Guest post by Thomas
In C.S. Lewis’ final Narnia book The Last Battle, there is a powerful scene of an encounter between the Christ-symbolizing lion Aslan and Emeth, a noble-minded worshipper of the false Calormene demon-god Tash:
“[The Lion] touched my forehead…and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then by reasons of my great desire for wisdom and understanding, I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true…that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook (but his wrath was not against me) and said, It is false. Not because he and I aer one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted.”
Needless to say, a certain type of Christian evangelical is appalled by this. I read an essay (by someone who evidently has reading-comprehension problems) arguing that by Lewis’s logic, Osama bin Laden’s diligence in pursuit of what he understands to be his religious duty must be credited as salvific worship of Christ.
And there is a danger, in seeking to be courteous to people who believe fundamentally different things from our own faith, to drift into seeming to say that there is no absolute truth — that all religious traditions are equally valid, that all religious roads lead to God, and the like. And in fact, the varieties of religious experience are often used by folk-postmodernists to argue there is no absolute truth — that all truths are simply fronts for cultural biases, interests, or power relations. However — although there is more of a common core of shared moral truth, across many diverse cultures, than often gets acknowledged — the truth claims of different religious traditions are often mutually exclusive. In the case of Christianity and Islam, for example, Jesus Christ was either a prophet, or the incarnate God. He can’t be both. So the only way that “all religious teachings can be equally valid” is for none of them to be valid. They obtain whatever fiction of validity they have, only from what they are given by their adherents. Asking, like Joseph Smith, “Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” (JS-H 1:10), the vernacular relativist concludes the answer must be “all wrong together.” Otherwise, we’d have to privilege one faith claim above another — and in a pluralist society, we certainly can’t have that. Wouldn’t be courteous.
But it does not follow, from the fact that finding the absolute truth is so difficult that different people, exercising the best of their imperfect judgment, reach different conclusions, that there is no absolute truth. It is possible that, among all the “contests of these parties of religionists,” somebody is actually right — or more right than others. Christians give the assent of faith to the proposition that Christ “is the way, the Truth, and the life; no man cometh to the Father except by [Him].” (John 14:6.) We are committed to believing that there is one absolute Truth, and that it includes the basic fact that the salvation of humanity rests on Christ crucified.
How can faith in an exclusive Truth be reconciled with religious pluralism, not to mention God’s justice, in a world where the accidents of birth are probably the greatest factor that determines what religion a person practices?
I think C.S. Lewis was on to something with his parable of Emeth — whose name is Hebrew for “Truth.” I think of Matthew 26:32-46, where the sheep are divided from from the goats. The scripture seems to indicate that at least some of the sheep are surprised at being sheep: “Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, who was one of the major influences in the restatement of Catholic doctrine at the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, articulated a concept he called “Anonymous Christianity”:
“Anonymous Christianity means that a person lives in the grace of God and attains salvation outside of explicitly constituted Christianity — Let us say, a Buddhist monk — who, because he follows his conscience, attains salvation and lives in the grace of God; of him I must say that he is an anonymous Christian; if not, I would have to presuppose that there is a genuine path to salvation that really attains that goal, but that simply has nothing to do with Jesus Christ. But I cannot do that. And so, if I hold if everyone depends upon Jesus Christ for salvation, and if at the same time I hold that many live in the world who have not expressly recognized Jesus Christ, then there remains in my opinion nothing else but to take up this postulate of an anonymous Christianity.”
The Catholic Church subsequently adopted the substance of Rahner’s thinking. The Church’s Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium provides,
“Those also can attain to everlasting salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the gospel of Christ or his Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience.”
The present Catechism now provides,
“Those who through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation.”
The declaration Dominus Iesus (criticized by some religious liberals for, evidently, not abandoning altogether the Catholic Church’s proclamation that it is the one true church), stated,
“Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, “does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain ‘gaps, insufficiencies and errors”. Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain.”
Mormonism, of course, may have anticipated this doctrine (or a version of it) with the doctrine of proxy ordinance work for the dead. Although there has been controversy on the point, many LDS authorities suggest that even those who have had the gospel presented to them in this life, but rejected it for good-faith reasons, may obtain to salvation.
Some consider the doctrine of “Anonymous Christianity” to be condescending: Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, goes this argument, don’t want to be saved as “anonymous” or honorary Christians; they should insist on being saved qua Jews, Muslims, or Buddhists. In my view, “Anonymous Christianity” is as far as a revealed religion can possibly go and remain anything like itself.
However, “Anonymous Christianity” has a potentially startling flip side: Just as a noble-minded Muslim, who follows the truly holy aspects of his religion, may have his inherently holy actions counted as worship of Christ, isn’t it also at least conceivably possible that I — by practicing the noble truths contained in my Mormon variety of Christianity — could be an “anonymous Buddhist?” We tend to view even entertaining the possibility that the things to which we give the assent of faith may not be in every respect exactly as we understand them as a kind of infidelity, but is it really so? To have effective faith in something, do we really have to know it with every fiber of our being, or say that we do?
My faith is in Christ, exercised within the framework of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have reason to believe — or, more precisely, I choose to believe that certain experiences, whose actual import I may not be able to know with certainty, give me reason to believe — that God is pleased that I exercise faith in this way. It may be that this is because the Gospel, as it it has been made known to me, is 100% true, to the exclusion of all contrary traditions — or it may be because my faith contains enough of the true God’s truth to suffice.