As Christians, we often talk about experiencing God directly in our lives and we view this experience as evidence for the truth of the gospel. One of the most common questions we can be asked by sceptical friends is, “What about other people’s genuine experiences of God? Isn’t it really arrogant to say that your experience of God is real but theirs is not?”
In the first chapter of her new book, But is it Real?, Amy Orr-Ewing tackles this issue:
One of the reasons this question is so powerful is that at its heart, Christianity really is all about a personal relationship with a living God. This does not mean, however, that the same is true of other world religions and belief systems.
In Buddhism, for example, followers are guided through a process called the Noble Eightfold Path. The end aim is the loss of one’s sense of experience, emotion and even personhood and self in order to attain oneness with Brahman, the impersonal Ultimate reality. To talk about “experience of God” in Buddhism is to misconstrue Buddhism entirely.
In contrast, the heart of Christianity is God making an appeal of love to the human beings he has created. Through the death of his son Jesus on the cross, God offers human beings forgiveness from all their sins and reconciliation with Himself. Christians are called “children of God” (see Romans 8:16) because the forgiveness opens the way into a real relationship with a loving, personal God.
We can see that Buddhism and Christianity have very different approaches to –and indeed frames of reference for – the very concept of experience, so it is not surprising that one would seem to negate the other. It is better to be open and honest about this difference than to try to relativize or homogenize all the religions of the world so that they can appear to be the same.
Islam, for example, is very different from Buddhism but also fundamentally different from Christianity. The Islamic perception of God is that he is majestic, powerful and utterly transcendent, but he is not portrayed as a relational being in his essence, as the Trinitarian God of the Bible is. The God of Islam should not be talked about in personal terms, as this is to undermine the nature of Muhammad’s perception of God and to risk misunderstanding the Qur’an entirely.
Neither Buddhism nor Islam have any concept equivalent to the idea of a relationship with God, which is at the heart of the Christian message – it is in fact unique.
The question still remains though, that even if Christian experience is startlingly different when laid alongside comparable alternatives, isn’t it still intolerant and even arrogant to assert that this somehow nullifies the others?
Tolerance is only required when people have different opinions. If I agree that your path leads to God as much as mine does, then I don’t need to be tolerant because we both agree. It is only if I disagree that I need to be tolerant towards another person’s view. Christianity is perceived as being intolerant for saying that some other view is wrong – but the ironic thing is that the one accusing Christianity of being intolerant is (by their own definition of tolerance) displaying that same intolerance towards Christianity! The issue at stake is therefore not who is intolerant, but which claim is true and real.
Many react against the claims of the uniqueness of Christ by saying that Christians are being arrogant in saying that Jesus is the only way to God. It is as much of a truth claim, however, to say that all ways lead to God or that some do. Surely it is just as arrogant to say that all paths lead to God as it is to say that none lead there. The question is not whether it is arrogant to say that Jesus is the way to God – but is it actually true? Is it real?
As for the accusation that Christianity excludes other views, it is important to recognise that any truth claim whatsoever automatically excludes other views. Just as the person who says that Jesus is the only way to God excludes those who say that all ways lead to God, the person who says that all ways lead to God automatically excludes those who say there is only one way. Given that all views exclude, it therefore seems a little unwarranted to single out Christianity and reject it on the basis that it excludes. The issue again is not whether Christianity excludes, but whether the claims of Christianity are true and real.
At the end of the day, any claims to have encountered God and to have a real relationship with Jesus Christ are open to testable firsthand experience for every living person. Christians believe that a simple step – opening one’s heart and mind to God – is all that it takes to begin a lifelong relationship with him. The Bible promises that if we draw near to God, he will draw near to us. This is a clear invitation to encounter God. A simple prayer like ‘’God, if you are there, please reveal yourself to me” can be an intriguing start to our search for him.