As Christians, we are asked to carry a very real tension in terms of how we understand the salvation of non-Christians because we have two seemingly conflicting teachings within our Scriptures and our tradition.
On the one hand, Jesus reveals a God who is forever just and fair and who unequivocally wills the salvation of everyone. On the other hand, Jesus tells us that he, and he alone, is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one goes to God except through him. And through 2,000 years of history, Christians have always taken those words to mean essentially what they say.
So where does that leave us? How do we take seriously both the universal salvific will of God and the belief that everyone needs to be saved through Christ?
There are no easy answers, though radical conservatives and radical liberals are both tempted to think so. We are asked to carry that tension without being able to fully resolve it. So here, as a suggestion, are ten principles to help us carry the tension:
1. Given our theology of God, we may not believe that God favors some people to the detriment of others.
2. Given our theology of God, we must believe that the whole of humankind has never lacked Divine Providence.
3. Given our theology of God, we should be hesitant in judging others and should allow, both for others and for ourselves, the possibility of "invincible ignorance."
4. Given our theology of God, we may not believe that God has somehow deemed as illegitimate and unworthy of salvation the sincere hearts and sincere prayers of billions of people because their hearts and prayers were not explicitly Christian.
5. Given our theology of God, we may not believe that, at any given time in history, the vast majority of humanity is being excluded from salvation because they have no explicit link to Jesus or the Christian churches.
6. Given our theology of God, we may not believe that a purely external, historical connection to Christianity is more important to our intimacy with God and the salvation of our souls than are gratitude, warmth, humility, willingness to reconcile, and openness of heart.
7. Given our theology of God, it is wise to believe that compassion of heart and the gifts of the Holy Spirit within a person trump all externals in terms of our connection to God.
Given our theology of God, it is wise to believe that compassion of heart and the gifts of the Holy Spirit within a person trump all externals in terms of our connection to God.
8. Given our theology of God, and our Christian tradition, we are asked to believe these truths, namely:
---That the full mystery of Christ is larger than what can be perceived within historical Christianity. There is, as the old catechisms affirmed, not just a "visible Christ" but also an "invisible Christ.”
---That all good things have God as their author and that therefore everything that is good, including what is good inside other religions, comes from God. The same holds true for what all that is good, true and beautiful within secular culture.
---That God is revealed in multiple ways within nature, within human reason, within human conscience, and within our lives.
---That Christ is a structure within physical creation and that physical creation itself was made through Christ and bears his imprint in its structure and design.
---That non-Christians can be saints.
---That the visible Christian Community is tangible grace and tangible salvation: It offers salvation, here and now, in the flesh, albeit imperfectly. It is the final state already present so that, at least ideally, within it one can find explicitly the aid, the support, the affirmation, the challenge, the revelation, the wisdom and the celebration needed to come to the fullness of life.
---That the visible Christian community tells a person of his/her birthright and helps him/her to appropriate more fully that birthright, i.e., as daughter or son of God and as brother or sister with all the sincere.
---That the visible Christian community is a privileged instrument of mediation and salvation. It has been asked by Jesus to preach salvation, explicitly, to all the earth. It has a special place and responsibility (as did Mary, Jesus' Mother) in bringing to completeness God's universal salvific will. Through it, "all the nations of the earth will be blessed."
9. Given our theology of God, our Scriptures and Christian tradition, we have two ultimate options apposite to how we might understand the salvation of non-Christians: A theologically agnostic one (Don't speculate on this, leave it to God) or a nuanced Christian one which posits various distinctions within baptism ("baptism by desire," "baptism by blood") or within different ways of being inside the mystery of Christ (Anonymous Christianity, the mystery of Christ as being larger than historical Christianity, a visible and an invisible Christ).
10. Given our theology of God it is perhaps healthiest to critically step back into the beauty and richness of mystery and believe that, in the words of Kenneth Cragg, "It takes a whole world to understand a whole Christ.”
Oblate of Mary Immaculate Father Ronald Rolheiser is a specialist in the field of spirituality and systematic theology. His website is www.ronrolheiser.com.