We live in a world of different religious beliefs. And in our global village we all live side by side – if not physically, then certainly through the media, the internet, air travel, and international terrorism. How do these different beliefs relate to each other? Are they 'leaves on the tree', or 'different paths to the mountaintop', ultimately leading in the same direction? Or are they fundamentally different?

In this discussion there are at least two very different ways of looking at truth.

You are born into your religion

According to one view, you are born into your religion. Religion, culture, community and country are all closely linked. Mahatma Gandhi felt that ‘Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other… the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people.’ Different parts of the world will follow different religious paths, which are most suitable to them. So the West is ‘Christian’ while South Asia is Hindu, Sikh, or Muslim, the Middle East is Muslim, and so on.

Underlying this is the idea that the different religions are simply different outward expressions of one underlying spiritual reality. It may be called by different names, but it is the ultimate source of all spiritual energy. Each region, culture, or group has its own way to God, and they are all valid.

They all lead to the ‘eternal religion behind all religions, this sanatana dharma, the timeless tradition…’ (S Radhakrishnan, in his book, Eastern Religion and Western Thought).

There is no point arguing over belief, as the differences are not important. And it is wrong to change from the religion into which you were born; this only creates tension and disloyalty.

This is a geographical, cultural, community approach to religion. Truth depends on where you are and who you are. Religions are temporary, related to our personal, social and cultural circumstances.

Spiritual reality is above culture

Another view is that expressed by Paul, the first-century Christian preacher. Speaking to the elders of Athens, the cultural capital of the Mediterranean world (Acts 17:22–34), he said that it was true that people had been seeking God in their different ways and places. Their images and ideas represented their yearning for God. And God has revealed himself, to some extent, to everybody. People know God as the creator and the source of our being, though he is much greater than our imagining.

But at a certain point in history, God intervened and actually became part of our world, as a human being. That became the decisive turning point. It was not just us seeking God, but God seeking us. While Paul did not mention Jesus by name, he clearly identified him by referring to his resurrection.

This view is radically different. It distinguishes spiritual reality from culture, community, and geography. It agrees that our religions reflect our human search and longing for God. In this sense they reflect aspects of the truth about God, the creator and source of our being.

But in another sense they are flawed by our human drives for power and control. They can become systems through which we control and manipulate others, through priestcraft, magic or superstition. They can just be what we are comfortable with, picking and choosing what to believe and what to practise according to our own personal preferences. They can block our knowledge of the true and living God because they become ways of depending on our own knowledge, ability, devotion, or good works, instead of on God alone.

So religions are ambivalent structures. We could re-phrase the question…

Does any religion lead to God?

The fact is that few of us have been completely sincere in our efforts to seek God. It’s common for people to recast God according to their own preferences about how things should be and how God should act. The problem is not just about knowing who or what to believe, it’s that few of us make the effort to explore further.

We also struggle to do what we believe is right, because we lack the spiritual and moral strength to do it. We need someone to lead us to a restored relationship to the living God.

We have already seen the Bible’s view, summed up by Paul, the first-century follower of Jesus – that God intervened in our world at a certain point in history, and actually became a human being. Jesus came into the world to show us the truth about God’s love and forgiveness – and also our response to God.

This was the decisive turning point. It was not just human beings seeking God (religion) but God seeking us.

No religion can lead us to God. Only God can lead us to himself.

South Asian Concern