At the end of the day, all of us, believers and non-believers, pious and impious, share one common humanity and all end up on the same road. This has many implications.
It’s no secret that today religious practice is plummeting radically everywhere in the secular world. Those who are opting out don’t all look the same, nor go by the same name. Some are atheists, explicitly denying the existence of God. Others are agnostics, open to accepting the existence of God but remaining undecided. Others self-define as nones; asked what faith they belong to they respond by saying none. There are those who define themselves as dones, done with religion and done with church. Then there are the procrastinators, persons who know that someday they will have to deal with the religious question, but, like St. Augustine, keep saying, eventually I need to do this, but not yet! Finally, there’s that huge group who define themselves as spiritual-but-not-religious, saying they believe in God but not in institutionalized religion.
All of us know people who are in one or several of these categories and are anxious about them. What can we do, if anything, to nudge these people towards faith, religion, and church? What will happen if they die in this state? Where does God stand in the face of this?
I suspect that God doesn’t much share our anxiety here, not that God sees this as perfectly healthy (humans are human!), but rather that God has a larger perspective on it, is infinitely loving, and is longsuffering in patience while tolerating our choices. Why? What’s God’s larger perspective here?
First, the fact that our faith already baptizes those we love. French philosopher Gabriel Marcel once famously stated, “To say to someone ‘I love you’ is to say, ‘you will never be lost.’ ” As Christians, we understand this in terms of our unity inside the body of Christ. Our love for someone links him or her to us, and since we are part of the body of Christ, he or she too is linked to the Body of Christ, and to touch Christ is to touch grace.
Thanks to the marvels of the Incarnation, every sincere Christian can say, “My heaven includes this or that particular person whom I love.” We used to call this “baptism by desire,” except that in this instance the desire for “baptism” is on our part, but still equally efficacious.
Next, we need to recognize that God loves these persons more than we do and is more solicitous for their happiness and salvation than we are. God loves everyone individually and passionately and works in ways to ensure that nobody gets lost. Moreover, God is tricky! As good Christian apologists have always pointed out, God has his own schemes, loving traps, and means to lead persons to faith.
Moreover, God is infinitely patient. If we bracket piety for a moment, we might profitably compare God to a GPS (a Global Positioning System) given how infinitely patient and yet persistent a GPS is in giving us directions.
A GPS is built with the presumption that it will frequently not be obeyed and that it will have to make the necessary adjustments. We are all familiar with how this works. We are driving toward a destination and the GPS tells us that in order to get there we need to make a right turn at the next intersection.
However, we ignore its instruction and drive straight through the intersection. There is a brief silence and then the GPS, taking into account the fact that we ignored its original directive, says, “recalculating” and gives us a new instruction vis-à-vis getting to our destination. And, it will repeat this cycle endlessly. A GPS, limitless in its patience, keeps “recalculating,” and keeps giving us a new instruction until we get to our destination. It never gives up on us.
God is the same. We have an intended destination and God gives us constant instructions along the way. Religion and the Church are an excellent GPS. However, they can be ignored and frequently are. But God’s response is never one of anger or of a final impatience. Like a trusted GPS, God is forever saying “recalculating” and giving us new instructions predicated on our failure to accept the previous instruction. Eventually, no matter our number of wrong turns and dead ends, God will get us home.
One last thing. Ultimately, God is the only game in town, in that no matter how many false roads we take and how many good roads we ignore, we all end up on the one, same, last, final road. All of us, atheists, agnostics, nones, dones, searchers, procrastinators, those who don’t believe in institutionalized religion, the indifferent, the belligerent, the angry, the bitter, and the wounded, end up on the same road heading toward the same destination — death. However, the good news is that this last road, for all of us, the pious and the impious alike, leads to God.