Saturday, February 2, 2008

Where's the Line?

My Philosophy of Religion class has been reading an excerpt from Soren Kierkegaard's Concluding Unscientific Postscript, and we had a lively discussion the other day about Kierkegaard's claim that what a person believes about God is not as important as how one believes. In other words, the content of our belief is less significant to God than is the passion with which we embrace Him. God cares much more about having a love relationship with us, Kierkegaard asserts, than He cares about whether we are right about every theological proposition to which we cling.

Many students agreed with this to a point, but they raised the very critical question as to where the line should be drawn. At what point does the importance of what we believe begin to outweigh the fervor of our belief? Surely Kierkegaard does not wish to say that it doesn't matter at all what we believe as long as we believe it passionately. He cannot be suggesting that the intensity of one's devotion to God compensates in His mind for a belief that He is, for instance, pure evil.

It must be borne in mind that Kierkegaard used hyperbole in order to rouse his readers. He was not concerned with writing a theological treatise in which every detail of an argument is followed to its conclusion. He was concerned, though, with the spiritual health of the Danish church which, despite being theologically sophisticated and accomplished, seemed to regard religion with the same sort of emotional detachment as an engineer might have when beholding a bridge. To get a good idea of the sort of cold, clammy Christianity of which Kierkegaard was so disdainful rent and watch Ingmar Bergman's Winter Light. It's a powerful portrayal of exactly the sort of church and clergy which attracted Kierkegaard's scorn.

But my students' question remains. If we agree that within certain bounds the what of belief is less important than the how then where are those limits? At what point does the what become more important than the how? This is not a trivial matter. In a recent article in First Things Avery Cardinal Dulles explores the evolution of the Catholic doctrine of salvation. For centuries Catholic theologians have wrestled with questions regarding eternal life that have puzzled laymen and theologians alike: What is the fate of those who never heard the Gospel? Are all who fail to respond to the Gospel lost? What about those who die without being baptized? Etc.

Many of the solutions advanced by Catholic thinkers seem to me to be tortured in their logic and implausible in their conclusions, but they reflect the profound reluctance among Christians to believe that people who have never heard the Gospel, or who heard but for whatever reason never accepted, are lost forever. Christians have always struggled with the implications of the traditional interpretation of Scripture which is that man is born lost and must accept Christ in order to receive God's gift of salvation. This interpretation, if rigorously followed, seems to foreclose salvation to those who die young, the mentally retarded, those who've never heard the Gospel, and those who may have heard but for psychological, religious or cultural reasons found it too difficult to accept. In other words the traditional interpretation is that eternal life is pretty much God's exclusive gift to explicit Christians.

I thought of this article while my class was debating Kierkegaard. Is salvation just a matter of what we believe? Could it be a matter of how one believes even if one believes wrongly? How wrong can one be before the passionate how no longer matters? Or is salvation a matter of both the what and the how?

Dulles closes his historical excursis with a paragraph bound to displease many who hold to the exclusivist view that only Christians can be saved:

Who, then, can be saved? Catholics can be saved if they believe the Word of God as taught by the Church and if they obey the commandments. Other Christians can be saved if they submit their lives to Christ and join the community where they think he wills to be found. Jews can be saved if they look forward in hope to the Messiah and try to ascertain whether God's promise has been fulfilled. Adherents of other religions can be saved if, with the help of grace, they sincerely seek God and strive to do his will. Even atheists can be saved if they worship God under some other name and place their lives at the service of truth and justice. God's saving grace, channeled through Christ the one Mediator, leaves no one unassisted. But that same grace brings obligations to all who receive it. They must not receive the grace of God in vain. Much will be demanded of those to whom much is given.

I don't know how orthodox is the view in the Catholic Church that even atheists will be saved, but it's an idea that would have very little purchase in most precincts of evangelical protestantism. So the question recurs: Where do we draw the line? If we say that only those who consciously accept Christ and who commit their lives to Him with Kierkegaardian submission and passion are saved then we not only exclude some of those who sit next to us in the pews, but we have a problem with the fact that most people lie along a spectrum of commitment. How much commitment is enough?

We also have another problem in that this criterion would exclude those who die young as well as the mentally disabled and those who lived either prior to the Christian era or beyond it's evangelistic reach. Some might be comfortable with this entailment, but I doubt that most would. C.S. Lewis wasn't comfortable with it which is why, I suspect, he wrote The Great Divorce. He wanted readers to think about salvation more as a yearning of the heart that determines the will rather than simply an intellectual assent to certain theological propositions.

It might be a worthwhile exercise to read Lewis with a group of friends interested in this matter and then return to the question raised by a reading of Kierkegaard: Where do we, if we are faithful to Scripture, draw the line?

One final thought: Surely we should hope that the line encircles more than just those who have explicitly accepted Christ, even if we don't think that it does. Most Christians have friends, family and others whom we care deeply about and who have passed on without, so far as we know, having come to the place where they gave their lives to Christ. It seems to me that if we loved these people we should profoundly hope and pray that despite their failure to embrace the truth God has nevertheless embraced them.