When I was a freshman in high school, I tried out for the varsity basketball team. On the first day of tryouts, the coach ran a scrimmage, periodically sending players into the game to see how they played. When my turn came, I intercepted a pass on the very first play. Then I took the ball the length of the court, skyed over every other player and made the prettiest layup you ever saw.
The coach instantly blew the whistle, stopped the game and called me over to the bench. I was walking 10 feet off the ground. I just knew my shot was so good that he had to stop the game just to tell me. I envisioned that ESPN had called and wanted the footage, and that Sports Illustrated had every intention of running a photo of me on the next cover. The shoe deal with Nike was only a matter of time. So I walked – actually, strutted – to the sideline.
My coach said, “White, that was a great shot. Your form was great; your intensity was great. Only thing is, you went to the wrong basket – but it was a great shot!”
Is there a right and a wrong basket in the spiritual game? Is Christianity the only way to score with God or simply one of many ways? For today’s unchurched person, this is hardly academic. The religious landscape of modern American society can be nothing less than bewildering. Religious groups, sects, cults, movements, philosophies and worldviews abound in incredible numbers and diversity.
Add to this mix one of the most pervasive, fundamental convictions of contemporary American society: All roads lead to God, and to say that one way is right and all the other ways are wrong is narrow-minded, bigoted and prejudicial. What is true for you is true for you, and what is true for me is true for me. Searching for God is like climbing a mountain. Since everyone knows there is not just one way to climb a mountain – mountains are too big for that – each person can choose from a number of paths. All the ideas about God contained in the various religions of the world are just different ways up the mountain. In fact, though different religions have different names for God, the names all refer to the same God.
Is it true that a lot of roads lead to heaven, which means we really don’t have to worry about which road we’re on? Is it true that no person, no religion, no group, no book has a handle on the truth? Is it true that all religions are basically the same and all religious leaders are essentially of one mind so that ultimately all spiritual pursuits lead to the same place? If so, people need not look for spiritual truth. They just need to decide on spiritual preference.
If you embrace the idea that multiple paths lead to God and you turn out to be wrong, the consequences are enormous. So let’s explore the reasons why people hold to this belief:
1. There Are So Many Religions
The sheer number of faiths from which to choose convinces some people that there is more than one path to God. Religious pluralism has existed for centuries, but people have never been exposed to as many faith options as we are today. As the number of religious options increases in one’s mind, the idea that one option represents ultimate spiritual truth lessens. Yet the mere presence of options has little to do with whether a particular faith might be true, nor whether ultimate spiritual truth actually exists. The simple fact is that a test may be multiple-choice, but that does not mean it has multiple answers.
2. The Belief That All Religions Are Basically the Same
The idea that all paths are legitimate is also fueled by the sentiment that all religions are basically the same. Many introductory courses in world religions on the high school and college level stress the common denominators of religion throughout time and culture. While these courses may reveal certain similarities, it is also true that they contradict each other in crucial areas. For example, Christians believe in God, while some Buddhists don’t even teach that there is a God. Christians also embrace Jesus’ claim that He was God in human form who came to restore our relationship with God. Muslims, on the other hand, don’t believe that Jesus was God at all. Christians believe in truth and error, right and wrong, morality and immorality, while adherents to the various forms of New Age thinking contend that there are no absolutes and everything is relative.
You can say that somebody is right and somebody is wrong, or say that everyone is wrong, but you can’t say that everybody believes basically the same thing. That would be intellectually dishonest in light of the facts. If God exists—unless He is some senile, confused, muddled, schizophrenic, unbalanced being who isn’t sure what He stands for—there is religious truth and religious falsehood among the competing views. And the areas of disagreement among those views are not trivial in nature. The nature of God, the identity of Jesus, and how we enter into a relationship with God are of paramount importance. To return to our mountain climbing analogy in which all paths lead to the same peak, the truth is that there isn’t a single peak, much less a single idea of what the peak even looks like. Instead, the mountain has many different peaks, which raises a significant question: How do you get to the highest one?
