Can the great religions be vehicles of salvation for their followers? —YES

[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post.  Join in by posting your comments.]

by Herold Weiss

Pic Whether one takes as normative the significance given to the Incarnation in the gospel According to John or the significance of the New Creation by the Spirit of the Risen Christ in the letters of Paul, in both cases what is emphasized is that God is involved in the salvation of humanity as a whole. Moreover, both sources are concerned with establishing that God’s saving activity is a dynamic force with an open future rather than a condition determined by a past event. This means that God is free to choose continuously what the future holds for the people of the earth. Barriers set up to separate people are not set in stone. No people may claim a privileged place at the divine table.

Claims to exclusive divine election were already identified by the prophets, particularly Amos and Jeremiah, as traps that need to be avoided. Jeremiah vehemently denounced the priests and the prophets who told the people that they were assured of divine protection from the threat of a Babylonian attack. He specifically spoke against the false security that the people had on the sanctity of the temple. Their confidence that God would never allow the Jerusalem temple to be profaned by foreigners was based on a false understanding of God. Even at the risk of his own life, Jeremiah proclaimed the coming destruction of the temple, and that the people would be taken away as captives of the Babylonians.

Amos, the first of the classical prophets of Israel, redefined election to mean responsibilities rather than privileges. The final chapter of the book that collects his oracles must have been a shocking surprise to its first readers:

The Lord, God of hosts, he who touches the earth and it melts, and all that dwell in it mourn, and all of it rises like the Nile of Egypt; who builds his upper chambers in the heavens, and founds his vault upon the earth; who calls the waters of the sea, and pours them out upon the surface of the earth – the Lord is his name, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me, O people of Israel?” says the Lord. “Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt, and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir? Behold, the eyes of the Lord are upon the sinful kingdom and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground; except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob” says the Lord.   (Amos 9:5-8)

To argue that the exodus of the Philistines from Caphtor (Greece and Eastern Asia Minor) to the western coast of Canaan, and of the Syrians from Kir (the land between the Caspian and the Black Sea, modern Georgia) to the lands in upper Mesopotamia, is no different from the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt to Canaan, because the Creator God who controls nature is equally involved with the history of peoples who worship other gods was, without a doubt, a radical understanding of how the Creator God cares for all creatures.

Paul, the preacher of the gospel of the New Creation by the power that brought forth the Risen Christ, was adamant in his insistence that the barriers that have separated human beings and have consigned them to different categories do not exist in the world of the Spirit in which the Risen Christ is the Last Adam. Besides, Paul did not give attention to the ultimate destruction of sinners, even though the imminent Parousia was very much in his mind. He was concerned with the salvation of all those who have faith in God. His Gospel is based on the promise of God to Abraham, which, as he explicitly pointed out, includes a blessing to all the nations.

Paul shocked his fellow Jewish Christians by saying that the pagans who did not have the physical Scriptures (the Law = the Torah) as their religious heritage had the Scriptures written in their hearts and without knowledge of the Law did what the Law required. In this way he took away exclusive privileges from the Jews who prided themselves of their status as the elect of God. He explicitly classified their boasting as the worst of their sins. His perspective of humanity did not include any barrier that separate human beings from each other. He denied the value of economic (slave/free), cultural (Jew/Greek), and natural (male/female) barriers. From what he wrote, and given his universalistic understanding of the New Creation in which barriers have been eliminated, it is not at all a stretch to extend the list of obsolete barriers to include those that separate human beings from each other on account of their religion.

Karl Rahner, one of the most respected theologians of the twentieth century, aiming at inclusivity, famously claimed that people from other religious traditions who were sincere worshipers of God are also to be saved by Christ. He described them as “anonymous Christians.” His proposal was thoroughly criticized as an unacceptable form of colonial “patronizing,” and I agree. Are Christians to be broken up into the explicit and the anonymous kinds? Rahner’s inclusiveness left barriers dividing humanity. The relationship of God to creatures under God’s care is to be left to the power and the grace of the Creator God whose ways are beyond human understanding. As Paul says more than once, “God shows no partiality.”

It is no longer believable today to hold that only those who affirm certain doctrines and perform certain rituals enjoy the favor of the God who Amos identified correctly as the Creator, even if he did it in terms of an obsolete cosmology. To do so is to consign God’s election to a past event and to negate God’s freedom. It is to distort the character of God while pompously demonstrating spiritual false security and pride. The human need to embrace the horizon and control what happens within it, thereby ignorantly limiting the freedom of the Creator God, finds innumerable outlets, but these are just the evidence of human insecurities. They are not in any way evidence of the possession of God’s mind. The salvation of humanity has been God’s consistent concern, and God’s freedom to achieve it is without limit. There are no barriers to God’s ways to achieve God’s purpose. Human attempts to transcend insecurities by devising descriptions of God’s plans are just that. It is not a surprise to find out that these plans promote exclusive claims to be counted among the elect who will receive God’s salvation.

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