I was raised in Canada, where every year in school, we studied a different area of the British Empire – the way American students cover different aspects of U.S. history.
The year I turned 13, our focus was India. I did extra reading about Hinduism, reincarnation, and especially about Mahatma Gandhi – his kindness and beautiful spirit affected me deeply. Then I became concerned about what it meant to be a Christian.
So I addressed this concern with our Anglican minister. “Sir, you know where the Bible says ‘God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten son, that all who believe in Him should have eternal life?'”
“Yes.” He agreed he was familiar with this quote.
“Well, it seems to imply that anyone who isn’t Christian is going to hell, is that right?” “Yes, Marian, heaven is only for Christians.”
“Well, sir, what about Mahatma Gandhi? He was a wise and gentle man who happened to be Hindu. As a Christian, do I have to believe that he’s roasting in Hell?” (!)
The minister swallowed hard. “Yes, Marian – Heaven is only for Christians.” I thanked him and went home for dinner.
For the next several years, I stayed in the church. I loved singing in the choir and the ritual of the Sunday service. But looking back, I realize that, in every meaningful way – emotionally, philosophically, spiritually – I left the church right then. A God who could not accept the goodness of a man like Gandhi was not a God I felt called to know.
When I told this story on NPR a few years ago, the interviewer asked me how I feel about that minister now. No one had asked me that before, and here’s what emerged.
”I respect him, especially because he didn’t try to find a fluffy answer that I could accept. He stayed in his integrity, and by doing that, he freed me to think more independently about religions and God.”
I began to imagine a God-layer surrounding the planet, with different representatives extending down to the surface for different cultural groups. Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Gitchimanitou, etc. – all were part of this picture.
I am now an interfaith wedding minister, often uniting couples from different faith backgrounds. I am convinced that this conversation with my Anglican minister started me along this path.
And I completely love what I do!