Is acceptance of Jesus Christ necessary for salvation? That is the question threatening to split the Dutch Reformed Church in America, which has about 200,000 members. The Rev. Richard A. Rhem, pastor of Christ Community Church in Spring Lake, Mich., has said he no longer believes that Jesus is the only route to God. Through their own religions, he argues, Jews, Muslims, and Budhists can be admitted to heaven.
His stance has shocked the regional Reformed Church authorities, who censured Mr. Rehm in July. But the pastor has been supported by his congregation as well as by some Christian churches in other denominations.
Christians have been arguing about the salvation of unbelievers for at least 1,600 years. (Before that, the religion's struggle for survival overshadowed concerns about the fate of unbelievers.) But the debate has an urgency in the late 20th century because of our expanded understanding of other religions.
Some, like me, find this understanding liberating. Others, and their numbers are greater, find it threatening. On both sides of the debate, there is a genuine theological concern. Christians like Mr. Rehm find it difficult to believe that a just and merciful God would damn millions of well-meaning men and women merely because they have not found faith in Jesus. Others insist that the Christian faith is an indispensible requirement for eternal beatitude.
The problem has always been of particular concern in the United States. Some of the first Christian settlers in the New World were dismayed to think that Native Americans, who had lived beyond the reach of the Gospel for 1,500 years, would suffer for it in the hereafter. At the same time, there were American Christians perturbed by the United States Constitution, which made all faiths equal before the law. To them, it seemed blasphemous to grant legitimacy to Jews, deists, athiests and "misguided" Christian sects, giving Americans the false impression that faith of any kind offered salvation.
In this century, the two tendencies have struggled against a backdrop of greater religious communication. Out new knowledge and new technology make the old isolation of the world's religions seem parochial and outdated. Christians are discovering that despite their obvious differences, the great world religions are in profound agreement about essential spiritual issues. People are now beginning to seek inspiration from more than one religion. There are Jewish and Christian Buddhists. More Christians than Jews read Martin Buber, the Jewish philosopher. Jews are reading Paul Tillich and Harvey Cox, the Christian theologies. Associations are being founded to promote understanding among Christians, Jews and Muslims to heal wounds inflicted by past intolerance. And Jewish and Christian scholars are working together to uncover the Jewish roots of the Gospel.
In the light of all this, some Christians even look forward to a new reformation, in which religious men and women across the globe pool the special insights of their faiths.
But Mr. Rhem's critics find this enthusiasm for other faiths deeply disturbing. To them, it seems a betrayal of a divine trust and a threat of religious identity. Some people join fundamentalist sects to find certainly in a world where nothing seems sacred. Others reassert the old exclusive doctrines - more stridently than ever.
Like the new fundamentalism, however, the new liberalism is here to stay. IN the 21st century, people of all faiths will have to decide whether to embrace the new globalization by expressing it in religious terms or to react vehemently against it and retreat into denominational ghettos.
Karen Armstrong is the author, most recently, of "Jerusalem: One City, Three faiths."