3. The Idea That Sincerity Is What Matters
“It isn’t what a person believes that matters, but how he or she believes it; all that really matters is one’s sincerity.” Something deep inside of us knows, and I think correctly, that the nature of true spirituality is somehow connected with authenticity. But it is one thing to value sincerity and another to make sincerity the lone characteristic of spiritual truth. How you believe matters, but so does what you believe. If you say it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere, you miss a very important point: You can be sincerely wrong. If I have a headache in the middle of the night and I blindly reach into my medicine cabinet, I can sincerely believe I am taking an aspirin. But if I am really taking cyanide, my sincerity will not save me from the perils of the poison I’ve ingested. Sincerity matters, but it cannot be all that matters because sincerity alone cannot alter reality. Therefore, it is not simply the sincerity of our faith that matters but the object of our faith as well. Faith is very much like a rope – it matters what you tie it to.
4. The Belief That No Religious Group Should Think It’s Better Than Any Other
Some people are offended by religious groups who think their religion is better than any other religion. They believe that because God is so big and our understanding is so small, it is nothing less than arrogance and narrow-mindedness for a single religious group to maintain that it holds all truth. To ensure that tolerance of other people’s views exists, one should not claim some people are wrong and some people are right—or that “wrongness” or “rightness” even exist. But let’s imagine a young student who is given a question on a math test in school. The question is: “What is 2 + 2?” The answer, of course, is “4.” But let’s say the child answers “37.” Is the teacher intolerant, narrow-minded and bigoted if he/she corrects the answer?
Everyone must avoid a spirit that persecutes people for their differing beliefs or denies them their religious freedom. But this spirit of tolerance is different from believing all points of view are equally valid. Just because you come to a conclusion about where you should place your spiritual trust does not mean you are intolerant of other beliefs. It does not even mean you deny that some truth can be found in other perspectives. As C. S. Lewis once observed, “If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through… If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all those religions contain at least some hint of the truth.” Returning to our math student, there is one and only one right answer to “2 + 2,” but there are some answers that are much closer to being right than others.
5. They Don’t Believe in Truth
Ultimately, the question is whether people believe in truth and today many do not. A study by the Barna Research Group discovered that 66% of all Americans deny the existence of absolute truth. As Allan Bloom has observed from his years teaching in a university classroom, there “is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of. Almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”
The most enduring and accepted definition of truth is the correspondence between our ideas or perceptions, and reality. If I make the statement “It is raining,” it is true if I look outside and find that it is raining. What is true is that which actually is. The belief in more than one way to God is really a belief that truth does not exist or, even more to the point, that it doesn’t matter. Yet nowhere in life does this match our experience. There is not a single area of life where you can make any choice you want from a wide array of options and achieve the same result or experience. Even a skeptic as noteworthy as Sigmund Freud maintained that if “it were really a matter of indifference what we believed, then we might just as well build our bridges of cardboard as of stone, or inject a tenth of a gramme of morphia into a patient instead of a hundredth, or take tear-gas as a narcotic instead of ether.”
The question, therefore, isn’t “Is there truth?”, (there is, and we live our lives by it every day) but “Can spiritual truth be found?”
Perhaps now the most incredible spiritual claim in all of human history can be heard. Jesus said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). Not a way, a truth or a life, but the way, the truth and the life. It is this idea that marks the Christian faith. In the Book of Acts, we read the apostle Peter’s proclamation: “It is by the name of Jesus Christ… Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:10,12).
While there are many religions from which to choose, they differ radically from one another, and choosing where to place your spiritual trust is neither narrow-minded nor intolerant.
Truth exists, and it matters.
If all roads do not lead to God, then a spiritual search will lead you to the scandalous reality of one way. And for the Christ follower, that way is through a person:
James Emery White
Adapted from James Emery White, A Search for the Spiritual (Baker). Additional sources can be found in the endnotes of this book.
Knechtle, Give Me an Answer.
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.