“The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (John 4:23-24).
Clearly, the worship described by Jesus in these verses suggests an authentic, living faith that is truly universal. By its very nature it reaches across cultures and transcends ethnic and sectarian divisions. But what are we to think of those who lived before Jesus or who have never heard the name of Christ? Are they excluded from salvation history? Have they no access to the truth? Have they no spiritual inheritance to claim?
While the advent of Christ in Jesus of Nazareth is a clear and world-historic revelation, it can be seen, with just a bit of reflection, that the truth of Christ and the gift of God in Christ is not confined to Christendom or to the Christian era, but is universally accessible in that hour which, as we shall show, is always coming, here and now. Indeed, the universality of this truth is illustrated, in part, by these various remarks by Jesus concerning Abraham and the resurrection:
Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I Am.” (John 8:56-58).
Have you not read what was said to you by God, “I Am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living” (Matthew 22:31-32).
“I Am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26).
In short, Jesus IS and those of any era who, like Abraham, truly believe God can be said to see His day and to have eternal life in Him. The Apostle Paul also explains how both we (who name the name of Christ) and Abraham are justified by faith (Romans 4). Elsewhere, he says that all who belong to Christ, are (spiritually speaking) children of Abraham:
“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:27-29).
Thus far, then, we have seen that the continuity is clear, in scripture, between the faith of Abraham and the faith of those who trust in Christ through the teachings of the New Testament. And, clearly, what Jesus said of Abraham must equally apply to anyone born before the advent of Jesus (or outside of Christendom) who somehow— by the grace of God and through the eyes of faith —see His day. Still, for the truth of Christ to be truly universal, it would seem that the grace of God that is found in Christ must, in some sense, appear to all human beings, whether or not they ever hear the story of Jesus, per se (cf. Titus 2:11), and whether or not they, through the eyes of faith, actually see His day, as Abraham did. And, indeed— with all due respect to the profound significance and inestimable value of the New Testament teachings and the Christian culture that grew out of them —the true universality of the story of Jesus is borne out by its inner truth (or archetypical significance). For there is a sense in which the gospel is true even if Jesus of Nazareth had never existed. That is— just as 2 + 2 = 4, whether or not we ever see it WRIT LARGE, so to speak —there is a sense in which it can be said at all times and in all places that:
“[Christ] was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name: Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13).
The passion of Jesus, as represented in the New Testament, is this universal truth WRIT LARGE. But the purpose of the written word is to point to the living Word. And, as we have shown elsewhere (and will discuss in more detail, below), our point of contact with the living Word is the “I Am” presence within us— that Divine presence which is truly universal —the light that lights everyone who comes into the world (John 1:2, 9).
As such, whoever we are— and whenever or wherever we may have been born —if we remain ignorant of the truth about our origin and our destiny, it is only because we neglect or reject the One in whom we live and move and have our being:
“Indeed he is not far from each one of us. . . . as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring'” (Acts 17:27-28).
Indeed, there is to be found in every culture and among every people some recognition of this truth. And just as it is written in our scriptures that God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (I Timothy 2:4), not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance (II Peter 3:9), it is also clear— from a wide variety of pre-Christian and non-Christian traditions —that by virtue of our very existence as human beings, we have a Divine calling and that, in fact, whosoever will may come (see Interfaith Accents). As it is written,
“Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Revelation 3:20; cf. 22:17).
Moreover, the image of God in each of us is rather obvious (“I Am” ). Indeed, it becomes crystal clear in those of us who, remembering the One with whom we have to do, turn to Him in living faith. But having eaten of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, our tendency is, at first, to turn a deaf ear to this calling and to reject the light of life— this one and only way to the Father —hoping instead to complete ourselves and secure our future by accumulating money and prestige; and/or by indulging in sensual diversions). Or, having realized the limitations of these things, perhaps, we may decide, instead, to pursue some sort of social, ethical, or political ideal—not by the grace of God, however (in the strength and the power of the Spirit), but merely by dint of our own efforts and according to our own understanding. Alas, all such desires and all such pursuits reflect false ideals and false gods projected onto reality by a false sense of self (the carnal or egoic mind). Thus it is written,
“The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light” (John 3:19).
But sooner or later our dark passions will be exposed. For the objects of such “love” together with the “selves” that pursue them are counterfeit. According to the metaphor that follows, they are thieves in shepherds’ clothing. In contrast to the false self-image and the counterfeit goods which have seduced us stands Jesus—the “I Am” presence within each one of us. Indeed, His living presence rings true— through and through —and must sooner or later be recognized as the singular gate through which authentic, abundant life is to be realized:
“Very truly, I tell you, I Am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I Am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. . . . My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish (John 10:7-10; 27-28).
By the grace of God, then— when all other avenues are exhausted —we, like the prodigal son, wake up and in that moment of clarity hear his voice speaking to us in the stillness of Divine presence. At that moment— by grace, through faith —we are ready, willing, and able to step through the narrow gate that leads to life:
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it (Matthew 7:13-14).
This is the gate which has been there all along, but which for any number of reasons has been neglected or rejected:
“This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalms 118:20-24; cf. John 14:6-7).
