Which Religion is the Best?
Which religion is the best? This question has led to some major conflicts, but also some great humor.
You may have heard the story of the parents of a Jewish boy who was not doing well in math at school. His parents decided it might be best to send him to Catholic school. To their delight, after his first two months there, his math grades dramatically improved. When his parents asked him why his math scores increased, the boy responded, “Well when I saw the guy nailed to the plus sign in every room, I knew they meant business.”
Or you probably heard about the guy who died and went to heaven. As the angels were showing him around they stopped by various rooms. In the first room, he peaked in to hear Latin and watched a priest serve communion. “Those are the Catholics,” the angel explained. In the next room, he saw a group singing and speaking in tongues. “Those are the Pentecostals,” the angel explained. As they approached the third room, the angel guide whispered to the man, “You’ll have to tiptoe here.” “Why?” the man asked. “This next room is where the fundamentalists worship and we need to be quiet because they think they’re the only ones here.”
Humor can also be insightful. The first joke reminds us how little we know about each other’s faith and the the second joke reminds us how exclusive we view our own.
Why are there so many religions? As one person asked me, “Do you think Christianity is the best religion? And if not, why won’t don’t you switch to the other one?”
I think that’s a fair question and I want to tackle those questions today.
The fact is most religious people believe their faith is the true one. That’s why they follow it. Christians make the case that Jesus is the only way pointing to Scripture where he says he is the way, and no one comes to the Father but through him.
I experienced this first-hand in my ordination council to become a Baptist minister way back in the late ’80s. Two members from every church in the region came to respond to my theological statement and quiz me. Even back then I had a strong Swedenborgian understanding of the variety of faith paths that lead to heaven.
The one question from the group was, “If a person doesn’t accept Christ, can they still get into heaven?” I responded that only God would know that answer. I thought that would end that topic, but no. The next and the next person asked similar questions each getting more specific. They wanted an answer. Finally, one person demanded “In John 3: 16 Jesus said that no one comes to the Father but through him. Would you disagree with Christ and say people who are not Christians can get into heaven?”
Disagree with Christ? He wasn’t much room to respond. I knew full well they were asking about Catholics and Jews in our area. They wanted me to condemn them.
“But what about John 3:17?” I asked, “It says Christ came to save the world not to condemn it. If Christ didn’t come to judge, then who are we to judge another person’s salvation?” That only made the questioner angrier. This went round and round and the questions got meaner and meaner. I eventually won the ordination vote, but by the smallest margin of any candidate in memory.
What was so amazing to me was their primary focus of all topics was wanting to hear me say only Bible-believing Christians like them were going to heaven.
This viewpoint is widely held today. I found this from a pastor answering the questions online:
“Based on the observable evidence, a religion based on a single, creator God is the most compelling option. Of the three major one-God religions, only Christianity presents compelling eyewitness testimony in both its holy writings and external historical evidence to claim that Jesus is God. If the resurrection of Jesus is true, then the result would be that Christianity is the correct religion. Jesus Himself claimed to be the way, not a way, and He challenges those who seek the truth to look to Him.”
His whole premise is based on observable evidence, which he does not have. Finding the right religion isn’t a science experiment.
Growing up I hadn’t been that exposed to different religions. When I’d arrived at East Stroudsburg State College and I remember there were two choices of Christian groups to join. Campus Crusade for Christ was the Protestant group, and the Newman Center campus ministry was the Catholic group. After attending events with both groups, I came to a surprising conclusion. The Catholics, who had not known much about, were kind Christians, with programs to feed the hungry and help the poor. The other group was, like my ordination council, obsessed with their salvation and the condemnation of other faiths.
My college years were an ecumenical awakening for me. I attended the Presbyterian church and also attended Wednesday Catholic folk mass I even played the rabbi in the school play. Two summers I served as campground minister for the Lutheran church. All and all, I loved the variety of ways people found a way to God. By my senior year, I became the first Protestant to run the Catholic Newman Center campus ministry program and have maintained connections to Father Jack Bendick, now monsignor, our priest to this day. In fact, I received an email today asking for prayer for a nun suffering a health crisis.
I learned from them that each faith had something special to offer. At Divinity School, I continued my explorations of faiths and took courses in Swedenborgian theology where I grew to appreciate our tradition teaches all faith paths were good if they lead to greater compassion.
