance the first half of Mark is about the first three years of Jesus’ ministry and the second half is about just the last few days of Jesus’ ministry (most of which is his last night, his trials and crucifixion).

But maybe the point is the opposite. Maybe they could have spent more time on his redemptive suffering and pain but they wanted to spend time setting up the depth and breadth of that sacrifice by showing us that it didn’t have to be this way. That he was not really a victim of history or just a martyr for a cause but one who could have stopped it all but didn’t, and that’s why the miracle stories exist at all. To tell us that.

All of this would mean that the story of Jesus’ life is not something different than the story of his death, but that the former makes the latter all the greater.

This is a theory of course, and needs more exegetical thought, but it does make me appreciate his sacrifice that much more and hence makes me want to sin less.

And that’s no small feat.