In the Christian tradition of the 1960s and '70s, the tradition that formed my spiritual background, one underlying truth was that Jesus was "the way, the truth and the life," and that no one came to God except through him.
But I, like many other Christians, wondered about the kind, wonderful people of other religious traditions. Were they automatically condemned because they didn't profess that Jesus was their savior but were living the kind of life he taught us to live?
And the people in the least-developed parts of the world, who had never heard of Christianity, much less Judaism or Islam, were they doomed?
The Rev. Michael Brown, minister of the 385-year-old Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, says what ties good people of all faiths together is that they are seeking God and seeking meaning in peace.
"What I'm increasingly aware of as I deal with my own faith tradition and other faith traditions," he says, "is that there is a core of faith and practices we all share."
Christianity, Judaism and Islam are essentially three streams of the same river, says Brown, who will speak on "Following Jesus in an Age of Pluralism" at the Festival of Faith at First-Centenary United Methodist Church, running Sunday through Tuesday.
"They're on separate roads leading to the same God," he says. "They have more in common than is disparate in their books of faith."
Brown's storied church, where the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale expounded his "power of positive thinking" for 52 years in the late 20th century, ministers to Christians, Jews, Muslims and people of no faith tradition on a weekly basis.
"On Sunday morning, in New York City, multi-faith [life] is simply a reality," he says.
The question, then, becomes how "we are personally led" to God, Brown says. While the teachings of Jesus do and should define that road for Christians, "it's up to God, not to us" whether or not the other roads are valid, he says.
However, there is a history of pluralism, even within ancient Jews. Until the days of Daniel, Jews were not monotheistic, Brown says, and allowed for people of various faiths to live together unless they become militarily aggressive.
"There was a multi-faith understanding," he says.
Even Jesus, says Brown, was influenced by various religious traditions. Much of the New Testament book of Luke is informed by the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, he says, and Confucius made pronouncements similar to Christ 500 years before the birth of Jesus.
"When we get exclusive," Brown says, "we are really out of touch with the source of our faith."
But those who learned to follow Christ in the post-World War II church boom need not feel threatened. Instead, what they need to ask themselves, Brown says, is whether they're willing to - through Christ - be the way.
"If you believe - and you should - you should make sure you are following him faithfully," he says. "It's a lot easier to be walking the walk and not just talking to talk."
If those who call themselves Christians are truly following Christ, Brown says, then they're following Christ's mandate not to judge - "that job is already taken," he says - and are allowing people of other traditions to exercise their faith.
After all, he says, in John 10:16, Jesus says, "And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear my voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd."
"[Jesus] never said other people on a search for God should be condemned," he says.
The Festival of Faith features Brown speaking at the church's 8:30 and 10:45 a.m. services Sunday, then speaking again Sunday through Tuesday nights at 6:30 p.m. The Rev. Steve Byrum, a retired United Methodist minister who is president and chief executive officer of The Byrum Consulting Group, also will speak on Monday and Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. There is no charge to attend.
Dinner is available for a nominal cost with a reservation on Monday and Tuesday at 5:30 p.m., and child care is available on request. For either, call 756-2021.
Contact staff writer Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6497. Subscribe to his posts online at Facebook.com/ClintCooperCTFP.