Last night I was rewatching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which I just acquired a used copy of on DVD), and I was struck by something that had always bothered me, but that I'd never known quite what to do with.
Namely, Chinese civilization dates back thousands of years, yet up until relatively recently none of the ancient cultures of the Far East had any recorded contact with Christianity (or Judaism, for that matter). According to most strains of Christian theology all of those countless millions of people are now in hell, all because God never revealed his true name to them. All of the beauty they created - art, music, literature, philosophy, technology, martial arts - was apparently pointless because of geographical barriers that they had no control over.
For the diehard fundamentalist there's nothing to question; if the Bible seems to suggest that all of those people deserve to go to hell, then that's simply all there is to it. Less dogmatic Christians would reason that we simply don't know the whole story, and that a just God will certainly take what they don't know into account when passing judgment. Like CS Lewis, they might posit that those who wholeheartedly seek after God will find him even if they don't call him by his proper name.
As we move away from the more conservative traditions, we'll find Christians willing to acknowledge the glimpses of truth found in Eastern philosophies, and even the notable similarities between Christian and Buddhist thought, and with such acknowledgments one can conclude that perhaps those thousands of years of Far Eastern history aren't as worthless as some unquestioningly assume.
As a Christian I still believe that the Bible presents the best picture we have of who God is and how he wants to relate to us, and that while different religions contain their own glimpses of eternity they aren't necessarily equally reliable paths for those seeking God. At the same time, though, I find myself increasingly convinced that the Holy Spirit can work and is at work outside of the context of 'orthodox' Christianity.
To acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life is to recognize that our salvation is entirely dependent on him, and not necessarily on the labels we place on the boxes we construct in our constant attempts to define the infinitely powerful Creator of the universe we inhabit. There will always be those who reject him, but ultimately it's not our place to speculate on the eternal destiny of others.
At the same time, many who appear to have rejected God have, in reality, merely rejected a false impression of God that they were given by the bad example of some Christians. And the god that many 'believers' present to the world is small, petty, fickle and utterly undeserving of anyone's worship. That many who reject Christianity conflate those gods (lower-case g) with God (upper-case G) does not necessarily mean that they have truly rejected God, even if they carry that mistaken impression with them for the rest of their lives. As evidence of that we see many 'nonbelievers' who live godlier lives than the 'believers' who drove them away from the church.
But I digress. At the end of the day, all of our debates about God are rather like a group of two-year-olds arguing about the nature of the grown-up world, when any attempt their parents might make to explain to them what it's really like would go almost completely over their heads.
That isn't to say that God is completely unknowable, only that there's so much in this vast universe that we can just barely begin to comprehend that the best God can do in reaching out to us is to give us just enough knowledge of him to provide a starting point for managing our own lives. Fear and pride continually drive us toward the notion that we can bring others closer to God by micromanaging their lives for them (and even many who preach against such legalism with their words say something very different with their actions), but in the end we are no more qualified to do so than a toddler is capable of running a household.
There is tremendous beauty to be found in Far Eastern cultures. The fundamentalist has no choice but to dismiss that beauty as meaningless, but I'm convinced that the God who authored beauty is honored whenever human beings strive to emulate their Creator's creativity. Without devaluing my own beliefs I can affirm the good that I see in those who may not share my theology, and through those relationships build on my own understanding of the God I strive to know.
And no, that doesn't really have much to do with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's a beautiful movie, though.