The truth about the Bible
Many Christians claim that truth is exclusively found in the Bible. Some will even go as far as to say that “everything we need to know about life is in the Bible.” There are of course various Bible verses used to justify those two claims even if the interpretation of those Bible verses are often stretched beyond the brink of their original meaning or intention.
While there is no question that the Biblical authors do communicate truth and true statements about all kinds of things, the above two claims about the Bible are simply incorrect.
Truth is indeed found in the Bible, but not exclusively. There is truth outside of the Bible, and while the Bible does contain lots of helpful and useful information about life, it does not contain “everything we need to know about life.” If that were the case, then why do any of us look for answers to many of life’s questions outside of the Bible, or for that matter learn anything outside of the Bible? We’ll come back to this.
Truth within other religions
The truth is that the more a person thoughtfully and humbly investigates other religions and the variety of traditions within those religions, the more they will likely see that truth is also found within those religions too.
The truth is Christianity and the Bible does not have an absolute claim on all truth. My intention is not to provide an exhaustive list here, but to instead share a very short list of truths and truth claims that other world religions make. Many modern western Christians are simply unaware of them. After learning about them for the first time, you might discover you actually agree with some of them. At the very least, you might see similarities between what you believe as a Christian and what other religions have said in the past, even if you don’t agree with their truth claims entirely.
In this article, we’ll look at just four religions and some of the truths within them. I chose Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Native American religions because they are of particular interest to me (for a wide variety of reasons) and because I didn’t intend this article to be an exhaustive list.
One concept (or truth) that is central to both ancient and modern Judaism is often missed by modern Christians, particularly those in western churches. This central truth is that the God who created the entire universe cares about liberation from systems of injustice and oppression. He also pays particular attention to disadvantaged and marginalized groups who have no one to defend them within these same systems. One of the highest and most defining stories of the ancient Hebrews and their descendants captures this theme—the story of the Exodus. It’s a story about liberation from the system of slavery that left the Hebrews economically and politically dependent on the Egyptian empire and it’s Pharoah; it is simultaneously a story about immigrants and foreigners in a land not their own, earnestly praying their god would advocate on their behalf, rescue them and hoping he will someday bring them to their promised land. This is what Passover, the miraculous parting of the Red Sea and their journey from Egypt to Canaan is all about.
Many modern western Christians often see the events of the ancient Hebrew Passover as either a story without any real relevance today or as purely symbolic, a story of events intended merely to foreshadow the future Passover of Jesus Christ nearly two thousand years later. Because of this, too many western Christians largely miss the deeper and more profound implications of this story so central to Jewish life and thought—namely, as we already stated, that the God of the universe is a god of liberation, with whom social, economic and political justice matters, works on behalf of immigrants and foreigners, and rescues them from oppressive systems.
It may be that if Christians took time to meditate on the Exodus story more, we might seriously reexamine how we treat foreigners and immigrants who come to our own nation seeking a better life (since of course the God we claim to know cares for and works on behalf of immigrants). Many families, if we are honest, have ancestors who once immigrated to a nation not their own. We honor their struggles and disadvantages by helping new immigrants find their way in their new nation. Indeed, God instructed the Hebrews to not forget who they are, where they came from, and how he has advocated for them in the past.
For many Christians in the western world, particularly those who do not identify as persons of color, Islam is often viewed through the lens of its most extreme and fundamentalist factions, which btw is only a small percentage of Muslims globally. Because of this, many western Christians are unaware of anything good that Islam has to offer, let alone any truth within its holy book, and they unfortunately see Muslims (particularly those who dress in traditional clothing) with suspicion and fear.
It may likely come as a complete surprise to discover truth claims you may have in common with Muslims who practice Islam. For example, passages in the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam) suggest that life is not determined by some all-powerful fate; instead, our choices really do matter and really do effect time and space. Western Christians often call this moral responsibility. Of course, this idea and concept is not unique to Islam or Christianity, but many western Christians seem unaware this is taught within Islam. Another truth within Islam related to the first is the doctrine of social responsibility. Islam teaches that Muslims should be “alleviating suffering and helping the needy” as demonstrations of their faith in Allah (the Arabic word for God). This of course is compatible with instruction in the New Testament of the Bible to believers in the Christian community to care for the poor among them with food and shelter.
