Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Are Non-Christians All Damned?

In an essay entitled "The Uniqueness of Christianity," Roman Catholic philosopher and theologian Peter Kreeft responds to this question as follows:

No. Father Feeny was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for teaching that "outside the Church, no salvation" meant outside the visible Church.

God does not punish pagans [sic] unjustly. He does not punish them for not believing in a Jesus they never heard of, through no fault of their own (invincible ignorance). ... There are no innocent pagans, and there are no innocent Christians either. All have sinned against God and against conscience. All need a Savior. Christ is the Savior.

Kreeft continues by correcting the extremes of both Christian fundamentalism and Christian liberalism by invoking a Catholic via media:

Fundamentalists, faithful to the clear one-way teaching of Christ, often conclude from this [i.e., the teaching that Jesus is the unique Lord and Savior] that pagans, Buddhists, et cetera, cannot be saved. Liberals, who emphasize God's mercy, cannot bring themselves to believe that the mass of men [sic] are doomed to hell, and they ignore, deny, nuance, or water down Christ's own claims to uniqueness. The Church has found a third way, implied in the New Testament texts. On the one hand, no one can be saved except through Christ. On the other hand, Christ is not only the incarnate Jewish man but also the preexistent word of God "which enlightens every man who comes into the world" (Jn 1:9). So Socrates was able to know Christ as word of God, as eternal Truth; and if the fundamental option of his deepest heart was to reach out to him as Truth, in faith and hope and love, however imperfectly known this Christ was to Socrates, Socrates could have been saved by Christ too. We are not saved by knowledge but by faith. Scripture nowhere says how explicit the intellectual content of faith has to be. But it does clearly say who the one Savior is.

The Second Vatican Council took a position on comparative religions that distinguished Catholicism from both Modernist relativism and Fundamentalist exclusivism. It taught that on the one hand there is much deep wisdom and value in other religions and that the Christian should respect them and learn from them. But, on the other hand, the claims of Christ and his Church can never be lessened, compromised, or relativized. We may add to our religious education by studying other religions but never subtract from it.

Read it all.


Christopher said...

But the fact is that for most its history, Fr Fenney's interpretation was what was offered. And it has had very nasty consequences in how other peoples were treated. We just can't bring ourselves to deal with triumphalism and the effects this had on millions of persons in the Americas alone. The article may be technically correct, but it lacks humility and a sense of holy envy.

Bryan Owen said...

I just can't make the grade with you, can I, Christopher? :-)

Christopher said...

Probably not because of the tone in these articles you post. Technically correct, but somehow unable to face into triumphalism, which is part of the reason we end up with universalist and relativist responses. Modernity in this regard is not an accident, but a reaction to misuse of faith, particularly Christian faith. It has consequences for mission in our time, and so to not face into it leaves us in a bad spot. What goes missing in these articles is any sense that we have might something to learn from others. And in my experience, approaching other faith traditions from the stance of holy envy and humility, lends itself to learning, to seeing how it is from a Christian lens, Christ is at work here.

Remember Decartes wrote his works while Europe was drenched in the blood of religious warfare. That is the context of his reaction and that strand of Modernity. We have to deal with this and not simply recycle that somehow something is amiss in how we've taught given how we've approached others.

I want to see something written in the generosity of an Anglican key. Like say Michael Ramsey. I have responded thusly because of the original article you pointed to that did in fact suggest that some people will be damned by prooftexting "many" from the Words of Institution. We cannot know that and to use the WoI to prove it is itself troubling, as if that's the main thing we want to get from them. Even JPII said he averred Hell was empty. We can proclaim judgment and even the possibility of Hell without deciding it's full up. C.S. Lewis did just that and in a spirit that I think more generous.

I want us as Christians to engage with our triumphalism, be careful with throwing words around like "pagan," etc. because our history in these matters (which aren't unrelated to how we are using up the earth) is not very good. Not just in antiquity but in the last 500 years. The Quakers met native folks and sought to see that of Christ in them and their faith much as was done by some early Fathers in relation to Plato and Virgil. That type of encounter is quite different in tone and texture from most of Christian history in this regard. It requires recognizing Christ already at work in a people and place before we arrive, for example. It requires humility. I just don't think, given what I've read linked on these matters, especially in tone, that the dangers of triumphalism have been grappled with fully. When push comes to shove, there is not a stopgap to prevent Jesus being pushed on others with violence if necessary.

Bryan Owen said...

I find it fascinating how different people can experience the exact same thing(s) and draw diametrically opposed conclusions. For what you are hearing, Christopher, as triumphalistic in the works I’ve cited, I hear as voices of conviction that provide a necessary counter to the Barneyesque dismissals of substantive theological content I sadly but routinely encounter in the Episcopal Church. Fortunately, and in spite of the bad rap the blogsophere sometimes justly gets, there are many Episcopal bloggers out there who are doing a good job on that front. Your blog definitely included.

Perhaps as another case of hearing things differently, I note that you approvingly cite C. S. Lewis. While I find Lewis to be technically correct in many regards, I also find him to be rather smug to arrogant in his apologetic writings. It’s been a while since I last read him. Maybe I should I go back and read again.

Joe Rawls said...

Lewis is indeed smug and arrogant in places, but once these are filtered out, much gold remains. A big task for Christian theology in the 21st century is to do a salvage job on Lewis, Kreeft, and just about everyone else going back to the 1st century.

Perpetua said...

Hi Bryan+,

Thank you for this post. I read the full essay and found it quite instructive.

My social location provides me with many people voicing the twelve "commonest forms of this objection", as Peter Kreeft put it. So, I appreciate reading Kreeft's responses.

Obviously, some people who make use of these objections do not appreciate reading Kreeft's responses.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the support, Perpetua. While my social location is in the heart of the "Bible belt," the objections Kreeft notes do surface, particularly among the more educated "elites" who push the work of Borg, Crossans, Pagels, et. al. While I agree with Christopher about the need for generosity (up to a point, at least), I'm also increasingly aware of the foothold gained in the Episcopal Church by theological views that, quite frankly, would dispense with the topic of this posting without so much as blinking because questions of salvation make no sense. The only problem to be solved is our perception of reality, not something as dire and ominous as sin. Or truth.