Here are some thoughts for a lunchbar I'm giving this week at Lancaster University. It tackles the sort of new age pluralist belief that 'right action' is the most important thing.
I was given a quote by the American television host Oprah Winfrey, “There are many paths to what you call God”, and then given the subtitle, “Are all religions the same?” Thanks to YouTube, I was able to find the context where this quote was made. It was made by Oprah in her television programme a few years ago:
1. Humans can experience true humanity through feeling certain things through making certain choices of action. Oprah suggests that people can choose to get to the same point through showing love, kindness and generosity. For her, that’s what it means to be human. In fact, she suggests that what some call knowing ‘God’ is merely one of millions of possible ways of experiencing our true humanity, broadly given the description of living in ‘the light’. God is not a personal being, but a name some give to a feeling of fulfilment. Humans can waste their lives through choosing not to show love to ourselves and others. Whilst Oprah would surely admit that there are differences in teaching between religions, for her the similarity between them is that all of them help their adherents to express what it means to live in ‘the light’.
2. Certain religious believers who hold what are called ‘exclusivist’ beliefs are arrogant and intolerant because they insist upon thinking the ‘right things’ about God. What’s important is living the right way, living in the light, and thereby being enlightened to the experiences of what it means to be human. Teaching and doctrine just get in way of doing that, causing unnecessary arguments and intolerance.
In a 2008 web seminar on her religious views, Oprah clarified her own position on Jesus’ identity and his relationship to other religions, saying:
“Jesus came to show us Christ-consciousness, Jesus came to show us the way of the heart, Jesus came to say, ‘Look, I’m going to live in the body, in the human body and I’m going to show you how it’s done. Here are some principles and some laws that you can use to live by to know that way.’ ... I don’t believe that Jesus came to start Christianity. What Jesus said has a depth to it. So there’s no conflict between his teaching, which is purely spiritual, and any other religion.”
Pluralism, then, is shown to be what Oprah holds most highly. To insist upon there being only ‘one way’ is uncool, arrogant and intolerant. Christians, for example, that claim that Jesus is the only way to God have misunderstood Jesus and the ‘depth’ of his teaching. Holding exclusivist views is to be unenlightened about what it means to live and truly experience life as a human.
3. There can’t possibly be only one way to God. Oprah charges the Christians in the audience, apparently incredulous at their small mindedness, and angry at how Christians render God. If there were a God, and there are people who are trying their best to live like Jesus, how can God possibly deny them entry into heaven? Again we see that living the right way and experiencing the light comes before believing.
Overall, Oprah advocates a position very similar to the religious pluralist John Hick:
‘Around the different ways of conceiving, experiencing and responding to the Real there have grown up the various religious traditions of the world with their myths and symbols, their philosophies and theologies, their liturgies and arts, their ethics and lifestyles. Within all of them basically the same salvific process is taking place, namely the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness. Each of the great traditions thus constitutes a valid context of salvation / liberation; each may be able to gain a larger understanding of the Real by attending to the reports and the conceptualities of the others.” (Hick, Problems of Religious Pluralism, 1985)
Engaging with Oprah's worldview: two questions
1. How do we know anything about God at all and what he is like?
Oprah asserts that ‘God’ is an impersonal experiential feeling that comes from doing good. She brings her own definition of who God is and what God is like into the discussion (which, in practice, runs against the concept of God that nearly every world religion would hold).
Each of us is liable to form a God of our imagination, because we don’t instinctively know what God is like. We need him to reveal himself. Otherwise, we just bring our own definitions of what we think God should be like – without any evidence – and then assert these ideas on others.
The God of Christianity is a personal, revealing God. For that reason, he has made himself known, supremely in the person of Jesus.
So what about the claim that there’s no conflict between Jesus' teaching, which is 'purely spiritual', and any other religion? We'd have to refute it. The plain reading of the Gospels reveals Jesus to be God, not someone whose primary aim was to encourage others to search for a hidden existential philosophy (like Oprah suggests). And if the God of the Bible really is God, he is well able to represent himself in ways that are plainly intelligible to us.
2. How do we experience what it means to be truly human?
I think Oprah rightly wants to live an authentic human life – and for her, that’s to be kind, generous and loving to all. For her, acting rightly now and doing the right thing is the supreme end of being a human.
Our consciences testify that Oprah's way of living is good and right. But here’s the problem: by ourselves, we can’t live this way. In fact, we’re incapable to just choose to live this way. We’re not free to live in the way we know we ought to be living.
In Mark 7:21-23, Jesus describes why it’s impossible for us to live this way: it comes from a disease at our very core. Jesus described in it this way: “What comes out of you is what defiles you. For from within, out of your hearts come evil thoughts: sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile you.” The source of this disease, this evil, is wanting to live life without God.
In the name of freedom, we’ve walked out of the relationship with God for which we were created. We live instead as we were never meant to live. And so, although what God made was very good, what we have made is evil. Everything God made has been caught up in it. Everything is broken. But we can’t just saunter back to God. We’re trapped in this way of living.
According to Jesus, that leaves us with two problems:
(a) the judgement of God’s verdict upon our lives: our past condemns us;
(b)there’s no prospect of change: none of us can just change.
In short, we need a miracle. What Oprah longs for is good. She longs to be generous and kind and loving. But this is only possible if, somehow, we can be miraculously changed from the inside out to live as the way we were created to live, for God. But that requires us to be brought back to him. The Bible teaches us that this happens through Jesus' death and resurrection.
Those who trust in Jesus are made completely new from the inside out (this is what Oprah craves) . Christians are washed clean, and then God himself – through the help of his Holy Spirit – helps Christians to live for God, the way that we were created to live. God’s help makes kindness and generosity and love a possibility where they were impossible to show consistently before. It’s a slow process, but God is miraculously at work and promises that, when we die and receive new bodies, this work will be complete. And the process of being made more like Jesus is a beautiful thing to see in the lives of others.
Oprah says, “there are many paths to what you call God.” But for all of her good intentions, Oprah is wrong here on two counts:
- ‘God’ is not a way of living, he is a person who longs to be known.
- And we can’t live the way that God wants us to live without being brought back to him. That happens through Jesus’ death on the cross.