Many Christians may also be surprised to discover they’d agree with some of the truths espoused within Buddhism once they learn about them. But before getting to that, let’s look closer at the historical backdrop of Buddhism, the life and teaching of its central figure, Siddhartha, who later came to be called the Buddha (enlightened one). According to tradition, his family was part of the warrior caste and were rulers within their clan, which means they were very wealthy and had great influence and power. Later in life, Siddhartha was exposed to the suffering of people in lower castes (or social classes) while in his chariot traveling outside his palace. Seeing his own position of power with new eyes (apparently, as corrupt and destructive), he gave up his position of power and left the ruling class. He opted instead for a life of meditation and gave up his possessions to limit himself from the seductive allusion of power, possessions, popularity and pleasure. He lived on very little and had very little to his name when he finally died of old age. According to his followers, he finally reached enlightenment.
Central to most streams of Buddhism are the 4 Noble Truths, which are based on the Buddha’s life and teaching. Each of these truths might be better understood as four acknowledgments that a person of insight will gain (i.e. a noble person) that will enable them to reach enlightenment. The first truth, or acknowledgment, is that this world involves much suffering. The second truth is that suffering stems from or is caused “by negative actions” (things like stealing, killing and lying) and “negative mental states that motivate those actions” (things like desire, hatred, and ignorance). The third truth is that in order to end or leave suffering, one must experience enlightenment (or nirvana). The fourth truth is that there exists a path one must discover and follow that leads to enlightenment.
As with the Buddha, early Christians during the time of Jesus came to recognize that this world is full of suffering and that much of our suffering is brought on by our own lust for power, popularity, possessions and pleasure. They also recognized that much of our suffering is the effect or consequence of oppressive systems put in place by people in political and economic positions of power. Jesus himself was born within the peasant class of his day and his people. The larger Jewish community in Israel was persecuted by a number of groups in political, economic or religious positions of power including Roman authorities like Pontius Pilate, Jewish tax collectors who worked for the Romans, and even some of the religious sects and leaders who used shame and imposed very strict social rules to conform the behavior of the Jewish population.
Many western Christians reading this, particularly those from the United Kingdom and the United States, may have an incredibly difficult time relating to these 4 Noble Truths and the oppositionary and ascetic way in which the Buddha lived. The United Kingdom, once known as the British Empire, had quite the expansive control of other nations around the world politically, militarily and economically. As the British empire gradually decreased in power, the United States took its place, and as many nations around the world have come to refer to it, became The American Empire. When you grow up in an empire, like I have, you’re more likely to not see the harm your country is causing. You’re also more likely to make excuses for it when it disadvantages other nations, limiting them in power, resources and rights.
Perhaps it may come as surprise to many Western Christians that some of the truth claims within our Christian Bible are also similar to Native American religious thought. To be sure, there is a diversity of beliefs and practices among Native Americans and tribes, but a common stream of thought is the concept of the interconnectedness of all things, including both living things and things that have passed on. A related concept (or truth) claims that our interconnectedness is made possible by one living energy force, or spirit, that flows and energizes everything. And because of this deep connection among all living and nonliving things through the one spirit, or living force, everything is sacred. Yes, everything. Also, how we treat and think about the land, mountains, animals, vegetation and sea is a sacred act, and because of this it matters. This does not mean Native Americans are largely vegetarians or vegan. It does mean, however, there’s a deep respect for the sacredness of all things.
Consider the following truth claims in the Bible and notice the similarities with Native American truth claims. In the very first chapters of the Bible, we read that an all supreme God created the world and called it very good, implying that everything God created is sacred. A related truth is found in a New Testament letter, which claims that everything is held together in the person of Jesus (in Christ). That same letter claims that all things were created by him and for him. And still another letter claims that all of creation (all the natural world) suffers and longs for redemption of the children of God, implying that there is a very close bond between human beings (one of God’s good creation) and the rest of creation (or natural world). According to that Biblical author, what happened to humans in the past affected all creation causing it to suffer, and what will happen to the humans both now and in the future (their redemption, or resurrection) will also have a positive and lasting effect (it’s own renewal, or resurrection).
One very common belief among most world religions is the belief in the ethic of reciprocity. Many Christians refer to this as the golden rule. Jesus once said that when one follows (or obeys) this rule of life, they are in effect fulfilling the entire Law and the Prophets. For the audience listening to Jesus, this was another way of saying that the entire Hebrew Scriptures (or Christian Old Testament) can be fulfilled and summarized in this one rule of life: “Treat others the way that you wish (or want) to be treated.”
