I want to start off this post by explaining that I hold Christianity in extremely high regard. I was raised and remained a Christian for many years. In my view Christianity holds so many wonderful insights concerning God and God’s relationship with the world that it deserves the prominence it has. There is no doubt in my mind that God works powerfully through Christianity. However, I have also come to believe that the exclusivity of many Christian claims particularly its soteriology are no longer either rationally tenable or beneficial to our world. Accordingly I want to lay out my rational objections to the soteriological exclusivity of Christianity.
Jesus is a pivotal figure in Christianity just as others like Siddartha Guatama and Mohammed are for the religions founded on them. In this age of worldwide plurality of culture and religion it is all the more pressing for theologians to examine what it is about these figures that makes them such landmarks for religion. Are they just especially gifted, insightful individuals or are they something more? Clearly there may be a difference between the popular, grass roots perception of these religious leaders than that found in professional theology and philosophy. Popular sentiment often comes close to deifying these individuals including praying to them or holding them out as totally unique among humans. However, I think there is a definite distinction to be made between the professional view of Gautama, Mohammed and other so called prophets or enlightened ones versus the status that is most often given to Jesus. This distinction can most aptly be shown with the position that Paul Tillich offers:
The paradox of the Christian message is in one personal life essential manhood has appeared under the conditions of existence without being conquered by them. Systematic Theology II, 94.
Now as I have stated many times I am a great admirer of Tillich’s work but this is where I part company with him. It is this absolute uniqueness of Jesus that is espoused by Christian theology that I view as untenable. But not only is Jesus claimed to be absolutely unique but his life, death, and resurrection are also supposed to be the center of salvation history. The “event” of Jesus is the salvic event of creation. Now I accepted this for many years when I called myself a Christian. I continued to accept this and Tillich’s concept of “New Being” even amidst all the criticisms coming from both inside and outside Christianity over biblical literalism, demythologizing scripture, problems with scientific consilience, etc. I have to admit the criticisms lodged did narrow what I was willing to accept as core to Christianity but it was one particular flash of thought that brought down the house of cards, at least for me.
What I’m about to recount may sound strange to many but I recently read a paper by prominent physicist Paul Davies with similar arguments. Apparently what changed my mind has been on the minds of others as well. The flash of thought that changed my mind about the absolute salvic uniqueness of Jesus came when I pondered the presence of life on other planets. Over the past decade I was extremely impressed with discoveries in biology that showed that even in the most adverse environments life somehow “finds a way”. In almost any environment here on our planet we find life of some sort. From the frozen reaches of the poles to the depths of the sea where tube worms survive in acidic environments without light, life somehow finds a way to be. As more and more incidences of life’s resounding ability to be, came into my knowledge I become more and more convinced that it would be ludicrous to think that there is no other life in the cosmos except here on earth. The last I heard there is an estimated 300 billion galaxies in the universe. Estimates are that galaxies can have from ten million to one trillion stars. So there are an estimated 3,000,000,000,000,000,000 to 3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the universe. Of course each star could have as many as 0 to many planets. Now when I coupled the number of opportunities for earth like planets with the incredible power of life to emerge, I became convinced that there must be many, many other places in our universe where intelligent life exists. If one thinks about it, as well, as Jody Foster put it in the movie Contact, if there is no one else out there in the universe it seems like an awful waste of space.
Now back to the question of the salvic uniqueness of Jesus. If there are many, many other planets with sentient, intelligent beings out there what about their salvation? Is Jesus also their savior? At that point in my reasoning, it became clear to me that to attribute the salvation of the cosmos to an individual on planet earth was ludicrous. If aliens showed up at our doorstep is that the proclamation we would offer them? I think not.
Now I have asked Christian theologians about this and received some very strange answers. One even said that each planet could have its own savior. If one pursues these lines of theological reasoning things get pretty ridiculous fast. What if I move from one planet to another? Who is my savior? What if I am born and live on an asteroid or space station, which is my savior among the many? The closest? As you can see if there are other sentient, intelligent life forms out there it is not possible to defend the idea that in a man named Jesus of Nazareth “one personal life essential manhood has appeared under the conditions of existence without being conquered by them.” Instead I think Jesus can take his place among the multitudes of individuals in world history who have been remarkably transparent to the divine, each of which, however, embraced the depth of life only fragmentarily. They stand as shining examples and inspirations for us all to plumb the divine depths of our own being and embraces that depth in our living.