Two Thoughts on an Inclusive Vision of Salvation

Does it matter what you believe? I would say yes…and no.

The question of religious pluralism is often collapsed into the question of salvation, though they are distinct issues. Partly this happens because a popular form of evangelism portrays Jesus as the sole dispenser of “get out of jail free” cards. The baseline assumption is that we’re all going to hell unless we sign on to the program.

There are many good reasons for finding this position repugnant and/or implausible, simply as a matter of compassion for human suffering. Liberal Christians and others who share this opinion, though, tend to overshoot the mark and claim that “all paths lead to God”.

Both the exclusivist and the pluralist view, in my opinion, unhelpfully sever the means of salvation from the nature of salvation. To be saved, in the Christian sense, is to experience eternal life in communion with a loving God. If one believes that Jesus embodied the nature of God on earth, then becoming a follower of Jesus is not merely a means to an end. It is an earthly foretaste of and preparation for that heavenly life.

Other religions are not equivalent because their goals and methods are not the same. They may reveal aspects of the divine nature, or contain helpful spiritual practices, but to call them “means of salvation” is to impose a Christian framework on a quite different system of thought, potentially in a misleading or imperialistic way.

John 14:6 is frequently quoted to proof-text an exclusivist understanding of salvation. Let’s look at it in context (NIV translation):

2In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going.”

5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really knew me, you would know[b] my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”

It seems to me that Jesus is not even addressing the problem of other religions. His followers, all Jews, are asking the (Jewish) messiah to give them some information, some program to follow, so that they can get a closer knowledge of God–the God of their own Hebrew Bible. And Jesus replies that they are already in closer fellowship with God than they imagine, and they can experience this for themselves if they get to know Jesus as he really is.

I sympathize, nonetheless, with Christians who worry that a more inclusive position on salvation makes the gospel seem irrelevant. It trivializes the rich complexity of Christian tradition, and the rigors of discipleship, to suggest that any old religion is as good as any other. A recent post on the Creedal Christian blog articulates this quite well. Again, we can get out of this box if we see the gospel as good for something more than saving our skins after death. For more on this point, see N.T. Wright’s latest writings on Christian misunderstandings of heaven.

Two of my favorite Christian bloggers have lately weighed in on salvation of non-Christians in a way that I found most helpful. What they are calling “universalism” I might prefer to call “inclusivism”, since the former term implies a level of certainty about all people’s eternal destiny that the authors themselves don’t assert.

Christopher at Betwixt and Between is a Benedictine oblate in the Episcopal tradition. In his post Universalism and Anglical Careful-Generous Reserve, he writes:

…We can proclaim definitively Who salvation is without claiming definitively who will or will not be saved outside of Him.

Salvation is through, with, and in Jesus Christ finally, only, uniquely, definitively.

That need not imply an obverse declaration about where salvation is not or who will not be saved.

Rather, we rest in the generosity of this reconciling God. To do otherwise is to skirt into proclaiming a God, often vicious, who is other than the one revealed in Christ, who at heart in the Cranmerian notion of our formulae, is all-merciful, and perhaps no more so than as found in the Rite I canon, heir to 1549, 1637, and 1928, especially in the Prayer of Humble Access. Chesed, Coverdale’s lovingkindness or Cranmer’s mercy is the very heart of God, and we know this God personally in Jesus Christ. This is in Whom we rest all our life and trust and hope.

And such a careful-generous reserve does not make one unorthodox, unless we care to count among such company the Orthodox Church, the Greek Fathers, and C.S. Lewis.

And we Anglicans also tend to avoid locating God only in the Church in a crude way. “Wherever Christ is” says Andrewes, and Maurice will follow after Him, making clear Christ’s explicit availability in the Church through the Sacraments, while not locating Him there in the crude ways many early Anglo-Catholics did in pipeline theories of grace.

Unlike cruder views that would locate the activity of the Word and Spirit only in the life of the Church, rather than explicitly and visibly therein, Anglicans have tended to acknowledge than though explicit and visible in the Church, the Word and Spirit are active in the world if hidden, unknown, and often unacknowledged. Indeed, as Stringfellow reminds, it is precisely our job as Christians who proclaim this God in Christ explicitly and visibly available in the Church to name God’s activity in the world as precisely the activity of the Word who revealed Godself by becoming one of us. Hence, ongoing discernment….

Eric Reitan, a self-described progressive Christian and philosophy professor at Oklahoma State University, writes about debating an audience member about John 14:6 during a recent lecture he gave to OSU’s interdenominational Christian fellowship:

…I began by distinguishing between two interpretations of John 14:6: the interpretation which takes the passage to say that no one comes to the Father unless they adopt the right beliefs about Jesus and/or make the right choices with regard to Him, and the interpretation which has it that no one comes to the Father except on account of the work that Jesus does on sinners’ behalf. While the former interpretation entails that only Christians who explicitly accept Jesus as savior are saved, the latter interpretation does not imply this at all….

…One of the greatest fruits of a theology of grace is that it liberates us to think, to question, to doubt, to admit uncertainty, and to take challenges to our views seriously. If we believe that our salvation does not hinge on our getting it right, we become free to be humble, to admit our finitude, to admit our inability to get it right—in short, to be intellectually honest about the human condition. And as I see it, an absolutely crucial feature of the human condition is that the fundamental nature of reality is beyond our grasp. We can theorize and speculate in ways that are more or less in line with what reason and evidence reveal, but we cannot know.

Our enormous material universe might be catalogued, its structure and mechanisms and history described to the minutest detail, and we would still face the same fundamental questions: Is there more than this? Is this world of immediate sense experience, this world whose structures and patterns we can describe, just a surface appearance? Or is it just a small part of something far vaster that is beyond description? Or is it, instead, the whole story?

We cannot know. We can be moved by the voice in our heart that encounters a hopeful vision, the voice that says, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” We can treat its urgings as emerging out of the part of us that IS, rather than the part of us that experiences and knows—the self insofar as it is a part of reality, rather than the self that stands back from it in an attempt to understand reality. We can treat our deepest longings as if they are a homing beacon, and their YES as an instinct that immediately apprehends what the discursive intellect cannot grasp. Or we can be moved by the voice that says, “I’ll believe it when I see it”—knowing that this is something we can never, ever see.

We can be moved by longing or evidentialism, but we cannot know. And the theology of grace allows us to admit this. Paradoxically, if we are convinced of this theology, we are freed from the pathological need for certainty. And while such certainty may not be the root of all hostility and intractable conflict, it is one fundamental source of these things. When we can admit we do not know, we can come together and hear each other and be more fully open to each other’s humanness. And insofar as the theology of grace facilitates that, it bears pragmatic fruits that speak in its favor. We have pragmatic reason to live as if the theology of grace is true, as if our salvation doesn’t hinge on getting it right, because only then can we break free of the psychological forces that push us into trenches of false certainty….

Thank you, Eric.
That’s the heart of why I became, and remain, a Christian.