Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Seeking the Way to God

From a recent Time interview of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori:

Time: Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?

KJS: We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box.
That statement was enough for some to declare that Bishop Katharine is not a Christian. I know that such judgmental hubris is hard to believe, especially since some of those making this bizarre claim happen to be Episcopalians, but it is true. You'll have to trust me, as I'm not providing links to such demented places.

That quote, and a similar one from an NPR interview, might lead us to want to ask Bishop Katharine to more fully unfold her understanding on the topic beyond the constraints of a secular interview, and may even cause some of us to desire to debate her theological understanding of atonement. But to claim that this is evidence that she is not a Christian is simply way over the top. This is character assasination at its worse, and an extreme example of a serious problem we currently face within Christendom; a lack of Christian charity.

Jim Naughton offers us some good examples drawn from the Christian tradition suggesting that the Evangelical's narrow understanding of how one becomes a Christian is a rather new innovation, and certainly not the only way the Church has understood what it means to draw closer to God through Christ. He cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church and includes a quote from Karl Rahner, who is credited as giving us the term "anonymous Christian". Jim ends with this statement:

...I have no quarrel with people who want to believe that accepting Jesus Christ as your personal savior is the only way to heaven. But it simply is not the case that those who disagree with you are in rebellion against some long-settled and universally accepted issue of Christian doctrine.
As a side note, if being a Christian was about "getting to heaven," I personally would not be interested, since, as I've mentioned before, I simply cannot muster up any enthusiasm for the afterlife. It's a distraction. The kingdom of God is at hand...we only encounter the living God in this present moment...etc....etc...you've heard all that before, so I'll spare you that particular sermon.

Returning to the question of "who will be saved," Fr. Tony Clavier offers some thought-provoking comments on this as well:

...In reaction our neo-evangelical Anglicans thunder texts about Jesus being the way, the truth and the life, and that in him alone is salvation. By this they seem to mean that only a set of formulae, mostly 16th or 18th Century in precise terminology, although biblical of course, applied precisely to an unbeliever as a challenge and a question, is used by God to determine whether Joe or Mary, a Moslem or a Buddhist are in the Book of Life. So now a confession.

I believe that all people and people come to know God in Jesus. I believe that the Cross is universal in application, and not merely the property of Christianity. I believe that the Cross changed everything.

I believe that the coming, living, dying, rising, ascending Christ is the Lord of all things. I believe that the Trinity creates community, all community, however much we sully the vision and the reality.

I believe that Jesus is all truth, religious, scientific, social, political, communal...
From Dr. Rowan Williams, in his volume On Christian Theology, within the chapter entitled "Trinity and Pluralism":

We do not, as Christians, set the goal of including the entire human race in a single religious institution, nor do we claim that we possess all authentic religious insight - the "totality of meaning," to pick up a phrase used to good polemical effect by Jacques Pohier. And this is a problem only if we expect - as Christians, as religious people of other traditions, as philosophers - to be able to provide a theoretical programme and explanations for the unifying of the human world. If there is such a unification possible - as Christians and others believe - it is attained only in the variety and unpredictability of specific human encounter, and so can only now be a matter of hope; though this is a hope nourished by the conviction that the story of Jesus and the Church, of Logos and Spirit manifest in the world, affords us a truthful vision of how God is - not exhaustive, not exclusive, but truthful. And the practical thrust of this truthfulness is its grounding of hopeful and creative pluralism, its affirmation of the irreducible importance of history, of human difference and human converse.
- On Christian Theology, p. 177.
As you can see, our tradition includes quite a few perspectives on this matter. There's an insightful but challenging one offered by Fr. John Julian that, with his permission, I may post here in the future. But there's one perspective that isn't included that I want to mention. It returns us to the problem I mentioned; the lack of Christian charity.

It is fairly well accepted that those who do not hear the Gospel might still develop a relationship with God through natural revelation. What I sometimes ponder is the way God is revealed to those who are turned off to Christ because of the Christians.

I think it is way past time for us to admit that the type of Christianity revealed by many Christians turns people away from Christ. That is certainly a part of my story. At 15, I was sent to the Nicky Cruz Home for Boys in Fresno, California. Nicky was the main character in David Wilkerson's book The Cross and the Switchblade. He ran a number of homes for juvenile delinquint boys. Although I appreciated the three squares and a bed, I deeply resented being periodically paraded in front of this or that group of Christian donors to "share my testimony." It felt like a scam. I finally left in disgust and returned to the streets. I didn't go near a church for the next decade. Maybe some day I'll tell that story in full.

Many of those outside the Church have a very negative perception of Christianity based on their limited experience of Christians, who come across as arrogant, judgmental hypocrites. As with most generalizations, that is an incomplete characterization of those who follow Christ. But regardless of that, it is the image that we have to live down.

Do we really think that since so many of those who claim to be Christians have failed in their mission to be a window to God, that God, whose love is for ALL people, would not create other forms of revelation?

The problem is not that the Gospel is not being proclaimed. The problem is that the proclamation is made in such harsh, exclusivist, self-righteous ways that it is rejected for the ugly deformity that it has become. But God's mission will not be thwarted. God is still moving among us, touching us, healing us, and making all things new. Unfortunately, many Christians seem to have lost the ability to delight in the myriad of ways God is made manifest. For God's sake, and for the sake of the world, close the book once in awhile and take a walk in the woods!

I hope that Bishop Katharine does not take seriously the shrill voices shouting that she is not a Christian. Actually, these accusations may not be such a bad thing. In today's world, being labeled a non-Christian by the extremists might be the best recommendation you can get if your goal is to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ.


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