People who fish, if they do it with regularity, can become philosophers of sorts. Even theologians. The sport is called fishing for a reason. Fishing entails long stretches of waiting interrupted, one always hopes, by a few isolated moments of catching. While you stare at the water, you have time to think. Perhaps this is why so many men of this particular vocation made up Jesus' original band of disciples. Men used to the contemplation of water were well suited by temperament to listening to the one who had so much to teach.
A late relative of mine had a saying, employed often, whenever fishing did not result in catching. He never accepted the idea that we had hit a dry hole while angling. His reply was always the same: "They're there, all right. We're just not presenting it to 'em right." I thought of that homespun wisdom when reading the most recent edition of Newsweek. An article makes the claim that Americans (76 percent of whom claim the identity "Christian") are slowly becoming more like Hindus and less like traditional followers of Jesus. As evidence of this, the author cites a 2008 survey by the respected Pew Forum, which declares that two of every three Americans believe that "many religions can lead to eternal life." This notion is directly in keeping with the Hindu belief that many paths lead to God.
I can recall with some clarity shaking hands with a parishioner one morning who told me, "Well, I was listening to you today and I have to agree. It doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you believe something." Rarely has a post-worship comment shaken me more. Her espousal of the idea that all paths are equally valid was not new. I had already sensed that she believed this because she is the daughter of a Buddhist mother, native to Japan. Ascribing those thoughts to me, however, had me reeling. If that's what she heard me say, then it came out wrong.
Jesus said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." (John 14:6) This is the quintessential anti-many-paths biblical prooftext. It seems utterly unambiguous.
What I meant to say that morning, apparently poorly, is this: God is all about love expressed through grace. Grace is the unmerited forgiveness of human beings. Personally, I am persuaded that Jesus is the way. However, it is possible that God's grace may well be wider than our doctrines (and our reading of Scriptures) would seem to permit. We read the John 14:6 text and conclude that adherents of all other faiths are shut out of a true relationship with God in this life and eternity. (There are folks reading these words who believe my last sentence with great vigor. Even now, some may be preparing to blog a reply.) As a minister of the gospel, I proclaim one path -- Jesus. What I hope for, however, is that God's grace is so deep and wide that maybe God is still fishing where I have given up.
I can't preach many paths. And I won't. But neither can I unilaterally declare a "dry hole" when an all-gracious God just might have a line still in the water.
Ultimately, each of us believes according to the light we've been given. Salvation is God's business, not ours. I've been called to fish with the bait called Christ. It's the only thing on my hook. God, however, may have something else in the bait box. I don't know that, so I can't preach it. But it's possible.
These words are also in the Bible: "God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9) You see, fishing is a theological enterprise.
Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau.