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Is there any way to judge between competing spiritualities?
Since the 1960s, there has been a significant growth of “alternative spiritualities” in America, including traditional eastern religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, as well as nontraditional New Age and metaphysical practices.
These alternative spiritualities have not been silent about Jesus. Traditional Christianity teaches that Jesus is God’s unique Son (John 1:14, 18); alternative spiritualities that we can become God’s sons and daughters in the same sense as Jesus is. Christianity teaches that Jesus is the exclusive means by which God saves the world (John 14:6); alternative spiritualities that he is one path among many. Christianity teaches that the Holy Spirit is poured out by the resurrected Jesus (Acts 2:33); alternative spiritualities that the Spirit can be accessed through religious practices in which Jesus plays absolutely no role.
In the first century, John faced a similar situation, where rival camps made competing claims about Jesus. The orthodox camp, represented by John and his churches, taught traditional Christianity. The heretical camp, represented by the secessionists from John’s church, taught something similar to our modern alternative spiritualities. They too denied that Jesus was the Christ through whom God exclusively saved the world. And they invited people in the orthodox camp to trespass the boundaries and join their own camp.
John warned his churches about these people with these words:
I am writing these things to you about those who are trying to lead you astray. As for you, the anointing you received from him remains in you, and you do not need anyone to teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about all things and as that anointing is real, not counterfeit—just as it has taught you, remain in him (1 John 2:26-27).
For John, not all spiritualities are equal. Some will “lead you astray.” One is “real, not counterfeit.” This stands to reason, of course, for competing spiritualities make contradictory truth claims, of which only one can be true. If, for example, Jesus is the Son of God in a unique sense, then we cannot be divine sons and daughters in that same sense too. If he is the exclusive means by which God saves the world, then there cannot be many paths to heaven. And if the Holy Spirit is poured out by the resurrected Jesus Christ, then he cannot also be accessed by other means. Just as the Law of Contradiction applies in philosophy, politics, and physics, so it also applies in the realm of spirituality and religion.
But the Law of Contradiction is not the only way to judge between spiritualities. There is also the Law of Fact and the Law of Experience. John’s churches knew the facts about Jesus based on eyewitness testimony (1 John 1:1-3). And belief in the Jesus of eyewitness testimony had resulted in the experience (or “anointing”) of the Holy Spirit. If believing in the factual Jesus resulted in a powerful spiritual experience, then the early Christians were right to reject contradictory truth claims about Jesus—for contradictory truth claims cannot produce the same spiritual experience—and in the face of alternative spiritualities, so are we.