The Hindu, the Buddhist, and the Christian were all sitting together. They were taking questions now. There was a big pause. I had not intended to cause discomfort. I had actually hoped for a different answer.
The Christian, a Methodist minister with a warm and quiet demeanor, had spoken gently about God as Love and about how we are all called to this Love by this Loving God. Lots of love, lots of God. Very nice. But, this Christian never actually got around to mentioning Jesus of Nazareth. This was confusing.
The Buddhist, a professor of physics, was a more dour dude, even a bit intellectually imperious as he blew through complex parallels between the Big Bang and Mahayana notions of non-duality and egolessness and then expounded upon, in a very dispassionate and unloving tone, the compassionate and loving Buddha Nature immanent in every sentient being. He described this divine nature to be God In All Things and a reflection of Universal Love… oh, but by the way, there is not a theistic God in Buddhism. This Buddhist was very confusing.
The Hindu was the party of the panel. He certainly was not your usual suspect on the campus of Southern Methodist University in 1993. He was a Western convert who had apparently drunk some very happy Indian kool-aid. Draped head to toe in white homespun linen and perpetually smiling, he loquaciously rambled around the Hindu pantheon while emphasizing that all of these divinities were not really distinct gods but rather divine aspects of the One, the Brahma-Atman. It seemed like every third word was either Love or God. His arms kept shooting up as if he were refereeing cosmic touchdowns while encouraging us all to “Go with it! Be with it!” With what? More confusion, but much more fun.
I was twenty-nine and still confused, but not so much, and not so unconfident in my questions any more. Now, Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By lay in my lap. The many notes I was scribbling inside the back cover were my own cross-references to many other sources. A paraphrase of M. Scott Peck. My own quick summary of Thomas Kuhn, whose The Structure of Scientific Revolutions had recently given me my first glimpse into a fundamentally optimistic conception of a relative world. And, a big connection made with Gary Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics, the book that would ultimately inform my conception of God more than any other. I will explain all of this soon, really. I finally can! But, today, I am only remembering the moment when I first fully let go of Christianity. When I had to, without guilt and without fear.
It was now Q&A. I stepped up to the microphone. “Hello, and thank you for this respectful dialogue. I’ve listened to all of you speak about God and Love and understand that, howsoever you conceive these things, both are elemental to each of your traditions. Based on what you all have said tonight, it would seem that there is ultimately no true difference amongst these religions or their intentions. However, coming from the Christian tradition, I have to point out that Christians don’t just say, “I believe in God.” They also say, “I believe in Christ,” and that to be a Christian I must accept Jesus Christ as my personal, and apparently exclusive, savior. That only through Christ can we know God’s Love. This belief inherently dismisses any other beliefs, and I don’t want to do that. So, my question to you, sir, is…”
Turning to the minister, I continued. “If I believe Jesus is A Way and A Life, but not THE Way and THE Life, if I do not believe that Jesus is the only way to God, but I believe that his spirit and teachings can and do lead to the Divine, just like these and other religions do… can I still be a Christian?”
The big pause. I’d apparently thrown a very inconvenient theological Hail Mary. The Buddhist looked at the ceiling. Even the Hindu stopped smiling. The minister—this obviously goodhearted man—actually squirmed a little bit and dipped his chin. Ever so slightly, he shook his head. Five years, many paths and so many books later, I stood firm, as now it was a Christian who could only say, uncomfortably, “Noooo.”
A metaphysical fumble. But, for me, it was all open-field running from here on out.