When I was in college, I majored in Religious Studies, and in the process was able to explore the history and beliefs of many of the world’s religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity… among others. It was a fascinating and worthwhile experience. I was already an active, believing Catholic, so I knew what I believed and was committed to my faith in Jesus Christ. But my time studying world religions helped me grow in understanding the diversity of religious ideas and worldviews and gave me an appreciation of how humanity’s natural desire for God has taken a variety of shapes throughout history.
And yet, I still believe wholeheartedly that Catholicism is THE TRUTH. Not just true for me, or simply a way that works for me… but really the one sure path to truth and salvation. Admittedly, this is not a popular position to hold today. Many people see in this an attitude of elitism, fundamentalism, or a lack of open-mindedness. Why? Because over half of society (around 60%) believes that there are many paths to God and that many religions can lead to eternal life. While people aren’t necessarily closed off to the idea of religion itself, they do seem to reject the idea that there is any one religion that stands above the others as the one true religion. So, to claim that Catholicism is somehow THE truth is viewed by many as ludicrous.
Now, one thing that I learned in my years of studying religion is the importance of looking at an idea through the lens of those who accept it. Meaning this, in order for me to understand Buddhism, I need to (as much as possible) place myself in the mindset of a Buddhist and seek to understand their religious ideas from within their worldview. In the same way, in order to understand why someone would reject the idea of there being one true religion, it is worthwhile to consider what someone might find attractive about such an idea.
From my experience in talking with others about religion, one common sentiment behind the belief that there are many paths that lead to God is the desire we have for everyone to ultimately make it to God. We want everyone to find what they are looking for, and to attain the fulfillment that their religious and spiritual pursuit is meant to provide. And to say that there is one true religion above the rest seems to imply that everyone else that doesn’t follow that path is automatically excluded. When it comes to God, or salvation, or eternal life… we want these to be something that everyone can reach, regardless of what path they happen to take.
Now, we must admit that there is good behind this. Certainly, we should all desire for everyone to reach God, to experience the fullness of life for which they were made. But here’s the thing… God wants this for us even more than we do! Let’s me very clear about this… greater than our desire to reach God is God’s desire to be reached. He wants us to make it! He wants us to have eternal life with him! Which is precisely why he sent us his only Son, Jesus Christ.
You see, God made all of us, every single person who has ever lived, for eternal life and friendship with Himself. No one was created to be left out or excluded. His desire is and has always been, to draw us into a life-giving union with Himself. And after years of humanity wandering off the path and running from this relationship, God finally sent his own Son to draw us back. And when he came, he didn’t offer us simply one path among many. He didn’t come saying, “Hey guys, I found a way that works for me, maybe it will work for you too, but if not, no worries, just try whatever seems right.” No, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6).
We cannot ignore the enormity of this claim… Jesus himself doesn’t just claim to be one way to God, but the only way to God. The idea that there is one true path to God originates not with Christians in the middle ages, but with Jesus Christ himself. And He sent His followers into the world to proclaim this message, to share this way to the Father with all people. And that is what the Church has been doing from the very beginning, proclaiming Jesus as the way, the truth, and the life. The basic message of Christianity, from the beginning, has been this, “God loves you and made you for a relationship with Himself, He wants you to experience eternal life with Him, and has provided a way through His Son, Jesus Christ.” The Church proclaims Jesus as the sure path to God because this is precisely what Jesus Himself said.
But how do we know? How could we ever be sure that Jesus’ claims about himself are true?
Because Jesus did something that no one else has ever done… He rose from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection sets him apart from any other religious founder or spiritual leader. Everything hinges on this… Jesus’ resurrection from the dead confirms His identity as God’s own Son and His mission to save us from sin and death and to bring us to eternal life.
Because Jesus is risen, His message is trustworthy! Because Jesus is risen, His promises are true! Because Jesus is risen, His power to lead us to God goes beyond anything else this world has ever seen.
When Catholicism claims to be the one true religion, the unique path to eternal life, it does not say this out of pride or arrogance. Rather, it makes this claim as good news in the world, proclaiming to the world that we have a God who wants us to be with Him, who wants us to make it. Because of Jesus Christ, we have a way! We don’t have to wonder or wander… there is a path we know leads to God, Jesus Christ and the Gospel He proclaimed. And if we follow this path, not only will we make it, we can’t NOT make it! Ultimately, this is the message of Christianity to the rest of the world… “I know the way, come with me!”
What then do we say about all of these other paths?
Simply stated, the Church would say this: God has shown us the path to Himself. It has been revealed through His Son, Jesus Christ, and continues to be made known through the Church that He established. This is the only path that we know leads to eternal life because it is the only one that has been confirmed by the resurrection, by Jesus’ victory over death itself. This path to God truly does stand above every other path, because it is the way forged by God Himself.
For those who are not on this path, we don’t believe that they are automatically excluded, but we also don’t presume to know that they will make it. Rather, we hope and pray that they diligently seek what is good and true, and we entrust them to the love and mercy of God, who desires their salvation even more than we do. Anyone who is genuinely seeking truth is seeking God, and we trust that “since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partners, in a way known only to God, in the paschal mystery” (Gaudium et Spes 22).
Remember, God wants us to make it, and He is mysteriously at work in every human heart, constantly drawing that person to Himself. The prophet Isaiah says, “The hand of the Lord is not too short to save” (59:1). Our job is to humbly share with others the good news of salvation, and invite them into a relationship with Jesus Christ, because He alone is the one who can lead them to the very thing for which they were made, He alone has passed from death to life, and through faith gives us access to eternal life with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.