Just like the stone that builder rejects, the “I Am” presence within us is pushed to one side as we pursue our prodigal escapades with an entourage of thieves and bandits—willing, as we are, to exchange our birthright for a mess of pottage. The good news, however, is that the kingdom of heaven is always at hand (is within us and among us) and that whosoever will may come (cf. Matthew 3:2; Luke 17:20-21; Revelation 22:17). Now is the accepted time… Now is the day of salvation! (II Corinthians 6:2).
But the kingdom of heaven— though always at hand —does not come with observation; it does not evolve in time and space; does not arrive on the scene in the natural course of human events (Luke 17:20). Indeed, it is in this regard quite comparable to those who have entered the kingdom—to those who are described as having been born again or born from above. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus is very instructive in this regard—notice Nicodemus’ failed attempt at framing the new birth in naturalistic terms:
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” (John 3:3-4).
In the verses which follow, Jesus explains that the origin and destiny of those who are born of God will always appear mysterious:
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:5-8).
Indeed, neither the kingdom of heaven nor those who dwell there are to be adequately accounted for by the apparent causal relationships which appear to affect change over time. This principle of new birth and new creation is alluded to in Jesus’ discussion of the bread of life (John 6:32-36, quoted below) and is also suggested by these verses in the book of James:
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (James 1:17-18).
Thus, through the eyes of the flesh— i.e. through our natural perception as employed by the carnal or egoic mind —we perceive, evaluate, and attempt to manipulate the apparent unfolding of our lives in space and time (appearing, as it does, to originate horizontally, so to speak, or naturalistically). But through the eyes of the Spirit— i.e. through the mind of Christ —we see the eternal creation which is fresh and new every moment [originating from deep within and high above us—originating vertically, so to speak, or epiphanously—bubbling up from within our hearts, like an eternal spring of living water (John 7:38); or coming down from above like every perfect gift from the Father of lights (James 1:17)]. As it is written, we are in the world (as perceived by the carnal or egoic mind), but (Christ-like) we are not of the world (cf. John 17:14-16).
This vertical or epiphanous creation (which IS Reality— appearing HERE, NOW, ALWAYS —ever fresh, and ever new) is also symbolized in scripture by the virgin birth (cf. being born of God or born from above). Consider, if you will, that in light of the virgin birth, the New Testament genealogies— which trace Jesus’ lineage from Abraham to Joseph (Matthew 1: 1-17) or from Joseph back to Adam (Luke 3:23-38) —tell us nothing of Jesus’ true origin which is better accounted for in these verses from the book of Hebrews:
We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek. This “King Melchizedek of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham as he was returning from defeating the kings and blessed him”; and to him Abraham apportioned “one-tenth of everything.” His name, in the first place, means “king of righteousness”; next he is also king of Salem, that is, “king of peace.” Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God, he remains a priest forever” (Hebrews 6:19 – 7:3).
What a beautiful description of the “I Am” presence which IS the living Christ —“a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” within the “inner shrine behind the curtain” (transcending the veil of time and at-one with the Father).
“Taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalms 34:8).
Indeed, there is no doubt that this is the bread from heaven which like every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above coming down from the Father of lights:
Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I Am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe (John 6:32-36).
Likewise, the gift of aware presence shines forth from the soul of every human being– created as we are, in Christ —in the beginning with God!
“For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light. O continue your steadfast love to those who know you, and your salvation to the upright of heart!” (Psalm 36:9-10).
The upright of heart are those of any era or culture who, like Abraham, are justified by faith—those who trusting in and relying on Him, truly see His day. Each one of us sees (by virtue of) this light, but few recognize Him as Lord—few recognize in Him their real origin and destiny.
“But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God, even to them that believe on his name: Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13).
“Thus, through the eyes of the flesh— i.e. through our natural perception as employed by the carnal or egoic mind —we perceive, evaluate, and attempt to manipulate the apparent unfolding of our lives in space and time (appearing, as it does, to originate horizontally, so to speak, or naturalistically). But through the eyes of the Spirit— i.e. through the mind of Christ —we see the eternal creation which is fresh and new every moment [originating from deep within and high above us—originating vertically, so to speak, or epiphanously—bubbling up from within our hearts, like an eternal spring of living water …”
Thank you for speaking the Name. In so doing … I am ever echoed.
This is a very noble endeavor to take this on — to take this Truth and articulate it as richly and fully as you did. Thank you. This is powerfully good.
I humbly submit this article for your consideration as you seek out the length and breadth of this thing… In a post (link below) I touch on a universality of Christ — I mean the universality of that which is actual Christ, not the word “Christ”. Some of your experience and insight here resonates with my own sense of things, however my own bent has been toward never calling the reader back to Christ (the Spirit) by the name Christ or Jesus…but pointing them to the narrow band of truth within their own faith tradition and the HUGE amount of power in that. Do you find that Christ (the Truth) is large enough a Truth to be found, as is, in other people’s faith traditions?
ps. I wonder if you’ve ever heard or read anything by John Thatamanil on this topic? I think his written work is too intellectual for me but I heard a talk he gave at a church one day, and learned that his mission, in a sense, is to help Christians find the ways that their own faith gives them permission to be this inclusive and magnanimous toward other faiths. He was very good at it! You remind me of him, a bit!
[“Do you find that Christ (the Truth) is large enough a Truth to be found, as is, in other people’s faith traditions?”]
Thanks for the feedback, Olivia– and for the reference to John Thatamanil –much appreciated! The short answer to your question regarding other traditions is YES! 🙂