Rich Mayfield: Many paths lead to eternal life
Vail CO, Colorado
I didn’t know I could believe that!
Such sentiments were often shared with me during my 25-year tenure as a parish pastor. Sometimes they came with a burst of enthusiasm in the midst of a Bible study or following a sermon, other times it was whispered in the privacy of my office, but always it was with a sense of incredulity from one more befuddled believer. Hadn’t they always been taught their religious tradition was certainly the best, if not the only, way to God? Hadn’t they always been taught that to diverge from the official teachings of the faith was to jeopardize the very eternal destination of their soul?
Their amazement often centered on why such new and liberating religious insights had been, apparently, kept from them.
Sometimes this new wisdom came as we examined the similarities in ancient religious practices that revealed the universal nature of the religious quest. Or perhaps the discovery of the bevy of Biblical authors raised questions as to whether our own holy book was as divinely authoritative as we had once thought. But, over and over again, these faithful folk, reared in the church and educated in the faith, wondered if such new and exciting insights were officially permissible.
Now a systematic study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life makes clear, whether it is permissible or not, these often eagerly formed religious opinions are held by a growing number of believers. According to Luis Lugo, the director of the Pew Forum, the study reveals a significant trend: “Even though the country is highly religious, in terms of the importance of religion in their lives, the regularity of church attendance, etc., most Americans are, in fact, not dogmatic about their faith. They’re very open. In terms of various paths to heaven, and even in terms of interpreting the teachings of their own faith, the majority tell us that there’s not just one right way to do that.”
Information like this can make many a religious authority more than a little nervous. After all, most religions have a vested interest in making sure their adherents aren’t thinking about jumping the ecclesiastical ship. Considering that a previous Pew study revealed that more than 25 percent of respondents had left the religion of their childhood for another religion or no religion at all, it is no wonder this new study is being met with a decided lack of enthusiasm by some. The largest Protestant denomination in America, the Southern Baptists, still claims “there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.” and Roman Catholicism continues to assert its primacy both within and without Christianity. But judging from this latest survey, there appears to be a growing gap between what is pronounced from the pulpit and what’s believed in the pews.
The survey provided additional evidence that religion, particularly conservative, evangelical Christianity, is … dare it be said … evolving? There is a growing movement within this branch of the Christian tree that has younger adherents less concerned with the traditional emphasis on personal piety or social restrictions. These often well-educated and upwardly mobile evangelicals find caring for the environment and seeking adequate healthcare for all just as spiritually important as following the Ten Commandments.
In a dramatic display of this changing direction, one of the most influential evangelicals, Rick Warren of “Purpose Driven Life” fame, has been rallying like-minded believers to engage in some very nontraditional evangelical enterprises. His program to alleviate hunger, teach literacy and slow the spread of AIDS in Rwanda has raised more than a few eyebrows in evangelical circles. According to Francis Fitzgerald in this week’s New Yorker magazine, “At an international Baptist convention … (Warren) called for “a second Reformation,” one that would be about “deeds not creeds.”
When evangelical Christians make actions more important than beliefs, you can bet there is something new in the works (pun very much intended). This may be disconcerting talk for denominational leaders but it is surely a hopeful sign for the two-thirds of us who, according to the study, believe that “Many religions can lead to eternal life” and “There is more than one way to interpret the teachings of my religion.”
The Pew Forum study reveals what many of us have known for a very long time. There is considerably more tolerance of religious diversity among the faithful than from the leaders of their faiths.
That you can believe.
Rich Mayfield is the author of “Reconstructing Christianity: Notes from the New Reformation.” E-mail comments about this column to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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