Most modern Christians, however, seem to be entirely unaware that the golden rule has been something repeated and echoed by several religions prior to and following the time of Christ (see blue link above).
The ethic of reciprocity (or golden rule) is at its core a way to view and frame society and social structures. Specifically, it’s about how healthy and successful societies, made up of communities, neighborhoods, and families should interact with one another in the best way possible.
Not only this, the context and backdrop of how and when to implement the rule of reciprocity is treatment of foreigners and immigrants outside the community or nation. In ancient times, this meant foreigners who may have been traveling for many miles on foot, were hungry and needed shelter for the night. In other words, the rule of reciprocity was about how you show hospitality to new people, visitors, immigrants and foreigners.
The rule of reciprocity is a truth, and it’s a particular truth about how life works. And the reality is that this truth is one many religions and religious societies have advocated for over the last few thousand millennia.
The truth about learning anything and everything outside the Bible
What about the claim that “everything we need to know about life is in the Bible”? I have a sneaking suspicion you already know the answer to that question. The truth is there are many things we have learned outside the Bible: how to eat, brush our teeth, learn to communicate, read a book, how to swim, drive a car, use a computer, work hard, be responsible for our actions, interpersonal and intrapersonal dynamics in friendships, and the list goes on.
So no, we didn’t learn “everything” we need to know about life from the Bible, nor should we.
Parents, relatives, teachers, coworkers, friends, medical specialists, spiritual mentors and many others taught us about life. Not just the Bible. The truth is that many of us learned all kinds of things outside of the Bible from various trusted and reliable sources. And we will continue to do so.
The truth about how we talk about other religions
Now I completely get that when some people say “truth is only found in the Bible,” they are NOT actually suggesting there is literally nothing true whatsoever in another religion or that people from other religions can’t speak true statements. Well, some Christians do mean that, but others do not.
Often, though, when a Christian says, “truth is found exclusively in the Bible,” they are referring to “truths of ultimate concern” or “eternal truth(s).” In other words, for them the Bible is the only source that offers certain truth or truths about life that should be trusted over other religions. Other religions (they say) may offer some good things, but to find the most important answers to life, you must turn to the Bible and the Christian faith.
There’s a lot that could be unpacked there, but I will likely fail to meet everyone’s expectations.
First, I am not saying you can’t or should not make truth claims. Obviously, we just looked at the truth claims of 4 major world religions in addition to Christianity. I am also not saying faith in Jesus and following him does not present some unique truths that are transformative for all people everywhere no matter their religion, but that is not the point of this article. It’s to present some truths of other religions in order to more humanize the people who are adherents or members of those religions. In any attempt by Christians to draw firm lines with other religions and the people in them, we often miss anything good they may have to say, including true things we may actually agree with. Rather than approaching them with openness and compassion, we treat them with suspicion and fear.
The cycle of dehumanization of people from other religions is tragic and destructive. The more you begin to be suspicious of others, the more unlikely you are to see their humanity, their value and what they have to offer, and because of this you are unlikely to ever seek out any kind of meaningful relationship or friendship with them. They are not the kind of people you’d seek wisdom, understanding or truth from. You may even begin to ignore or turn a blind eye to injustices societies or even churches do against them. They become expendable. Subhuman even.
The truth about how Jesus treated people of other religions
When we finally stop our nonsense and take a moment (just a moment) to look at and listen to Jesus, all the usual categories of truth are (or should be) shifted around.
The first in line often end up last. Those who are last often end up first. Outsiders are sometimes actually on the inside. Insiders are often on the outside. Samaritans (and people like them) understand the love and mercy of God over the Levites and priests. Young children and infants are closer to the kingdom than the loud, bombastic and self-serving crowds.
Jesus once told someone outside the Jewish community that authentic worship of God and true religion is not about where you live or which tribe and nation you are part of. It’s about seeking God from the core of your being, in spirit and truth.
When asked by a humble and eager young disciple where to go when things are uncertain, Jesus once said, “Follow me because I am the way, the truth and the life.” When asked by the most powerful official in the Roman military stationed in Judea what truth is, Jesus was silent.
It isn’t so much that truth is relative or can’t be known, but so many of our assumptions about truth need to be reexamined and reworked in light of Jesus, his teaching and his way.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.
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