When Christians begin to realise the nature of symbolism as used in religious thought, we become more cautious of speaking about false gods. The more we appreciate symbolism, the more we realise how all religions tend to worship the one God.
It was this that prompted Rahner to ask: are all nations saved through Jesus Christ; or whether Jesus is not the universal saviour. His answer is simple. If only those are saved who acknowledge him by name, he cannot be the universal saviour. Yet we believe his is the focus for everyone. He says without acclaiming Jesus by name, many are in fact his followers, because they are doing the will of the Father – working towards universal reconciliation. He points to Jesus saying in the Gospel it is not those who hail him as Lord who enter the kingdom – but those who do the will of the Father.
Matthew 25 presents the Last Judgement, in which those who have cared for the sick, the hungry and imprisoned are called to the kingdom – and those who do none of these things are not – whether they recognise Jesus as Saviour or not. Not only the Hindus and Buddhists but lapsed Catholics and Communists – are called forward before Church-goers.
Salvation is not a reward for reciting the creed correctly – it is the inner fruit of life, love and welcome to all without exclusion.
Feeding the 5,000, from Ethiopia, Missionaries of Africa, Rome.
Thank you, Austin, for this and all your contributions to Agnellus’ Mirror and for keeping alive the connection between the Franciscans, the blog, and the City of Canterbury. Peace and all blessings!
We know that Christian missionary saints believed God would commit to the flames of hell those not baptised into the Church, even when living in good faith. They were saints – but they were mistaken. Christian missionaries forced converts to renounce all their previous ways of striving after God, making them adopt Western ways that had nothing to do with religion. Much cruelty was inflicted through the inability to distinguish between cultural and social customs, and religious convictions.
Modern Social Sciences make it easier for us to accept this as missionaries sought to try to understand the different cultures and ways of thought of non-Christian folk, and they began to understand non-Christian religious convictions from the way the people saw them. Like being less than impressed looking at stained glass windows from outside – so different when seen from inside.
The patristic scholar Jean Daniélou proposed seeing the great Eastern Religions as being pre-Christian but leading to Christ. Their followers are saved by their commitment, the hope that seeks a future fulfilment. The fact that these people live after Christ [today] is not important, because their experience is before Christ as long as they have not heard the Gospel in a form that makes sense to them. While there is one Hindu living the Hindu tradition in good faith and with conviction, we cannot speak of the Hindu religion as false.
It is not only through their sincerity in striving after God as best they know how, that God comes to meet them; it is also because their striving is true. Our religious language is symbolic in a special way. It describes realities we have hardly glimpsed, and cannot comprehend. In the Jewish tradition it was important not to make images of God – because all images are false, the only image of God is the human person. So they speak as though God is a human person – masculine gender, a father-figure, who can get angry and change his mind. These characteristics are not literally true of God – but are true in another sense – they are true of our experience of God.
Other faith communities also know that language about God cannot be literally true. They express their experience of God. Asian faiths tend to be more contemplative than those of the Western world; they leave symbols in their symbolic form rather than seek explanations. Hindus say when you have images you understand you are making only a remote comparison, but when you have explanations you might be misled into thinking you understand much more than you do. God cannot be understood.
Maximus, a 4th century bishop of Turin, saw preaching on charity as a medicine to cure sick souls. It could instil a commitment to inner renewal among the pagan country-folk in territory around his city. His sermons on Christ as the crucial sacrament taught awareness of the resurrection as enlivening for all areas of experience. He wanted superstitions connected with New Year’s festivities, a kind of Ouija board factor during the Kalends of January, to be overcome by Christ’s saving energies.
For more educated listeners, Maximus like to explain ways in which well-known stories from their pagan cultural past could be a first step towards a fuller appreciation of the gospels. He treats Homer’s story of Odysseus having himself bound to the mast of his ship as a symbol of Jesus Christ being tied to the Cross. Homer said that Odysseus sailed within reach of the Sirens singing, and the destructive temptation this brought with it, and was fully aware of the risk to his life. Now Scripture spoke about Jesus as “tempted in every way that we are,” yet he did not sin. His steadfastness overcame the temptations. The world was saved through the pitiful wood of the Cross, as people put it in the early Church. Like a rudder or a mast, it carries believers forwards to eternal rest, after Christ has been face to face with death.
We are able to have our hearts disentangled from the world’s snares because we trust the daring voyage of Christ.