I also worked at the ecumenical church, Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, where I got to help play host to the world’s greatest preachers and we even there we created a Christian-Judaic Fund to sponsor Rabbi’s preaching at the church.
I truly enjoy learning about other people’s faiths and during this last decade I was honored to serve as the chair of the NCC Muslim-Christian dialogue at a time when Muslims were experiencing discrimination.
Here’ what I’ve learned about which religion is the best. The answer is quite simple.
It boils down to this that are two types of religion in the world.
Religion that through its practices, teaching and rituals helps you become more kind to others and religion that do not. If your religion gives you a conscience and provides structure and discipline to your life as you seek to love and forgive more, then that is a religion that leads to heaven. If your religion makes you more compassionate leads to a better life on earth with more happiness and peace and leads to heaven. Religion that creates a desire to condemn and dominate your fellow human beings is a path to unhappiness and hell.
People who call themselves Christians that practice love to others have more in common with Muslims, Jews, Buddhist and Hindu sects that practice the same thing. The reverse is also true. Christians, Muslims or Jews, Buddhist and Hindu sects who are focused on how their faith is the only true faith without compassion to others are not living a life toward heaven.
The religion’s name is unimportant. The action of the follower is all that matters.
What about people who are kind but have the wrong theology?
No problem, he explains that those people who loved their neighbor are brought into the truths of heaven gradually using the example of pulling up a plant by the roots gently so it can be replanted and not abruptly. He suggests that the story of Jesus is true and an important concept to learn even in the afterlife and those who lived a Christ life has no problem learning more.
What about those who have the theology of Jesus correct but don’t love their neighbor?
Swedenborg saw Christians on the other side who struggled to get into heaven because of their own arrogance of thinking, they had it right and their beliefs were the only true ones.
He also runs into many different faiths who seem to suggest to him that Christians have a negative brand on the other side as the group who has been presented the truth, but too often failed to act on it.
But why so many religions in here on earth wouldn’t it be easier if there was just one?
Jesus in the gospel reading today states that there are many rooms in his father’s house showing the love of diversity and different paths in heaven. I get the sense that the longer people are in heaven the less they feel connected to their life on earth religion.
God loves diversity in creation. Swedenborg teaches that the deeper meaning of an image in Revelations of the Holy City has 12 gates and he teaches that these gates represent the diverse paths people will need to come to God. Our diversity is critical to the Lord’s creation. He explains, that the more diverse, the stronger and more perfect heaven becomes.
You’d expect that Swedenborg’s unique insight that all faiths are good would have a positive impact in the world and it did. During the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, a member of the Chicago Swedenborgian church, judge Charles Carrol Bonney, imagined creating the nation’s first the ecumenical event called the World Parliament of Religions which brought spiritual leaders from Hinduism and Buddhism to the US for the first time and introduced eastern religion.
But what about when a religion on earth no longer teaches goodness? Religions on earth often outlive their usefulness. We read the gospel each week and most of Jesus’ battles are with religious fundamentalists more interested in the rules than justice. Swedenborg suggests that when religions outlive their usefulness new ones emerge and what’s really fascinating is that the leaders of the new religion are rarely can’t part of the previous religion.
This might hint that what we now call the “nones” might be the leaders of what’s next in terms of religion in the world. As the Christian church evolves into a new more authentic faith. I’m not sure but interesting to consider.
The bottom line is that God created us with incredible variety, and we can learn from other faiths about their path and deepens our own.
Learning another person’s faith is an act of love.
I remember last year a woman arrived for Sunday services after dropping off her son at Howard University. After the service she looked concerned, “Father, I loved the service but what about communion? It doesn’t count if there’s no communion.” I quickly figured out she was Catholic.
I told her I wasn’t a Catholic priest but could give her communion if that would be better for her. Within a few minutes, I had the communion wafers a chalice of wine on the altar and did the Catholic liturgy from a memory of those services I attended in college. She was greatly relieved as she heard the words she was familiar with. My lessons from Father Bendik at the Newman Center helped build a bridge with a person of a different faith that I’ll likely never meet again.
The key to understanding world religions is to look at those that help people be better human beings. Those that do are true religions. All that matters to God is the person who follows the teachings of Christ, which is love to others.
The Lord’s love is all-inclusive and welcomes all of us to find our path toward heaven by a life of service to others. There’s room for all religions in heaven and our job is to find one that helps us grow to be better people while we are here.